“What was the worst hurricane in your lifetime?”
This is one of the most interesting questions to pose to any Outer Banks local resident, because it will generally clue you in on three things: 1) What section of the Outer Banks they call home 2) How long they have lived on the Outer Banks and 3) A rough idea of their age, which is something you should never ask directly, especially to a lady… (or an aging seahag like yours truly, for that matter.)
But if you do ask this question to a large swath of the Outer Banks population, a few storm names will generally be repeated multiple times. These names include Hazel (1954), Emily (1993), Isabel (2003), Dorian (2019), and for middle-aged folks like myself, 2011’s Irene.
This week marks 10 years since Hurricane Irene made landfall as a Category 1 storm close to Cape Lookout, and the days of devastation followed by months of recovery are still crystal clear in the minds of many residents who witnessed the storm, and the aftermath, first-hand.
Early on, there were murmurs that this could be the “Big One,” but as Hurricane Irene inched closer and decreased in strength from a Category 3 to a Category 1, we all became hopeful that our fears were unfounded, and that Irene would just produce a modest round of saltwater flooding, followed by a much longer round of mosquitos.
After all, when barely-remembered storms like 2010’s Earl paid the Outer Banks a visit, the visitors would evacuate, we’d all hunker down with beer, and we’d reemerge a day or two later to minor damage and exceptional beachcombing. (Or at least that’s how I remember most of Hurricane Irene’s nondescript predecessors.)
But on the morning of August 27, 2011, the Pamlico Sound was drained and sucked out beyond the horizon, which is always an early warning sign that things are about to go very, very wrong. What goes out must come back, after all.
And in this somewhat early era of social media, without popular Facebook groups or the ability to easily record and post videos from our cell phones, there was mass confusion about what was happening from day one.
If you weren’t there, or are younger than us budding old-timers, then the best way to explain Irene is as a devastating hurricane, followed by a clusterfudge of long-term problems.
Hurricanes that hit the Outer Banks tend to focus on a particular stretch of our barrier island shoreline. 2019’s Dorian left a permanent scar on Ocracoke, while northern Hatteras Island remained relatively unaffected. 2003’s Isabel cut a new inlet in between Frisco and Hatteras, sending Hatteras village homes into the sound, while at my shabby homebase in Avon, (and this was well before social media), I assumed that Isabel was no big deal, as we were more or less fine.
So when Hurricane Irene hit, she focused her energy on the Tri-Villages and Avon, and the end result took literal years to resolve.
Irene cut two new inlets on Pea Island, (in addition to numerous breaches on the northern section of Hatteras Island), and brought unprecedented soundside flooding to Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, and Avon village.
The official storm surge was 10-12 feet above normal water levels, according to the National Weather Service, and the effects of this wall of water were both clear and immediate.
Residents in the Tri-villages and Avon had catastrophic damage to their houses, possessions, and businesses, and many lost everything they owned. Power was cut to the entirety of the island for roughly a week. The National Guard came in and started distributing meals at the local fire stations, alongside local residents and volunteers. Residents who evacuated weren’t able to return and repair their homes for about 10 days. And N.C. Highway 12 was effectively closed due to the extensive damage from August 27 until October 10, meaning that residents had to utilize the emergency ferry from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point for seven weeks.
In fact, if you’ve ever done a Google image search for “Highway 12 Hurricane damage,” chances are that you’ve seen these now-historic aerial photos of N.C. Highway 12 cut into jagged little ribbons and piles of interconnecting rubble. That was Irene’s legacy.
Irene was a mess of actual destruction, misinformation, and figuring out how to address an unprecedented situation. Storms had certainly formed new inlets on the island before, (see the above-mentioned Hurricane Isabel), but this was the first time that these long-term breaches had occurred so far north since the Bonner Bridge was constructed, and as such, it was the first time that a storm had affected a significant island population from Rodanthe to Hatteras. Everyone had to use a ferry to leave, and a two-hour roundtrip to a doctor or specialist up the beach suddenly turned into a 10-hour journey.
Along the way, ferry schedules fluctuated due to shoaling, N.C. Highway 12 repairs were delayed due to weather and other hurdles, and information on when evacuees and eventual visitors could return was hard to pinpoint. Spreading the word about resources for residents who had lost everything was also challenging, as this was before local fire stations officially became one-stop sites for all storm recovery needs.
Rumors flew and facts trickled in, and to say that the days and weeks following Irene were an age of confusion is a massive understatement.
Ironically, (and I do believe this is an unbiased assessment), one of the best sources for local information at the time was our own Irene, Irene Nolan, the founder and editor of the Island Free Press. She was a rock star during this confusing period, and her storm coverage was nothing short of outstanding.
Writing constantly from her generator-powered office, Irene kept visitors and we off-island evacuees informed, when we had no idea what was going on.
