Tourism Season Ends Early for Hatteras Island

Miami Herald: A late-summer hurricane is always bad for business on Hatteras Island. But a hurricane that severs the asphalt umbilical cord to the mainland - just days before the Labor Day holiday weekend - is an economic disaster for an island that lives and breathes tourism.

"We're done for the year," Joseph Schwarzer, director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, said Sunday. "The isolation from the visiting public will be devastating." Hurricane Irene punched several holes on Hatteras between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The biggest breach, just north of Rodanthe, washed out a long stretch of N.C. 12.

That leaves all seven towns on Hatteras Island, as well as neighboring Ocracoke Island, dependent on ferries and private boats for supplies and transport.

State officials don't yet know how long it will take to put Hatteras Island's highway together again. Engineers will pore over the data from aerial photos and depth readings and probably arrive at an estimate this afternoon, according to Greer Beaty, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

"We've got significant issues, and the breaches are the most significant," Beaty said. The storm also breached dunes and piled mounds of sand on N.C. 12 that will require bulldozers and plows for removal.

The DOT Ferry Division set up an emergency ferry terminal on the mainland at Stumpy Point in Dare County. The ferries will go to Hatteras village at the south end of the island and Rodanthe at the north. The first ferry left Sunday afternoon, carrying National Guard troops, heavy equipment and other emergency responders, Beaty said.

DOT's regular ferry routes across Pamlico Sound, linking Ocracoke to Swan Quarter and Cedar Island on the mainland, remained closed Sunday. The Pamlico Sound ferries will available for use by emergency responders today, but no decision has been made about the resumption of commercial service.

The last hurricane to slice a passage through the island was Isabel in 2003. That breach, just south of Frisco, only isolated the towns of Hatteras and Ocracoke, which relies on the ferry from Hatteras. It took almost two months and $5 million to repair that breach and reopen N.C. 12.

"Isabel was an enormous economic drain," said Schwarzer, the museum director. Tourists spent $830 million in Dare County in 2010, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. While the breach north of Rodanthe will cripple tourism on Hatteras for the near future, storm damage hurt tourist towns farther north on the Outer Banks as well, in Duck and Corolla.

Henry Ezzell, 67, the owner of Henry's in Kitty Hawk, said he probably lost about $18,000 in revenue from being closed for 2-1/2days this weekend. He was eager to reopen, promising hot breakfast would start again today. "She's held up really well," Ezzell said as he took down plywood from the windows. The restaurant never lost power, he said, so its food stores were safe.

This time of year is huge for his business. "I don't know how to put it in words, but it's big," Ezzell said. "These are the last two big summer weeks at the beach."

At Kitty Dunes Realty, operations manager John Mascaro smoked a cigarette outside and wondered aloud about the conditions in the 396 houses the company rents. Asked when tourists could get into houses before Labor Day, he paused. "Do I think it's going to happen by Wednesday?" Mascaro asked. "Unfortunately I think it's going to take a few days. We'll see."

Thouh some coastal businesses hoped to reopen for the Labor Day weekend, Hatteras business people know it's over for 2011.

"Our summer is over," said Carol Dawson of Buxton. "Our season is over." Dawson, owner of the 58-room Cape Hatteras Motel and a clothing store in Buxton, complained that the state and federal governments worry more about birds in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge than about residents and business people who rely on N.C. 12.

"We all know birds are protected," Dawson said. "But they can't stabilize our beaches. We're taxpayers, and we deserve a passage to the mainland just like anyone else."

Even if the breaches hadn't cut Hatteras off from the mainland, Erin Meekins, manager of the Comfort Inn in Buxton, has written off Labor Day, traditionally one of the five busiest weekends of the year. Irene blew water under the doors into all her first-floor rooms, and she'll spend the next week or two repairing the water damage.

"This next weekend would have been one of our biggest moneymakers," Meekins said. "And many people come here after Labor Day to enjoy the season when it's less crowded."

State officials are hoping to redirect tourists to other parts of the coast. "All of our beaches are open from Brunswick County to Carteret," Gov. Bev Perdue said. "Our tourists can go back."


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