February 14, 2012

July 4 fireworks may be returning to Hatteras Island


After two years of no fireworks displays on Hatteras or Ocracoke islands, it looks like fireworks are on the horizon again -- in Avon village for 2012’s Independence Day.

The two-year hiatus was caused by a horrific explosion on Ocracoke Island on July, 4, 2009, in which four pyrotechnics workers died.  The crew was unloading fireworks at the display site near the ferry docks in the village.

As a result, new restrictions were put in place that complicated local efforts to proceed with the annual displays.

Kenny Brite, who spearheaded the annual Avon launch for 13 consecutive years, made every effort possible to put on a show in 2010 and 2011, but the logistics, funding, and new requirements eventually obstructed his months of hard work. Similar efforts to bring back fireworks in Ocracoke were also stymied.

So the skies over the islands were dark for two Independence Days, except, of course, for the dozens of amateur fireworks illegally launched off the beach and from vacation homes to replace the former professionally orchestrated display. The result was sporadic and unsafe firework launchings that sent police cars and fire trucks racing up and down Highway 12 for hours.

This year, an island and countywide initiative to get fireworks back to Hatteras Island has ignited support from local and federal government officials and has already garnered donations from local organizations, businesses, and individuals.

But most importantly, the massive support has encouraged the National Park Service to agree to allow a permit for the launching of fireworks off Avon Pier.

Launching fireworks from the beach is illegal. However, concessions will be made for the Fourth of July as the Avon Pier is privately owned, and the fireworks will be launched into the ocean, past the mean low-water mark, and ergo outside of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore boundary.

This was a summary of a letter that seashore superintendent, Mike Murray, sent to Robin Mann, chairperson of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, county officials, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C. and others who had urged his blessing on the display.

While there will still be permits that need to be issued, this approval basically paves the way for the annual fireworks display to proceed.

“We are very happy, and we’re really making big progress,” says Rhonda Roughton, current chairperson of the Hatteras-Ocracoke Council of Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. “It looks like things are starting to come together.”

The initiative started with a conversation between Joe Thompson of Spa Koru and Drew Scalia of Hatteras Island Boardsports about how fireworks needed to be brought back to Hatteras Island.

“During the Fourth of July week, our customers are all families with kids, and our businesses have had so many guests come in who can’t believe that the closest fireworks are in Nags Head,” says Thompson.

So Thompson and Scalia started meeting and identifying what they needed to do. They started working on the fireworks project on their own time, starting in November, talking with pyrotechnic companies and trying to sort out the new rules and regulations that had been implemented since 2009.

“All the rules had changed since the Ocracoke accident,” said Thompson. “We were trying to understand what it would take, regulation-wise and financially, to make it happen.”

It took months to filter through the information, but once an action plan was in place, and several pyrotechnic companies were on the short list of possible display providers, Thompson presented the plan to both the local Hatteras-Ocracoke Council of Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and the Outer Banks Chamber Commerce, where he serves on the board of directors.

On that same day, about three weeks ago, Thompson also contacted Steve Thompson of the National Park Service to find out what needed to happen to obtain permits. “Steve said ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen, but you probably need to go up the ladder for that decision,’” says Joe Thompson.

A quick response was imperative, because now is the time when pyrotechnic companies contract for the July 4 displays. If the process dragged on, all the companies would be booked and no one would be available to do the show.

Joe Thompson, the council and chamber, and local representatives worked fast to get the ball rolling.

The Chamber of Commerce sent out a letter on behalf of residents and guests to ask the Park Service to give their permission for the fireworks display. The letter was copied to Rep. Walter Jones as well and others.

This letter garnered an immediate response from Warren Judge, who made an appointment the next day to meet with Murray.  Jones also sent an immediate letter to Mike Murray indicating his support.

“It is my understanding that Dare County citizens are seeking National Park Service approval for a safe, professional Fourth of July fireworks display in the Village of Avon on Hatteras Island,” the letter reads. “…I am writing to convey my strong support for that request.

“…As you know, the focal point of the Hatteras Island economy is tourism. Visitors expect to be able to take their families to a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The local economy was devastated by Hurricane Irene and visitors don’t need additional reasons to choose another place to vacation, particularly during the busy Fourth of July vacation week.”

When Warren Judge and Allen Burrus met with Mike Murray to discuss the fireworks and a number of other issues, Murray agreed during the meeting to allow the professional launching of fireworks off the Avon Pier.

The biggest hurdle to the annual display has been cleared, but there is still a lot of work to do.

The pyrotechnic company, trained and licensed in North Carolina, must obtain the permits in order to launch, but the next goal for Thompson and the Council is fundraising.

The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau offers a reimbursement grant for community fireworks displays. However, the grant must be filed by a non-profit or government entity, such as a town. Thompson asked the Avon Property Owners Association (APOA) and Pat Weston, president, if they would assist in their fundraising and the APOA happily jumped on board.

“I was talking with Stewart Couch and Amy Helle of Hatteras Realty for suggestions, and we agreed the APOA was a logical move. They are well organized, meet regularly, and the fireworks benefits Avon owners and residents,” says Thompson. “This was not meant to be a snub to anyone else. There were many great organizations we could turn to for help. It just seemed to be the best way to move forward.”

The grant request was turned in two days before its February 15 deadline.

But because the grant is a reimbursement grant and is not guaranteed, the community still needs to raise $15,000 to pay for the display upfront. Any recouped money from the grant will be seed money for next year’s show, and then the following year, so that the community will be well prepared for years to come.

$1,000 has already been pledged individually from Hatteras Realty, Koru Village, the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, and Ali Breaux of Sun Realty.

“I am 100 percent convinced that as generous as businesses, organizations, and individuals are, we will be able to raise the funds,” says Thompson. “What we have to focus on is making sure we meet the regulatory and safety requirements so we don’t hit a snafu.”

Pyrotechnico, a pyrotechnics company from Pennsylvania, will be coming to Hatteras Island for a community meeting on March 15 to meet with the council and anyone who wants to be involved. “This will be a round table meeting to identify issues and the best way to go about solving them,” says Thompson, “and everyone is welcome to attend.”

This news for islanders is both sudden and exciting.

Kenny Brite gives the efforts and the upcoming show his blessing.

“All of my Fourth of Julys started at 6 a.m. and finished at 2 a.m., and when you’re on the pier [launching fireworks] you don’t really get to see the display. You have to look down [at the mortars], and you don’t get many opportunities to look up.” says Brite. “I am looking forward to being able to watch it with my family for a change.”

Fundraising efforts will continue on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands in the months to come to provide support for the upcoming Avon display. For 2012, Avon will be hosting the only professional display.

Donations for the display can be sent to APOA, PO Box 9, Avon, NC 27915.

And checks can also be dropped off (with attn: Norm Campbell) at any of the islands’ East Carolina Bank locations.

As for Thompson, he is thrilled with the progress of the fireworks and remains optimistic about the island’s future.

“Hatteras Island has taken its share of lumps in the past few years, whether it’s from Mother Nature or from recent regulations and restrictions,” says Thompson. “And while we certainly need to address these issues, we also need to focus on positive things to make our community a better place to live, and a better place to visit. And reinstating the Fourth of July fireworks is a perfect example of this.”

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