August 24, 2012

Ocracoke is recovering from Hurricane Irene’s economic beating


The off-season started in late August last year on Ocracoke, thanks to Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27.

“It was horrible,” Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, said bluntly. “You can’t put a happy face on it.”

“We’re not having one this year!” Dee Keel, co-owner of the Sunglass Shop at Spencer’s Landing, exclaimed hopefully about the one-year anniversary of Irene.

Alex Winslow, a young man who works three jobs, was even more hopeful.

“The fact that we’re going to have a Labor Day is fantastic,” he said as he presided over the cash register at Thai Moon, the Thai take-out restaurant.

 Hurricane Irene was the second Labor Day weekend hurricane to hit the Outer Banks in consecutive years.

While Ocracoke homes and businesses were relatively undamaged physically, businesses were damaged economically after Irene cut two new inlets on Hatteras Island and closed down Highway 12. The storm brought the tourist season to a screeching halt for about six weeks.  

By the time the highway opened on Oct. 10, it was almost time to close for the winter.

And the fall season on Ocracoke is crucial, a sampling of business owners said.  By August, most of a business’ inventory has been paid for and the fall income begins a positive cash flow, paying for mortgages, insurance, and their own salaries

“Net income for me was cut in half, and that cuts into my salary,” said Norman Miller, owner of Ocracoke Harbor Inn and The Rascal charter fishing boat, about last year.

Charter fisherman Nick Piland concurred, noting that The Drum Stick, owned by Farris O’Neal and on which he works, was booked for September. Then it all got cancelled.

“We didn’t fish for a month after the hurricane,” he said.

Commercial fishing was different, too, added Erick O’Neal, who is Farris’ brother, and who both are commercial fishermen.

“We sold 15,000 pounds of flounder last fall,” he said, which is less than what can usually be caught in the fall. “The storm shot the flounder out elsewhere.”

The O’Neals also own the parasail and Wave Runner concession on the island.  

“We didn’t open that back up until May of this year,” Erick said.

Several business owners said they laid off employees after Irene, yet opened as soon as they could with either themselves at the helm or a minimum of employees.

“I worked the shop,” said Teresa O’Neal, owner of the Island Ragpicker. “I had to. I had bills to pay.”

Daphne Bennink, owner of The Back Porch, the Corner Crepe, and the Back Porch Lunchbox, closed the latter two businesses and reduced operating hours to minimize her losses.

 “We had no business until they opened the ferries,” said Corky Pentz, owner of the Harborside Motel.  “We laid off everyone except a couple of cleaning people,” he said. “That was a first in 30 years.”

Day trippers are the lifeblood of the island economy, business owners note.

“If Highway 12 goes, we’re dead,” noted Mike Schramel, owner of The Flying Melon Café.  

The restaurant did okay after the hurricane, opening as soon as they could afterwards, he said, and this year has been great. Next year, the Flying Melon will move to a new location along The Back Road.

Alan Sutton, owner of Tradewinds Bait and Tackle Shop, stayed on the island during Hurricane Irene in order to make sure the generator stayed on to keep his bait cold, while his family left..  

 “As soon as they opened the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries, my business was 80 percent,” he said. “I had a decent fall.”

Of course, that was before the National Park Service began charging to drive on the beach in February.  

This year, beach permits and closures have thrown another challenge to island businesses, and they have seen a change in the type of visitor and how much those visitors spend.  

Business is off up the beach and Ocracoke by 10 to 20 percent, Miller said, but many Ocracoke business owners said this summer has been good, sometimes better than last summer.

The complaint he and Sutton hear the most is about the diminishing amount of beach left to drive on and the daily uncertainty of what parts of the beach are open.  The beach closures change almost daily to protect nesting birds and turtles.  Especially frustrating is the uncertainty of when South Point , where everyone wants to fish, is open.

“Drum and Spanish mackerel come through the inlet there,” Miller said.  

Sutton had dozens of calls in March asking about the permits and beach closures. Many of those potential visitors declined to come here because of the uncertain fishing conditions.

“When you have this uncertainty no one can plan when to schedule time off from work,” he said. “Highway 12 being closed does not hurt my business as badly as the resource closures.”

Pentz agreed about that and the beach driving permits.

“The people who have been coming down here for 30 years took (the levying of beach driving permits) personally,” he said.  

Mickey and George Roberson, owners of Teach’s Hole Blackbeard exhibit, decided to wait until after Labor Day this year before they order any new inventory.  Their visitor traffic has been good this summer, but last fall, when the ferries finally brought visitors -- about 12 days after the hurricane — customer traffic was about 10 per day, down from about 150 per day at that time of year.

Most business owners report that the summer has been good, but the type of customers is a bit different this year.

“They’re a little more frugal this year,” noted Susan Pentz. “I just could not get the pulse this year.”

Chestnut added that Internet shopping has changed customer buying habits, as they might look at items in his shop, then check online if they could get it cheaper.  He said this reflects the state of the economy in general.

“People just aren’t as confident as they used to be,” he said.

Despite these concerns, lodging tax collected by Hyde County was about the same from the previous year.

Ocracoke’s Occupancy Tax collection was $417,225, at the end of fiscal year on June 30, 2011 before the storm, and at the end of fiscal year 2012, it was $415,347, reported Corrine Gibbs, Hyde County finance director.

“That’s hardly a blip,” she said.  

Not all that goes to Ocracoke, however, as 10 percent of the total lodging tax collected goes to the Hyde County general fund.

Mainland Hyde suffered the most from the Irene last year. County Manager Mazie Smith said 51 percent of the residents were impacted by flooding, damaged roofs, and mold.

Some islanders found a bonanza of a different sort after Hurricane Irene departed.

“The shelling was really good,” said Sundae Horn, owner of the Black Schooner Nautical Shop. 

Click here to read more Island Free Press articles on Hurricane Irene.

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