April 2, 2013

Ocracoke Real Estate:  Are we ever going to catch a break?

I have often felt like the Lone Ranger, living in one of the small communities in which our livelihoods, homes, and property are totally at the mercy of the weather. When you are in the middle of it, you think that you are the only one. I’ve had to pull my blinders back to look at the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the entire East Coast, the droughts in the Midwest, and the increase in the tornadoes in the south.

However, for us on Ocracoke, the fight has been harder lately.

Hurricanes have always been accepted and integrated into the cost of living on the island and/or the cost of doing business. There was a point in our history when cleanup after a storm was the most pressing task, and getting the word out to the public that we were “up and running again” was the gravest business concern. More recently, within the past 10 years, we would have to include ocean overwash or new inlets being cut. We’ve lost direct access to Highway 12 for a month or so at a time. Recovery was taking longer, but there always appeared to be an endpoint.

Now, winds of 35 mph are the kiss of death for the lifeline we call Highway 12. We’re back to needing sharper and more centralized lines of communication because the road conditions are changing so rapidly. Opened, closed, passable but through saltwater, four-wheel-drive only, closed after dark -- these are the words we hear when inquiring about passage to a doctor’s appointment or any other purposes off the island. You might be able to get off the island, but you should always have a backup plan for being stranded on the return.

It’s crazy to have to check the tide charts to determine if there is enough water for the ferry to move through the channel. The same high tide that would get you from one island to the next might be too much water for the S-curves in Rodanthe. Ultimately this winter, we were without a Hatteras ferry option. The channel had filled in, and the boat would run aground.

This frustration has everything to do with Mother Nature and absolutely nothing to do with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The highway and ferry crews have worked tirelessly to keep up with the weather. The Swan Quarter Ferry put on extra runs to be able to guarantee the residents, vendors, and guests access to the island. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flew over the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke and found a new channel to use while the main one is being dredged. The new route takes longer, but that is minor in the bigger scheme of things. Thankfully, this has all occurred during the down time of the winter.

But our fears about weathering another storm are exacerbated by a few other problems. That dang recession has gotten its dirty fingers into everything. The discretionary income of our guests has had a bite taken out of it. They desperately want to come but maybe have less to spend on the extras, such as gifts, beach clothing, services, or dinners out. I am going to venture that the recession also has had its effect on the dollars available to maintain the dredging of the channel. A dredge in the Pamlico Sound used to be such a common occurrence that we all took it for granted.

Take the recession and add access to the island that is often interrupted as an additional worry. Heaven forbid that too many people start listening to the negative press and make the choice not to visit the island as a result. Hand-wringing abounds. The flow of day tripper traffic must stay open for the business community to stay alive all along Highway 12.

Ah, but there is more. Our new North Carolina legislators have decided that our ferry traffic must foot more of the bill for the service of being transported to the island. That might sound rational until you think of that ferry as the road to the door of your house. It sounds to me as if the state is shooting itself in the foot when you think about the amount of revenue generated for the state coffers from The Outer Banks.

Another shop owner and I were discussing these issues when we both simultaneously came out with the same phrase: “How much more can we take?” Outer Bankers have always been a resilient people because they have to be. But if life on the island were a prize fight, you might fear that you would not be able to stay on your feet for the next round.

When these fears begin to circle, I feel that I can count on the power of the voice of Dare County. The Governor and his secretary of transportation flew into Manteo for an NC DOT hearing a few weeks ago. These guys were immediately put into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and taken down to the S-curves in Rodanthe. They spoke with Dare County officials and residents for two hours. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.   

In an effort to maintain the faith, I also try and remember the passion that our guests have for the island. People fall in love with Ocracoke, and I’m banking on this being a connection that will not be affected by tolls, long lines, or longer ferry rides.

I am hoping that they will come -- in numbers enough to weather one more storm. 

(B.J. Oelschlegel has lived on Ocracoke Island for more than 30 years and has worked in the real estate business for almost as long.  She is a broker with Ocracoke’s Lightship Realty and a real estate columnist for The Ocracoke Observer. You can reach her by e-mail at [email protected])

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