Island Free Press photographer Don Bowers did a great job of looking back on 2011 in his photos.
You can find his essay and slide show, “2011: The photos of the year,” on the Features Page.
He is correct that 2011 will be defined by Hurricane Irene, which came ashore south of Hatteras and Ocracoke on Aug. 27, 2011 and beat up the islands for almost a full day.
Storm surge from the Pamlico Sound brought serious damage and destruction to the villages of Avon, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo. Many islanders lost their homes and possessions.
Two inlets cut by the hurricane, one in north Rodanthe and one on Pea Island, severed Highway 12. For six weeks, residents were dependent on emergency ferries from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point. And for the first few weeks that visitors were allowed on the island, they had to come from the mainland by ferry to Ocracoke and then take a ferry to Hatteras, where only the southern villages were open to tourists.
Many more islanders lost their jobs and incomes just before the important Labor Day holiday. Many businesses were closed for weeks, and many others just did not reopen. Some will reopen in the spring, but some probably will not.
It will be a long winter for many struggling island families and businesses until a new tourist season starts gearing up in March.
Many residents and visitors have been most generous in their donations to the Island Food Pantries and the Cape Hatteras United Methodist Men’s Emergency Fund, but we need to keep those donations coming through the winter.
It will be many years before the islands fully recover economically from Hurricane Irene.
We hope that we will see a strong beginning to that recovery in 2012. We hope that our friends and neighbors repair their homes, replace their belongings, and get back on their feet financially.
However, even if we escape winter’s northeasters and summer’s hurricanes in 2012, we face unprecedented challenges to our island economy and lifestyle next year.
And, unfortunately, much of it is the result of unwanted and unneeded meddling in our lives by outside environmental organizations and unfriendly recreational fishing groups.
At the top of the list of challenges for 2012 will be the National Park Service’s final ORV rule and management plan, which is expected to be implemented no later than Feb. 15.
The last four years have seen unprecedented closures of beaches to protect nesting birds and turtles as a result of a court-agreed-to consent decree that settled a lawsuit against the Park Service by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Those closures, especially the closure of the points and spits from early spring until late summer, have already taken a toll on the island economy, especially for tackle shops, motels, and campgrounds.
Come Feb. 15, there will be even more rules, regulations, and closures – along with having to pay to drive on the beach.
On Feb. 15 or shortly thereafter, the Park Service will begin selling weekly and annual permits for off-road vehicles on the beach. The cost has not been determined yet, the NPS says, but there are more details about the permits in my Dec. 15 blog.
The Park Service claims that these changes will not adversely affect the economy of Hatteras or Ocracoke. This is just plain not true. It will affect our economy, but no one is sure how much or for how long.
In a way, that thought is even more unsettling than having to deal with another hurricane season in 2012.
Also in 2012, we may see some action in another lawsuit brought by our friends at Defenders of Wildlife – this time with the National Wildlife Refuge Association – and again represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The groups sued the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in July to stop construction of the planned 2.7-mile, “short” Bonner Bridge project for a replacement parallel to the current span.
The environmental groups contend that a previously-proposed 17.5-mile bridge that bypasses Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was not properly studied as a feasible alternative.
In October, Cape Hatteras Electric Membership Corporation filed a motion to intervene in the action and joined with defendants because of the adverse effect the long bridge would have on electric rates on Hatteras.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Chief Judge Louise Wood Flanigan in New Bern.
Not much but administrative filings happened in the lawsuit this year, and in 2012 the case will proceed, though not quickly. More filings by the parties are expected with deadlines that range from Jan. 31 to Aug. 6.
Sometime after that date, the judge will make a decision based on the administrative record.
Currently, construction of the bridge is expected to begin by late 2012, with the targeted opening date in early 2015.
And you can bet that the same environmental groups are keeping a close eye on what the NCDOT decides about long-term solutions to the problems on Highway 12 between Rodanthe and the Bonner Bridge.
NCDOT said this month that it expects to have a final recommendation for Gov. Beverly Perdue this winter, perhaps by the end of January.
Is there another lawsuit down the road, so to speak?
Also in 2012, the attack on our commercial watermen will continue by so-called “conservation” groups.
The North Carolina General Assembly’s Marine Fisheries Study Committee will have its first meeting of the new year on Thursday, Jan. 5, in Raleigh.
On the table will be another attempt to give gamefish status to red drum, spotted sea trout, and striped bass.
A bill introduced last March stipulated that the three fish can be caught only by hook-and-line and only by recreational fishermen. A similar effort was made in 2009. Both efforts died in committee.
Backed by recreational fishing groups, such as the Coastal Conservation Association, the action would mean that the three fish would be off-limits to commercial fishermen and could not be bought, sold, or traded. They would no longer be available in fish markets or restaurants.
If you want to eat one of these fish, you would have to catch it yourself or forget it.
That means that those of us who don’t own a boat, can’t afford to charter one, don’t have the equipment and skill to surf fish, or just don’t want to catch them ourselves won’t be eating red drum, striped bass, or speckled trout.
The reason for gamefish status? The “conservation” groups say that recreational fishing is more valuable to the state’s economy than is commercial fishing.
You can read more about it in my blog from last March, “Killing fish for fun instead of food – Part II.”
On a brighter note, maybe the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, a fishing pier and educational complex planned for Hatteras village, will move forward in 2012.
That would be a great boost to the Hatteras economy.
So, happy new year.