Ocracoke Islanders are collectively happy that the Hatteras Ferry began running Feb. 22 in an alternate channel.
“I’m happy to see it back,” noted Ken DeBarth, a physician’s assistant who works weekends in Nags Head. “It’s a big help.”
Islanders have had vehicle access on and off the island only via Swan Quarter and Cedar Island since mid-January when the Rollinson Channel shoaled over preventing the free ferries at Hatteras from crossing. Officials on Feb. 22 opened an alternate ferry route via a natural channel, locally known as Barney Slough further west in the Pamlico Sound. The alternate route takes about an hour where the usual route takes 40 minutes.
Now, vendors can get here without adding several hours to their trip via Swan Quarter in Hyde County, noted Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Variety Store, and Sean Death, manager of the Beachcomber Campground and gas station.
“It’s much easier now,” Hutcherson said. “It’s back to normal.”
Death noted that he is beginning to see some new faces, which started Presidents’ Day weekend. When the Hatteras ferry runs, it’s good, he noted. When it doesn’t, that changes the delivery logistics.
“What I would like to see is this alternate route as a permanent solution as needed,” he said.
And that is what Allen Burrus, a Dare County commissioner, is trying to arrange.
“We’re trying to get the paperwork to keep it an alternate route,” Burrus said.
He explained that commercial and charter fishermen put pressure on officials to open this route while the Rollinson Channel is impassable.
“What was going on was unmanageable,” Burrus said. “The estimated economic worth of the Hatteras Inlet is $150 million a year.”
Burrus said that the North Carolina Department of Transportation was fearful that if this alternate channel was used, they would be forced to use the longer route forever, wreaking havoc with the ferry schedules.
“But the Rollinson Channel is a federal channel named by an act of Congress,” Burrus said. Only an act of Congress can change that.
After the commercial fishermen pressed for this alternate route and Dare County talked to the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has the contract to dredge the channel, began surveying the new route for passage.
“U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan went to the Coast Guard and found buoys for us,” Burrus said. “Once the Coast Guard had the survey, they sank the buoys right away.”
Steve Abbott, a spokesman for the DOT Ferry Division added that the division knew that there were a lot of weather issues with the pipeline dredge Richmond, which has been working in the channel since early December.
“Having Ocracokers go to Swan Quarter all the time is a major inconvenience,” he said. “We didn’t want people to have to do that all of March.”
Mid-March is typically when businesses on Ocracoke open up for the season. While a few more are open now than in January, all will be open by the end of the month, or Easter, which begins Ocracoke’s tourist season.
“We hope the inlet project will be done March 15,” said Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After that, there are some spots to do cleanup and completion of the dredging by March 31.
“After that, there are environmental issues that come into effect,” he said. “If (the work is not finished), we’ll coordinate with the environmental agencies for a few days’ latitude.”
Currently, the dredge is in the third leg of its excavation work, he said. This leg is the trickiest, in part because it’s closest to the inlet.
Wind and weather are a constant factor and hindrance to work, Bullock noted.
“We’re just trying to keep everyone safe,” he said.