Ocracoke Update:  Life without a highway
January 24, 2008

Neither rain, nor snow, nor a short beach detour stops the U.S. mail


Island life requires adaptation and resourcefulness that city dwellers might not understand.  It involves substituting a grocery item in a last-minute recipe, making an appliance part replacement from some discards, or ordering a simple item like a calendar or specialized battery online because it’s just not here.

Life interrupted sometimes means a day without ferry service or electricity or gasoline or milk. But we adjust and move on.

Throughout the history of Ocracoke and nearby rural Outer Banks towns, the post office has been the hub of activity and sometimes the social highlight of the day. It is a source of daily news, announcements, and unofficial business. In days gone by on Ocracoke, the mail boat brought over not only the mail, but visitors, deliveries for the local stores, and anything else that needed to come from the mainland. People met at the dock to “call the mail over,” a unique Ocracoke term referring to the mail coming over from the mainland and being distributed from the docks.
The post office still serves that “hub” purpose with daily mail and a bulletin board papered with notes for want ads, items for sale, and island happenings.

These days, with the beach detour project, the mail has pretty much run its usual course, thanks to the cooperation of the U.S. Postal Service and the National Park Service. Each morning, the driver or the postmaster of the Hatteras village post office calls the Ocracoke Post Office to relay the size of the load that day. At 11 a.m., Monday through Saturday, the NPS ranger on duty leaves the post office parking lot at the edge of the village loaded down with the outgoing mail.

At the north end, around 11:45 a.m., the ranger meets the postal service truck in a parking lot, and there is a quick exchange, allowing the truck to get right back on the noon ferry to Hatteras.

“We haven’t had any problems so far,” said Ranger Bill Hackett. “Between Bill Caswell, Kenny Ballance, and myself, we have made the run every day except Sundays and holidays. We’ve been able to get all the mail in one truck except for one day.”

While the rangers are meeting up with the post office truck, they also meet courier Chris Naff, who brings medications from the pharmacy and picks up the lab specimens from the Ocracoke Health Center to transport on up the beach.

Among the deliveries on Thursdays is the piano teacher who travels from Nags Head to teach the island students.

“Well, I wasn’t going to start the lessons back up until after the road was open, but from a conversation with Kenny, it looked like it would work out that I’d have a ride into the village,” said Jeannie Taft, piano teacher on Ocracoke for about two years.

The mail arrives in the Ocracoke Post Office around 12:15 pm and the assistant Postmaster Melissa Garrish gets to work.
“Our Postmaster, Celeste Brooks, has been out due to surgery, so it’s mostly just me,” said Garrish. “I have some help from Dale Mutro and next week, I’ll have Vivian Barnett from Hatteras come down and help.”

She says that the workload is the same, and it’s been business as usual for her.

“People joke about their winter vacations and how slow it is this time of the year,” said Garrish. “Well, I certainly haven’t seen it.”

The schedule has changed for the delivery and pickup. Mail used to arrive on the island around 11 a.m. and leave at 12:30 p.m. Now, it leaves at 11 and arrives at 12:30.
“You just learn to adapt,” said Garrish. “We’ve been through a tornado hitting the office, the road closed after Isabel came through, and when the Oregon Inlet Bridge went down. If you can’t deal with those kinds of changes, then you can’t live here.”

In December, 2003, an isolated tornado touched down in several places on Ocracoke, including the post office building. While the building was being repaired, the “post office” operated out of the sheriff’s department and jail cells next door. When Hurricane Isabel cut through Highway 12 on Hatteras Island, the mail came through Swan Quarter daily. And back in 1990, when a section of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet was knocked out by a barge, the National Guard flew the mail in for a few weeks. Later, the Highway Contract Route hired a local resident to meet the mail in Hatteras and bring it over.
NPS Ranger Kenny Ballance, a member of the Ocracoke Control Group under the Hyde County Emergency Operations Plan, volunteered at the beginning of the planning process of the beach detour project to help out residents.

“There are some things that people shouldn’t have to worry about, like mail and prescriptions,” said Ballance. “I knew that we could help out on this one. It has been running smoothly and all parties involved have been able to work together. We had plenty of time to plan for this arrangement and are glad to help out.”

According to the ocracokebridges.com site, the overall project was 45 percent complete on Jan. 22, despite the recent heavy rain and winds.


I took the trip with NPS Ranger Bill Hackett recently to the north end to witness the exchange of mail between the Postal Service and Park Service trucks. The piano teacher’s arrival was actually unexpected that day because of a slight miscommunication, so on the way back to the Ocracoke Post Office, I sat in the back of the truck with all the mail. As I looked at the piled up bins of mail and worried that they might fall over on me, I thought about a feature just that morning on “Good Morning America.” It was about junk mail and unwanted catalogs. I’d like to encourage anyone who receives magazines and catalogs that go straight to the trash can to cancel them. Check out www.catalogchoice.org and after a quick registration, you can start declining unwanted mail left and right! Simplify your life and save natural resources all in one click.

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

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