Dare County and North Carolina Department of Transportation officials responded to questions and concerns from Hatteras islanders at a community meeting on Tuesday night in Buxton.
The meeting at Cape Hatteras Secondary School auditorium was attended by a standing-room only crowd of folks concerned about the current situation with the closure by DOT of the Bonner Bridge on Tuesday, Dec. 3, for safety reasons and the future of the bridge and the Highway 12 corridor.
The delegation of officials was 10 or so minutes late for the meeting because, Warren Judge, chairman of the Board of Commissioners said, the group miscalculated how long it would take them to get to Buxton from the emergency ferry docks in Rodanthe.
The crowd chuckled.
Judge introduced commission vice-chairman Allen Burrus of Hatteras village for brief opening remarks.
“It’s serious times, and we’re dealing with serious issues,” Burrus said.
He said he had only a few comments before moving into the meeting.
He wants to remove “roadblocks” that he said we have to keep people from running boats from the foot of the Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet to the Fishing Center– about a 15- or 20-minute trip instead of a two-plus hour ferry ride from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point.
Dare County might arrange for parking space at each end and some kind of transportation from the Fishing Center to doctors, shopping, and other things islanders have to do on the northern beaches.
“We have to start thinking in the future – not about what happened in the past. We need to start thinking of ways to get off of here.”
From that point, Bobby Outten, Dare County manager and attorney, conducted the meeting.
Outten began by noting that officials welcomed questions but that the 5 p.m. meeting needed to end by 6:45, so that the county and DOT officials could head out in time to get the 7:30 emergency ferry from Rodanthe.
That brought plenty of laughter from an audience living every day with the “new normal” when it comes to travel to and from the island.
Before Outten began going over his list of information for islanders, he called on Jerry Jennings, DOT’s District 1 chief engineer, for an update on last weekend’s dredging around the dangerously scoured pilings on the south end of the bridge.
Jennings gave an upbeat report.
“So far, we’ve had very good success with the dredging,” he said.
He added that the initial sonar scans have shown that the dredged sand has held in place “much better than we thought.”
The audience kept pushing him to give them a best-case, worst-case scenario, which he really didn’t want to do.
State officials, in general, have not publicly announced any dates or timeline since the bridge closed, Dec. 3, saying only that they needed more information before they could speculate on how long the closure might be.
But tonight after giving an upbeat report on the dredging that pumped 30,000 cubic yards of sand around the scoured-out pilings that are the problem, Jennings finally relented to repeated questions by the audience.
He said that the best-case scenario is that the bridge would open this weekend or early next week and the worst-case would be 60 to 90 days.
“Give us a few more days,” he said. “We are hopeful but don’t want to give you false hope. We are hoping that we can open the bridge before the repair project is finished.”
He said DOT will continue to check the sand depth around the scoured pilings by sonar and with divers in the coming days to evaluate if the sand has stayed in place and how it has compacted.
At that point, DOT’s engineers will decide if the bridge can be opened while longer-term repairs are made to the scoured pilings.
NCDOT awarded a $1.6 million contract to Carolina Bridge Company Inc. of Orangeburg, S.C., last week for emergency repairs to the bridge.
The contractor, Jennings said, has mobilized at the site and materials for the repairs are arriving. Later this week, the company will drive two test pilings nearing the scour area to help engineers better analyze the conditions in the dynamic Oregon Inlet.
Outten then ran down information that islanders need to know and issues that have come up before he started taking questions:
Emergency Medical Services
Dare County has added one ambulance unit and a crew on Hatteras, bringing the total to three.
The Dare MedFlight helicopter is being repaired, with repairs expected to be finished before the end of the week. Meanwhile, he said, the county has other medical evacuation helicopters available – Sentara Nightingale, Vidant’s Medical Care’s and Pitt County Memorial Hospital’s crafts, and the helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard.
In case of weather in which helicopters cannot fly, the county can transport patients to the southern end of the bridge, where they are met by a boat crew from Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet and transported to the station on the other side.
Earlier this week, an unconscious 28-year-old woman and a woman in labor were transported that way in the middle of the night.
Outten said the county will be able to medevac patients except under “very extreme conditions.”
Other County Services
Outten said there have been very few problems with keeping county services on the island operating smoothly at its satellite office in Frisco.
The clerk of the court is now providing services on the island several days a week. The office will be open from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Trash trucks are making one trip a week to the island’s villages, traveling on the emergency ferry in the off-hours.
Emergency Ferry Priority
Outten said that the county was getting the most feedback on priority on the emergency ferries.
Before going over the current priorities, Outten went over some of the considerations involved in that decision.
He noted that the island is not in storm recovery mode with builders, insurance adjusters, and others delivering emergency assistance needing to ride the ferries. Unlike after some storms, power and other utilities are available on the island. And he noted that the visitor population is low and that rental companies expect it to remain that way for a while.
“But,” he said, “we have a limited amount of ferries and limited deck space. At certain times of day, we have more demand than deck space.”
He added that the Ferry Division wants as few priorities as possible.
“More priorities makes it more difficult to prioritize deck space,” he said, and it adds problems for the Ferry Division security staff.
Limited space for parking and stacking lanes also make giving priorities on the Emergency Route difficult.
Outten said he and Dare County emergency manager Sandy Sanderson have been monitoring the lines on the emergency route every day since the ferries started running on Tuesday, Dec. 3, and will continue to do so.
Dare’s priorities have been based on these facts.
“That said, to say it’s inconvenient is a disservice to you,” Outten noted. “This is way more than an inconvenience.”
Priority for all residents is something the county has done in the past, he said, depending on the circumstances. But the county has not decided that it can afford priority for all at this point, given the limited deck space on the ferries and the demands
“We have not ignored residents,” he said.
He went over some details about priorities:
- Islanders with medical appointments, emergency medical situations, and the transport of pharmaceuticals have priority.
- Islanders need an appointment card or a letter to use the medical priority. Whether or not you have priority on the return trip, “just depends,” he said. Patients getting chemotherapy or those with certain medical conditions, will get return priority. If you have a eye doctor’s appointment, you probably won’t.
- School buses, mail, FedEx, UPS, and Dare County transport vehicles get priority.
- Ferry employees get priority.
- The county needs to get food, fuel, and other supplies onto the island and is working with vendors and service providers to get them to use the “off” times to travel. Trash trucks are already traveling at night.
- Special events, such as weddings and funerals, will get priorities so guests can travel without waiting. Call Dare County Emergency Management at 252-475-5655 for information.
- The county will explore making it possible for pedestrians to use the ferry and have some sort of transport on the other side.
- Captain Johnny’s Dolphin Tours is offering trips from the foot of the Bonner Bridge on Hatteras Island to Oregon Inlet Fishing Center for a donation for gas. It’s a 15-20 minute trip. The number of passengers is limited on each trip. Call 252-305-1475.
- Weather affects the ferries and fog has been the biggest problem so far.
After a questioner asked about a ferry later in the evening from Stumpy Point for those who can’t make the 5 p.m. because they don’t get off work until then, Jed Dixon, assistant director of the division, said the staff could look into that. Today, the division added a 6:15 departure from Stumpy Point and an 8:45 departure from Rodanthe.
In response to a question, Allen Burrus said he had asked the governor if the state could provide aid to islanders who have been laid off or are suffering economically after the closure. He said the governor promised to get back to him, but he has not heard yet.
Phone numbers. Call Dare County Emergency Management at 252-475-5655 for questions about priority and other information. County manager Bobby Outten said his office phone, 252- 475-5811 rings wherever he is. N.C. Board of Transportation representative Malcolm Fearing offered a cell phone number, 252-305-8596.