Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have had a starring role in nightly newscasts as the power outage inches closer to the one-week mark, but the islands themselves have been eerily quiet as the outage lingers on.
“This is the warmest February that I can remember,” joked Capt. Ernie Foster at the Avon Fishing Pier, where he waited with a crowd of other residents to chat with North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Thursday.
The prevailing attitude on Hatteras Island has been one of both frustration and resilience. This isn’t the first time that locals have had an empty island in the heart of summer due to an evacuation, but the cause of the evacuation – a manmade issue rather than a natural disaster – has added an unusual layer to the scenario.
Class action lawsuits have been filed in the past 24 hours against the company that severed the cable – PCL Construction – with handfuls of homeowners, business owners and vacationers signed on as plaintiffs.
Meetings and discussion groups have also been planned in the next couple of days to discuss legal options for business owners, and several locals have reached out to government officials for action.
“It is not enough to declare a disaster area with nothing but lip service. No one here except the folks with ‘old money’ can pay any of their bills or taxes, possibly for the rest of the year…” read one letter to Senator Bill Cook. “Make no mistake, this disaster is worse for the labor force, residents and businesses than any hurricane or tropical storm. If there are any tricks of the bureaucracy that I can relay to our residents as to how we are going to make up for this man-made [and] man-caused disaster please let me know. Otherwise, I will continue to insist on the greatest penalties to the responsible parties and complete reparations to the labor force, residents and businesses in Hatteras village and the entire Hatteras Island.”
As the hours and days drag on, so does the underlying frustration. But conversely – and similar to a natural disaster – community support and outreach is at sky-high levels as well.
Over the weekend, the St. John United Methodist Church in Avon was stocked with bottled water and non-perishable food items for residents who have lost power, as well as all their food supplies. And a number of locals have organized grassroots efforts to deliver generators and supplies to residents with special needs.
Debra Anne Scalia, who owns Hatteras Island Boardsports in Avon, reports that their income in the past few days has been less than a quarter of what it normally is this time of year. But she has nevertheless been busy by orchestrating a community-wide effort to help residents in need.
“It started when the Dare County Democrats called me and said ‘What can we do for you?’” she says. “And it’s just expanded from there.”
Working with churches and organizations from all across the Outer Banks, as well as individual residents who want to help, Debra and her team have received and delivered 13 generators to people in need. (They’ve also received a donation of 80 gallons of gas.)
“These units are expensive – they are probably thousand dollar units, and people are just sending them and loaning them out, with me just logging them in the book,” she says.
“But it’s a peace of mind for people who have a medical need,” she adds. “Moms with newborn babies, older adults, children with special needs – the people who can’t handle any sort of heat.”
Debra reports that a number of residents have stepped up to the plate to help with the efforts. Folks have gone door to door asking elderly neighbors they know if they need help, or have offered to deliver and set up the heavy generators when a family in need has been identified.
“People have been so kind,” says Debra. “I know there’s frustration, but I feel like you need to channel that frustration into something else. We can’t do anything about business lost right now, but you can feel good when you’re helping someone who needs it… and I’ve met 13 great families along the way.”
Many area businesses also remained open in the past several days to cater to the residents, property owners, and vendors who are still allowed access on the island.
“We have shorter hours to be sure,” said one convenience store employee. “And we haven’t had much business. Not like we should have. But it’s a habit to be open right now.”
Several businesses also offered specials or promotions to ease the frustration felt across the islands. A chalkboard sign outside Pangea Tavern in Avon read “Half price appetizers and $3 beer. P.S. positive emotions for free.”
And while emotions that range from frustration to positivity swirl – and the islands continue to dominate national headlines – the beaches remain eerily quiet.
The power outage has been covered in media outlets and newspapers all across the country. CNN, USA Today, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and U.S. News & World Report have all posted stories in the past several days about the outage.
But while national media attention is at an all-time high, the island itself feels like a different world. On Tuesday morning, just one beach umbrella could be spotted along the Avon shoreline. And the island’s Food Lion – normally a hub of activity in the summer months – had less than a dozen cars in the parking lot.
And this combination of a deserted island with a lack of business has fueled the mixed emotions for many residents.
“This is the first time in years that I remember having three days off in a row in the summer,” said a resident and a longtime server at a local island restaurant. “It’s weird, because it’s nice to catch your breath, but you’re losing money every day.”
One thing that most all residents agree on, however, is the incredible efforts of Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative (CHEC) in resolving the problem. Since the power outage began on Thursday, locals have commented across the board on how hard the CHEC personnel have worked for days at a time, running a 24/7 operation to get the islands back online.
In the meantime, the island remains in a holding pattern. While national media attention grows, and the area remains a ghost town, all locals and visitors can do is wait.
“We’re probably more recognized now [nationally] than we ever were before – first because of Shelly Island, and then because of this outage,” said one resident. “It’s just a shame that people can’t come down right now and see how great our island is for themselves.”