On a personal note, in addition to serving as a conduit for post-storm information, Irene Nolan was also my own amazing hero during this storm, and it’s an honor that has not diminished with time.
My then-fiancé and I evacuated to the mountains of North Carolina, and our odyssey back home to Avon after sponging off of generous relatives for a week and a half was an unfunny version of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” (I actually wrote a super long story about the experience at the time, “How I Spent my Summer Evacuation,” but unfortunately, it’s one of a number of stories that we lost when we transitioned to a new and more modern website several years ago.)
In any case, the crux of the story is as follows. On the day that evacuated Avon residents were allowed to come home, my husband and I left western N.C as early as possible in the morning, and drove across the state with five cats and a dog in an increasingly smelly minivan. We had numerous issues along the way, including a gritty flat tire incident in Raleigh which required a mobile mechanic, and we arrived at the emergency Stumpy Point ferry docks about 10 hours later.
Then we waited for the emergency ferry. There were hardworking and exhausted ferry personnel who had been working well beyond overtime status, coupled with crowds of evacuees that made the ferry stacking lanes look like a rock concert parking lot, but with babies, children, and pets.
Shoaling issues in the emergency ferry channel limited how many ferries could cross at one time, so our vehicles remained mostly stationary, and at around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., the ferry terminal lights started to flicker off, and the ferries apparently shut down for the night.
I called my IFP editor Irene at that point to ask her what was going on, (because after sitting in a ferry line with a grumpy group of animals for 6-8 hours, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to get home), and she, in turn, called her county commissioner and local contacts to ask why the ferries were shut down when hundreds of evacuees were still waiting in line at Stumpy Point.
I don’t know how she did it, but eventually, the lights turned back on at the Stumpy Pont ferry terminal, a new group of ferry personnel arrived to give the current crew a break, (I assume), and the ferries started to operate again, allowing us to catch a midnight ride back to Rodanthe.
If you were in that ferry line on that mosquito-infested night, and experienced that same panic-turned-relief ride that I did, know that it was Irene Nolan who made it happen. I know this for a fact, because County Commissioner Warren Judge called me directly, letting me know that Irene had been raising cane, and he wanted to make sure that I had boarded a boat home. Apparently, she had told him that I was an “invaluable employee” of the Island Free Press team, which was pretty much a bald-faced lie, but was greatly appreciated at the time.
(I should also note that Irene Nolan patiently put up with all of my hurricane jokes that centered on their common names for years, when a normal person would have told me to shut up at some point.)
Anyways, I’ll never forget that 2:00 a.m. ride home from Rodanthe to Avon after being physically distant from the storm damage for 10 days.
Piles of trash, mattresses, appliances, carpet, furniture, and who-knows-what-else lined the highway for miles, and was continually present in the peripheral vision of our minivan’s headlights. In the dark, we couldn’t see the houses, but we could only imagine what damage had occurred to accumulate such a mess. (Our own Avon house also had storm-related issues, as we discovered when we finally got home, but we fixed most of it shortly thereafter, and will get to the rest of it someday.)
Hurricane Irene bred so many stories like mine, or like our neighbors who lost everything and had to rebuild from the ground up, or like folks in southern Hatteras Island who may not have had severe damage, but who had to dedicate 10-12 hours of their day to take an emergency ferry to visit their Nags Head doctor or the Manteo DMV for weeks.
Simply put, Hurricane Irene was a life-changing and historic storm that deserves attention. Not just for the chaos that Irene created, (which was abundant), but for the changes and lessons that this “Big One” inspired.
We’ll be sharing more memories and a primer on the long-term effects of Hurricane Irene during this anniversary week, and to be honest, not all of them are negative. An unprecedented storm provides new opportunities to evaluate procedures and policies in place, and there were some major changes that stemmed from Irene that are worth acknowledging.
Nevertheless, it’s a good time to take a moment to remember Hurricane Irene, and all of the heartaches that came with it. Irene’s 10 feet of storm surge resulted in piles of house parts littering N.C. Highway 12 for miles, and a literal pause in normal island life that lasted for weeks.
There were also days, weeks, and months of miscommunication that followed, from the first re-entry procedures to the handling of allowing visitors, which I like to think that the IFP’s Irene Nolan had a deft hand in untangling along the way.
I’m an optimist at heart who hates ending any story on a bad note. (Hard to do in the age of Coronavirus, and during the height of hurricane season, but there you go.)
As such, I hope that our personal memories are overshadowed by the fact that the Outer Banks’ storm response became stronger, more efficient, and with much clearer communication on essential information from start to finish.
And if nothing else, it’s lovely to take a moment to honor the better, stronger, and more powerful Irene, our own Irene Nolan, who passed away in March of 2017, but who remains the ever-present backbone of the Island Free Press.
She set a blueprint of how you should cover storms, with the sole goal of helping our community at the forefront, and it’s a brilliant guideline that we’ll keep following, no matter what the future brings.