Benjamin Miller stood 6 feet 8 inches tall with hands the size of a
dinner plate. Almost every story I can recall about him begins this
way, describing his physical stature, the size of his hands, his
strength, fearlessness and stubbornness compared to that of an ox. He
used every ounce of it he had. Stormy day after stormy night, he led
his lifesaving crew into the deep, dark, violent unknown risking their
lives in the service of saving passengers from vessels wrecked
helplessly upon angry shoals, beaten weak by bitter currents.
so many who call Hatteras Island home, the weather shaped my
great-grandfather. His pensive nature, his blistered, calloused hands,
his courageousness, by all accounts, mirrored the petulant storms that
have brewed for centuries over the Diamond Shoals. The weather defined
his life, his character, his purpose. For the better part of my life,
because of him, I’ve been on a mission to understand how the forces of
nature shape a place and a people and to understand what a storm feels
like on the edge of the earth.
is a story about a few of the men and women whose home is a fleeting
sandbar; whose lives are dictated by the wind and the water; whose
resolves are unshakable. These are the men and women who have weathered
moment you turn right onto Highway 12 South at Whalebone Junction, one
of North Carolina’s most scenic byways, you feel as if you’re leaving a
world behind. The breeze gently tugs at your car and egrets flank the
pristine marshlands to your right. At golden hour, Bodie Island
Lighthouse pierces through a radiant sunset. One last curve of Highway
12 South, and she appears: the criticized, condemned, celebrated and
soon-to-be-replaced Bonner Bridge, your ticket across one of the most
tumultuous and dynamic inlets on the east coast, Oregon Inlet. At the
bridge’s crest, the curve of the earth extends in all directions. The
world ahead, Hatteras Island, seems boundless, filled with possibility,
adventure and freedom.
48 miles from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Inlet, Hatteras Island makes up
almost the entire southern half of North Carolina’s Outer Banks; it’s
the heart of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and home to seven
villages: Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras. It
is miraculous, really: a simple sandbar, three miles wide at its widest
point, posed between two mighty bodies of water – the Atlantic Ocean
and the Pamlico Sound. This thin, sliver of sand stands sentry to the
mainland against an often destructive and angry sea. Resolute, yet
adaptive, the island is ever-shifting with the wind and tide, breaching
periodically to cut new inlets that can close just as quickly as they
Island is home to, arguably, North Carolina’s most recognizable feature
on a map: the protruding elbow that reaches far east into the Atlantic.
David Stick, the premier Outer Banks historian, describes that at the
Cape, more familiarly known as The Point, “The Banks jut out so far
into the Atlantic that the Gulf Stream currents caress the shoals,
warming the atmosphere… Here the northbound Gulf Stream swerves out to
sea as it encounters the cold waters coming down from the Labrador
Current, and at the junction of the two is Diamond Shoals, the
Graveyard of the Atlantic, a point of constant turbulence and of
convergence creates an ecosystem of marine life from southern and
northern latitudes, representing one of the few places in the world
where such different species, like warm-water dolphin and cold-water
tuna, can cohabitate. It also produces unpredictable wind patterns that
forecasters for the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, who are responsible for
routing ships safely through the Atlantic, often underestimate.
DeBlieu, native Outer Banker and author of "Wind: How the Flow of Air
Has Shaped Life, Myth and The Land," reports, “‘Something happens out
there, some local phenomenon that we’re just missing,’ one
meteorologist told me. ‘The wind speeds we predict will be off by
ten or fifteen miles per hour, sometimes more. It’s got to have
something to do with the temperature difference between the Gulf Stream
and the cooler water along the coast. But in terms of sea conditions,
it makes a huge difference.”
can see the wind everywhere here. You can see it in the intensity of
the weather: in the storm that moves in from miles offshore in minutes,
engulfing you in its rapture. You can read it on people’s faces: a
light breeze has the ability to heal, while a strong northeast blow is
a humbling reminder of mankind’s insignificance.
when you can’t see it, you can feel it in the sand biting at your
ankles, and you can hear it in the yaupon trees hugging the sound,
themselves bent and shaped by a powerful, persistent force. This island
was formed by and revolves around the wind–its direction, its strength,
its mood, its relationship with the ocean determines life here.
day before I pulled up to Todd Ballance’s house in Hatteras Village,
gray skies had engulfed the Island and intermittent bands of rain moved
in across the horizon with a steady wind from the northeast. I walked
under the stilted house, where Todd, who is a commercial fisherman and
the chief of Hatteras Village’s Volunteer Fire Department, was
repairing pound nets strung between two wooden posts.
