The next time there’s a communications outage that affects the southern Outer Banks, the Hatteras Island Community Emergency Response Team (HI CERT) will be ready.
For the bulk of 2023, the non-profit organization has been working on a new initiative to provide communication stations at strategic points throughout the island.
Founded in 2011 after Hurricane Irene, HI CERT is well-known for its response after a hurricane or storm, providing whatever the local community requires to recover. From partnering with the Cape Hatteras United Methodist Men to offer a “free market” with supplies after 2019’s Dorian, to assisting Hatteras Village residents with clearing piles of salty debris from their homes after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, HI CERT steps in to keep islanders’ heads above water after a storm hits.
But this latest HI CERT project is proactive, not reactive.
Thanks to grants from the Outer Banks Community Foundation and Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, alongside additional donations, HI CERT now has mobile trailers, radios, and satellite internet access to allow the community to stay connected, even when phones, internet, and even power is down.
Unfortunately, communication outages are not that uncommon south of the Basnight Bridge. In 2022, two total communication outages occurred for all of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands due to digging accidents, and one seven-hour outage also occurred in February 2023, due to a damaged fiber cable during road construction in Nags Head.
There is a single fiber optic cable that provides phone and internet service to Hatteras Island, and in addition to accidental cuts during roadwork or construction activities, the southern Outer Banks inherently experiences power outages during nor’easters, hurricanes, and any storm that compromises the fragile barrier islands.
Dare County Emergency Management has taken steps to ensure that even when phone, electric, and internet service is down, 911 will still be functional in case of emergencies, thanks to portable devices that provide a direct satellite link to the county’s 911 system.
But HI CERT is taking this delicate link a step further, to provide an invaluable connection with loved ones off-island in case a disaster or outage occurs.
“Our Starlink system does provide 911 service and augments what the county is doing, but it also provides public telephone and internet systems,” said HI CERT president Mike McGuire. “So even if communications are down, visitors and residents will have the ability to communicate with loved ones [and] with family members, and let them know they are OK.”
Earlier in 2023, HI CERT purchased three trailers, which are now outfitted with the Starlink satellite systems. When needed, these stations will be set up at three central island locales – like Hatteras, the Tri-villages, and Avon or Buxton – with instructions posted on how to connect to the Starlink systems’ phone and internet.
As a result, when communications are down, residents and visitors will be able to drive up to the mobile trailer site, break out their cell phones or laptops, and reach out to the outside world.
And after months of fundraising and preparation, orchestrated by past HI CERT President Kenny Brite, the three mobile trailers are steps away from being ready to be used.
“Two of the radios are already operational, but the trailers need to be fleshed out,” said McGuire. “Then we need to run tests and get the instruction posters up.”
“But we have everything we need to be [operational] now,” he added. “In fact, if there was an emergency this week, we could potentially deploy by Thanksgiving… and we’ll definitely be ready by Christmas.”
The new communication trailers aren’t the only initiative that HI CERT has been working on in the past few months, and recruiting new volunteers has been a secondary but equally important goal in an otherwise uneventful and hurricane-free year.
“It’s been quiet, thankfully, for three years, and we haven’t had a major storm since Dorian, but that is going to change,” said McGuire. “Our statistical average is a hurricane every 2.5 years, so we need to be ready.”
There are currently around 30 active HI CERT volunteers, which includes a small wave of new recruits, but this number needs to grow for the organization to be most effective when the next storm is on the horizon.
“Our members are mostly from Avon at the moment, which is a good thing, because it’s almost the middle of the island,” said McGuire. “But there are people on the island who may not know we exist – in the Tri-villages or Hatteras Village – so our goal is to recruit people from other villages…
“When a storm occurs, it may affect one or two villages, and cut them off from [the rest of the island], so it’s essential to get volunteers from other locations.”
Fundraising goes side-by-side with the recruitment efforts, as once a new volunteer joins the HI CERT team, training, safety equipment, and other gear is required for every individual.
“Our fundraising efforts are in high gear. Because of COVID, members who joined since 2020 haven’t been outfitted,” said McGuire. “They don’t have backpacks, safety goggles, helmets – all of those essentials, and we need to fundraise to provide all that equipment as we continue to recruit.”
Spreading the word about the need for recruits and donations has been somewhat difficult, simply because HI CERT is not very visible until they are needed.
And while the HI CERT team is generally in the background, and not necessarily on the community’s radar until there’s an emergency, this ongoing behind-the-scenes work will go a long way when an emergency inevitably arises in the future.
The new communication trailers will be a blessing when the next big island-wide outage occurs. And when a future outage is coupled with a devastating nor’easter or hurricane, HI CERT intends to be ready.
“We are shaking off our lethargy from COVID and lack of storms, and while the lack of storms is wonderful, we’re in danger of getting a little rusty,” said McGuire. “We really need volunteers. We need able-bodied people who can show up, do the training, and support the community.”
“We’re surrounded by a lot of generous people and organizations, and all of the nonprofits help each other out. I’ve been here 11 years and I’m still learning how deep this community’s roots are – It’s really pretty special,” he added. “I have absolute faith our community will come help when we need it, and we fully intend to be there for them.”
How to become a volunteer member of the HI CERT Team:
Donations are also welcome, and can be made by contacting HI CERT at email@example.com or by mail at the address below. (Be on the lookout for a new website in the future, which will also make donating to HI CERT easier.)
Donations can be mailed to:
PO Box 35
Avon, NC 27915