Ocracoke Update:  Life without a highway
January 3, 2008

The first day of the beach detour goes smoothly


There’s nothing like a 65-degree day to ring in the New Year on Ocracoke. The island was a little sleepy, and most traffic was heading off the island.  But behind the scenes, federal, state, and county officials were preparing for 75 days of detoured traffic off Highway 12 and onto the beach.

At the Ocracoke Fire Hall, Hyde County Emergency Manager Tony Spencer, Hyde County Emergency Medical Services Director David Warren, and members of the Hyde County Sheriff’s Office and Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department were fine-tuning plans and emergency vehicles.

“We have put satellite bag phones in all the ambulances that will give us the ability to communicate anywhere on the island,” said Warren. “There will be two ambulances parked at the north end for any transports off the island. We have ceramic heaters running in the back of those to keep IV fluids warm. And we have three four-wheel-drive ambulances capable of transporting patients down the beach.”

The National Park Service, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and the Ocracoke Control Group, a group of local representatives of services, businesses, and officials defined in the Hyde County Emergency Operations Plan, have worked together for more than a year to brainstorm possible scenarios and implement policy to weather the detour period. Plans for medical and fire services, vendors, school trips, mail, and the detour path were all discussed.

There have been public press releases, television announcements, and very large blinking variable message signs placed strategically at Whalebone Junction, in Avon, at the three ferry docks to Ocracoke, and on both ends of the detour. Great effort has been made to warn residents and visitors about the beach detour without deterring people from visiting the village through the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferry routes.

“This project has drawn significant outside public interest, media coverage, etc., with its uniqueness,” said Spencer. “It’s a typical phenomenon of life on Ocracoke and for those of us who enjoy being here.”

As the O’cockers say, I took a “scud” (beach ride) to check out the north end of Ocracoke on Jan. 1 and then again on Jan. 2, the first day of the beach detour project, to compare. The difference was about 30 degrees colder and 20 mph faster winds, but on both days, I had a nice, incident-free ride.

“It has been pretty quiet.  There has been significant traffic out there and the beach is rutted up for a wide area,” said Spencer. “There hasn’t been much trouble getting through.”

Strong northwest winds for several days at a time will potentially close the detour route, but residents have faced many days when the ferries aren’t running because of high winds. When wind direction and speed, tide, and moon all work against Ocracokers, the true meaning of isolation sets in – as it did when the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge was knocked out by a barge in 1990 and when Hurricane Isabel cut through Highway 12 on Hatteras Island in 2003.

Not to brag, but I am a pretty good beach driver. I keep my tire pressure low (20 psi) and drive slow and steady. Jarvis Williams, owner of Cape Point Exxon in Buxton, was awarded the contract to tow vehicles within the three-mile work zone over the next few months. He agrees that low tire pressure and slow driving will help drivers make it through.

“People definitely need to slow down,” said Williams. “I had two tows on the first day. One was an all-wheel-drive vehicle that wasn’t used to driving in the sand, and the other was the Embarq truck, which was a little heavy and got caught in a sand drift.”

Williams makes one last patrol after the 9 p.m. ferry from Hatteras comes in to make sure everyone made it safely into the village. He called the next day to add one more tow to the tally for the first day, a local woman on the last ferry in. NCDOT is providing free towing assistance from Williams in the detour area, as well as air compressors for beach travelers to re-inflate tires.

Ocracoke resident Ken DeBarth traveled the beach detour on the last ferry on the first day, Jan. 2, from Hatteras and described his night drive along the sandy detour.

“What I had anticipated to be a single-file caravan assumed the look of the movies of the Oklahoma land rush,” said DeBarth. He commented that beach driving at night is disorienting and there are no landmarks.

“I developed an immediate admiration for the island's pioneers who drove the beach from the ferry to the village in the days before the highway was built. How much harder must it have been with the vehicles and tires of the day!”

Prior to the beach detour, NCDOT staged equipment in the work zone and implemented one-lane traffic while they made advance preparations.

“Everyone was prepared for day one,” said Pablo Hernandez, NCDOT assistant resident engineer for the project. “The crews got a taste of winter weather when working last month. We had 19 loads of rip rap stone delivered today, and expect 18 more tomorrow. We’ve started the bridge demolition with removing old asphalt and will start physically removing the bridges after the last delivery truck leaves.”

Residents and visitors are encouraged to avoid travel in the detour area if at all possible. However, there are a few commuters and vendors who will regularly travel the detour area. The Dare Building Supply and Kellogg trucks made it through with their loads on day one with no problem. The Hatteras ferry reported 189 vehicles traveling to and from Ocracoke on Jan. 2, almost half of the numbers recorded on the same day in 2007.

With the holiday season over, residents are looking forward to their winter break and preparing for the 2008 on-season.

“But Ocracoke is different,” said DeBarth. “It is a hard place to live. Different challenges and hardships must be overcome. The distance and isolation demand extra effort from all 
who live here. Is it worth it? You bet it is!”

(Jamie Tunnell is the editor of The Ocracoke Observer and a contributor to The Island Free Press.)


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