“How about this weather?” I asked him.
to shake my hand, “Bad for me and good for you,” he replied. “If I
could get out to set my nets, I wouldn’t be able to meet you. No nets
means no money. And, it looks like this low’s going to hang around for
a commercial pound net fisherman, his livelihood depends on the
weather. Like so many watermen on Hatteras Island, predicting the
weather comes as naturally as hauling in the day’s catch. Throughout
history and prior to modern technology, mariners have relied on
observations of the wind, sea swells and currents, clouds, celestial
signs, atmospheric colors, smells and animal behavior to forecast
weather. Learned, genetic, or a product of patient observation, the
ability of many Hatteras Island natives to read and understand the
weather is almost a surreal phenomenon.
a descendent of a multi-generational Hatteras family, was raised
on reading weather patterns that, today, help inform how he and his
family prepare for storms. “We make decisions about when and how we’re
going to prepare [for storms] from past experience and looking at the
weather to see what size the storm is going to be,” he says. “And when
I say weather, I don’t mean the forecast. I’m looking at barometric
pressure to see where the lows are going to be – the lows coming off of
Florida – and ‘Is there a high pressure that’s going to come down off
the jet stream and suck it right up to us?’ I’m reading all of that and
the water temperature, air temperature, wind direction, the wind shear
– all that stuff makes a big difference."
PREPARING FOR THE STORM
Storm preparation across the villages is no less of an art form than storm prediction. It’s always been this way.
and his wife, Mary Ellon, explain, “When there’s a late season storm
coming, we have to start deciding: ‘Are we going to pull [the pound
nets]? It’s a three-day commitment to pick everything up out of the
water and loss of income, [but] if you leave them out and a storm
comes, too bad. You’re probably going to get wiped out.”
took a chance one year and left them out in a small storm with just 60
mph winds, and we got destroyed,” Mary Ellon remembers. “We found three
sets of stairs that were racked up in one of the leads and tore it all
to pieces. It’s your livelihood, so there’s a lot you have to think
about and prepare for.”
is one of many calculations Bankers make for a storm. They choose how
to prepare their homes, whether to close up business and the ultimate
choice – whether or not to evacuate. Each storm brings different
variables to consider and Islanders have balanced these choices for
you see from those who have experienced it before, is a very focused
preparation,” says Ernie Foster, captain and owner of the Albatross
Fleet, which gave birth to the charter fishing industry in the Outer
Banks. “You get ready, you tie everything down, you batten down all the
hatches. You do all the prep work with great focus, and then you’re
ready. When the storm hits you go inside you and stay inside until the
worst of it’s over.”
of sage experience and calculated preparation, islanders live with and
experience storms in a rational and pragmatic manner. Ernie’s childhood
home had two stoppers under the interior steps. “The purpose of the
stoppers was literally to let the water in so [the house] wouldn’t
float,” he explains. “It was a very practical, pragmatic thing to do.
The tide would come up and the tide would come down; the worry was when
to start cleaning. But what I remember is when you got six inches to a
foot of water in the house, it didn’t shake as bad – and that was good.”
on Hatteras Island abides by a similar routine when preparing for a
hurricane: take care of your business, then tend to your home; start
outside and work your way in. There’s no time to think about the big
picture or what might happen over the next few days – there’s too much
work to be done.
Perry Kavanagh, co-owner of Frisco Rod and Gun, echoes this sentiment.
“Preparing for a storm is pretty methodical. You calmly go
through each step and mark it off the list. You get your
insurance papers together. You put family photos in a plastic bag that
you can grab in a hurry if you need to. Get your business settled and
then get your house settled. And then you wait. A whole lot of
this scenario seems to play out across the coast of North Carolina,
preparation feels different here because of it’s location and the
character of its people. In Hatteras Blues, Tom Carlson describes Outer
Banks people as “Hardworking and loyal… and stunningly selfless when
such is called for. But, at the same time, these same people are
fiercely headstrong, independent… and often sleeve-rolling angry with
unethical bullshit. What’s right is right.”
that likely stem from generations of geographic isolation and an
understood interdependence and mutual respect throughout the community.
