May 8, 2012
Residents and visitors frustrated by spotty
Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry service

By CONNIE LEINBACH


Ocracoke visitors and islanders alike were frustrated Monday with spotty ferry service between Ocracoke and Hatteras.

The “super moon” and high northeast winds have increased shoaling in the Rollinson Channel between the islands, causing ferries to hit the sand and even suspend service since Saturday.

Lucy Wallace, Ferry Division spokesperson, announced today at 2 p.m. that ferry service for Tuesday was being suspended. Possibly there may be a run later today, she said, but not tonight.

“We don’t want to run ferries aground at night,” she said.

Captains are making announcements on the ferries and ferry workers are handing out fliers in the stacking lanes on both sides of Hatteras Inlet about the situation, she said.

But when the last ferry from Hatteras rolled into the Ocracoke dock Monday night around 7 p.m., more than 50 cars were in line to return to the Hatteras side.  After loading as many as they could, ferry personnel told folks in the 26 cars left at the dock that there would be no more ferries that night.

It would be the second night in a row that people would have to camp in their cars at the dock or find a motel room in Ocracoke village.

Many were vacation home renters on Hatteras Island who had come to Ocracoke for the day.

“I would have liked to have been warned before I got on that I might not get back,” said Dennis Buday of Pittsburgh, Pa., who was staying in Waves.

Several other stranded folks echoed his comments.

“We were sitting in the stacking lane (at Hatteras) and no one told me we might not get back,” said Lisa Rayburn of Jacksonville. She had left her two dogs alone in her rental home on Hatteras and, with her party of six, had to find lodging on Ocracoke for the night, as well as relief for her trapped dogs.

“I spend a lot of time in Hatteras, and I don’t come to Ocracoke because of this,” she said about being stranded.  “This is ridiculous.”

A couple from Greenville, Frank and Lisa, who declined to give their last name, waiting in the stacking lane in Hatteras from 1:30 until 6:30 p.m. Monday to be sure to get on the last ferry to Ocracoke.

They had taken the noon ferry to Hatteras for errands up the beach.

“I happened to ask a ferry worker if the ferries ran every half hour and he said that this was the last one,” Frank said. “I just turned around and got back in the stacking lane.”

Ocracoke residents waited in the line with them all afternoon.

“We’re losing money hand-over-fist waiting in lines,” noted Leslie Lanier, owner of Books to be Red on School Road in Ocracoke.  “It seems like this is an everyday thing with ferry delays.”

“We already didn’t have a fall season,” said Chester Lynn, an Ocracoke resident who has a flower shop. “And they’ll have a whole lot less money if people can’t survive on the Outer Banks.”

Delays due to shoaling have been occurring since Hurricane Irene last August, which blew a lot of sand into both the Hatteras and Oregon inlets, noted Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District.

Relief is on the way as early as Friday, he said.

“We had to get an emergency declaration. Then all the environmental agencies had to comment and sign off on it,” he said. 

The side-caster dredge Merritt will leave Lockwood Folly Inlet on the southern North Carolina coast on Wednesday, and, moving at seven to eight knots-an-hour, will arrive at Hatteras inlet on Friday.

The Merritt is for shallow dredging—in about four feet of water, which is what’s needed now in the heavily shoaled part of the channel.

“The sand really has been dynamic in the inlet since Hurricane Irene,” Bullock continued. “We only have one side-caster dredge trying to clean up all the mess from Irene.”

In addition, Bullock said he is pushing hard to send a contract out now for bids for a pipeline dredge, that goes deeper. Because of the requirements of the bidding process required, the earliest that dredge could be here would be Sept. 1.

“This is a serious situation,” said Jason Daniels, chief deputy sheriff on Ocracoke Monday night at the dock, where he and another deputy were on hand. “And it’s not even the ferry’s fault. It’s a logistical nightmare for us.”

It’s not just about all the tourists, he said, but the 900 Ocracoke residents going on and off the island for various errands, such as doctors’ appointments, and his co-workers traveling for court dates and training.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Ferry Division is doing all it can to get people to and from the islands, said Jed Dixon, deputy director.

“Two weeks ago, we declared an emergency in the channel,” he said. “We’re operating in a very difficult situation.  As conditions allow, we’re trying to run what ferries we can.”

Safety for the passengers is the chief concern of the ferry captains, he said, noting that the conditions in the channel can change instantly.

Moreover, the strong winds on the Outer Banks affect the drifting sand more so than other places.

“Here, the wind-driven tides affect the water level more than just the (lunar) tides,” he said.

He and Wallace stressed that they have been issuing constant alerts via the Ferry Division website, press releases to radio and print and electronic media and Twitter.
 
Yet, still, it’s very difficult to get the word out to the Outer Banks visitors who may not be plugged in to all the electronic information outlets.

Some of the stranded folks had some ideas.

“If they just had the ferry workers tell us before we get in line that we might not get back, then it would be our risk,” said Walker Thompson of Williamsburg, Va., who, with his dog, was one of the ones left on Ocracoke Monday night.

But that has its problems, too, officials noted.

“We don’t want to turn business away,” said Angie Brady-Daniels, vice-president of public relations for the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. “Too much negative information can backfire.”

She said her organization is forwarding Wallace’s e-mail alerts to 3,300 people on its e-mail list, which includes rental offices and the sheriff’s office, among others.

B.J. Oelschlegel, a realtor with Lightship Realty, wondered why officials hadn’t dredged the channel over the winter.

“They don’t have the foresight that when this happens it trickles down to them,” she said. “We lose sales tax, which affects their state revenues.  They’re biting the hand that feeds them.”


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