While the island has become more accessible since Highway 12 was built
in 1953 and Bonner Bridge was erected in 1963, the southernmost
village, Hatteras, is still one-and-a-half hours from the mainland and
three hours from the nearest major city, Norfolk, Va.
have learned to be independent out of necessity. Irene Nolan, editor of
the Island Free Press and Frisco resident, admits, “Believe me, we know
if we stay we are on our own. But, most people know how to prepare and
know what to do during and after storms. But we stay because this is
home.” And in the aftermath of a destructive storm, Irene says, “The
only way you get through it is community.”
development, tourism, and changing ways of life, the heart of Hatteras
Island has remained intact: a community of neighbors helping neighbors.
ONE GREAT STORM
Ernie Foster thinks that there’s one great storm in every Banker’s life. For Hatteras village, that storm was Isabel.
was deceptive. Reaching official hurricane status on September 7, 2003,
off the coast of Barbuda, Isabel spent the next 10 days moving
northwest and vacillating between a Category 4 and 5 hurricane until it
made landfall. A NOAA hurricane aircraft recorded an instantaneous wind
speed of 233 mph, the strongest ever recorded in an Atlantic hurricane.
On September 18, Isabel, having been downgraded to a Category 2 storm
(80 to 110 mph wind speeds) two days before, made landfall south of
Cape Hatteras, between Ocracoke Inlet and Cape Lookout, bringing with
it a Category 5 ocean surge.
day, a wall of ocean spilled across the island and cut a
2,000-foot-wide inlet on the north end of the Village. “For those of us
who choose to stay,” Ernie explains, “There’s a resignation that stuff
happens. But, what I saw happening [during Isabel] was so profound, I
was in a state of shock.”
removed from the outside world by the newly cut inlet, Hatteras village
was severely damaged beyond any measure of the current generation's
memory. The water surge removed, relocated, or splintered most
everything in its wake.
Ellon compares her home to that of a war zone. “There was a side of a
house wrapped around that tree with the blinds still in it,” she says.
“There were propane tanks all over the place. There were ice chests
from Dolphin Realty back here racked up in our trees. Tractor-trailers
stuck in the middle of the highway. It was really unbelievable.”
were turned sideways,” Todd adds, “stuck up under a house between
pilings, with big fish in them. We had a 7-foot hole in between our
house where the water was coming through and the tide was so strong
there were red drum in it. Trailers and houses were dropped in
sinkholes or washed half a mile out in the sound. Caskets floated up
out of graves.”
Midgett, Reservations and Sales Manager at Midgett Realty, recalls
“Fifty-six structures of the 170 managed [by Midgett Realty] were
condemned… It took until the first or second week of June to be back
online and fully ready for the season.”
of destruction, peril, tragedy abound. Jeff Oden, owner of the Seagull
Motel, understands this all too well. When Isabel hit, his daughter,
Marci, was managing the mom-and-pop 45-room motel at the north end of
the village. She’d wanted to stay and look after things during the
storm. When imminent destruction became apparent, Jeff frantically made
his way to his daughter. After numerous attempts, Jeff arrived at the
hotel clinging his surfboard for support. The building he had
instructed her to move into was gone.
into the remaining structures past hissing propane tanks and
fuel-filled water, he found Marci, “absolutely hysterical,” in the
attic with her pug. He recalls, solemnly, “I had no idea she was going
to be there. She was lucky… That day had a profound and lasting impact
on her.” Today, the lot where the Seagull Motel stands is mostly
open. Isabel washed away two of three buildings on the property. Only
15 rooms remain.
took two months for electricity and water to be restored and for the
road to be repaired. Isabel was the most destructive storm North
Carolina has seen in the last two decades, costing the state nearly
$450 million, $110 million of which was sustained in Hatteras village
across a population of 634.
UNITING THE COMMUNITY
a place like Hatteras the profound effect of the weather is evident.
Perhaps, no more evident than in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel.
However, what had the power to physically rip apart a community, oddly
united and restored it.
Midgett recalls, “Weather, in a very strange way, makes for community.
Sometimes in a small community things feel divisive, but never over a
storm. You may be miffed with someone over something superficial, and
then a storm happens, and everyone has everyone's back.”
came at an interesting time for Hatteras village. Pervasive conflict
over development and building regulations left competing sides battered
and bruised. Isabel reunited factions. It was the great equalizer:
people helped each other; people looked out for one another; people
gave and received.
“It was truly the best of times and the worst of times,” Ernie explained. “The worst of times was the physical damage
and the monetary damage: loss of jobs, loss of property above and
beyond insurance. On the other hand, we had a communal experience and
it literally brought out the best in everyone who was here.
You saw good, good, and more good.”
from northern villages poured in. Volunteers and supplies arrived in
droves. Restaurants sent down elaborate, catered meals. Dirty laundry
from the village was loaded onto boats and sent to a neighboring
community where it was cared for by church groups and returned the next
day. A bicycle shop in Nags Head delivered bikes for villagers to use
ate together communally. They gathered outside emergency showers in the
evening for a few minutes of respite. They prioritized their own needs
and repairs behind the elderly and infirm. They helped each other
rebuild their lives physically and emotionally.
village had become such a tight-knit, supportive community during the
two months in which it was isolated from the rest of the world that
leaving the island, only temporarily, was unsettling for locals. When
Ernie left the village three days after the storm to take an aerial
tour of the destruction, he realized, “I had this tremendous urge to
get back here [Hatteras village] — to leave normalcy and get back to
chaos. The notion that I just needed to be here, rather than be some
place that was normal, was a clear indicator to me that I was dealing
with some emotional forces that were pretty strong.”
Highway 12 prepared to reopen in November, two months after Isabel, a
different sense of loss emerged. This time, the loss of privacy and
intimacy. A new floodgate was bulging: debris and personal effects were
still piled high in yards; restaurants, motels and shops had been
destroyed; those that hadn’t, stood damaged, yet to be repaired. And
now, there was an audience. The village wasn’t emotionally or
infrastructurally ready to host visitors -- it wouldn’t be until the
Ellon recalls, “It was a very vulnerable spot because the community had
been through a huge ordeal that made us really close. We were really
vulnerable. When they were ready to reopen that road, we thought, ‘We
kind of like it just like this.’"
Isabel left an indelible impact on the spirit of the Hatteras village.
Every year since, the community has gathered for a Day at the Docks
event in September where locals and visitors celebrate the heritage of
the island and honor the lives of those lost at sea at the day's
keynote event: the blessing of the commercial and charter boat fleet.
It is clear at Day of the Docks that Isabel remains a fresh part of the
collective identity of the village. This year a minister and U.S. Coast
Guard bagpipe player, who helped rebuild the community after Isabel,
blessed the fleet.
“The Outer Banks have never been for the faint of heart or
the dry of feet,” Tom Carlson writes. The unencumbered spirit of
Hatteras Island and its abundant natural beauty come at the sacrifice
of willingly submitting to the weather. In a place where life and
livelihoods are shaped by the forces of nature and weather, survival
depends on sheer grit, determination, and the support of community.
continues, “Early on, especially, it seems, the inhabitants of the
Outer Banks didn’t merely adapt to their environment; they became
indistinguishable from it – its moody, impetuous weather, its restless
land, its willfulness, its stubborn insistence on beating the odds.”
was certainly the case for my great-grandfather, Baxter, and the U.S.
Lifesaving Service crews across the island, who faced perilous seas
with bravery, courage, and fearlessness. And it’s true today.
It’s in the stories and faces of locals like Ernie Foster, Todd
Ballance and Jeff Oden. It’s written in sand and cast in the sky. It
seeps from the waters that sustain the villages. It must be in the
hearts of the people who choose to live on a sandbar on the edge of the
as the wind brings destruction, it ushers in, on a calm southwest wind,
that transparent, blue-green ocean glow and saturates the sky before
dusk, mystically binding you to the place.
Miller is a co-founder of Bit + Grain, a new website dedicated to
telling the story of North Carolina and its people, places, and
culture. She was raised on front porch tales of shipwrecks, pirates and
lifesaving heroes that her father relayed through a dimly lit hurricane
lantern on Hatteras Island. She loves the Old North State mostly for
the folks who live here, because it's the people who bring a good story
to life. To read more Bit + Grain, go to http://www.bitandgrain.com/.)