One of the most destructive Outer Banks storms in living memory made landfall 20 years ago on September 18, 2003, destroying homes and businesses in Hatteras village and creating a temporary inlet that separated Hatteras from the rest of the world for more than two months.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), Hurricane Isabel became the ninth named storm of the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season on September 6, 2003. The storm intensified rapidly on the 8th, going through Categories 2 and 3 of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale and reaching Category 4 intensity that same day.
Isabel remained a strong Category 4 hurricane until reaching the rare Category 5 status by September 11. Isabel remained at or near Category 5 intensity until September 14, when it weakened to Category 4. The storm eventually weakened to a Category 2 by late morning Tuesday, September 16, two days before the hurricane made landfall near Drum Inlet, (at Cape Lookout National Seashore), around 1 p.m. on September 18.
Isabel moved northwest and then accelerated to the northeast, and by midday Friday, the center of the storm was losing tropical characteristics and was located near Cleveland, Ohio.
But most of the effects of Isabel were experienced between Thursday morning and Friday evening, and the damage had been done. Isabel produced storm surges of 6 to 8 feet above normal tide levels near the point of landfall along the North Carolina coast, and left her permanent calling card with the generation of a new inlet located near Hatteras village.
In eastern North Carolina, Isabel produced heavy damage, totaling $450 million. The damage was heaviest in Dare County, and namely Hatteras village, where storm surge flooding compounded by huge waves damaged or destroyed numerous homes, motels, and businesses. The hurricane directly killed one person and indirectly killed two in the state.
Wave energy, not wind, caused most of the destruction in Isabel
Isabel marked a turning point in how residents and visitors prepared for hurricanes, as it was the wave energy and storm surge– not the wind from the then-Category 2 storm – that caused the majority of damage.
Per the NWS, the peak wind gust at Ocracoke was 105 mph at 11:45 a.m. on Sept. 18. At the now-removed Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier in Frisco, it was 96 mph at 11:46 a.m. Residents with instruments in their homes also reported peak gusts up to 105 from Rodanthe to Ocracoke.
Even though official wind reports were hampered by power outages, weather experts agree that wind did not cause the most devastating damage on the Outer Banks, especially in Hatteras village.
Per a 2013 Island Free Press article, the day before Isabel hit the Outer Banks, (September 17), the NOAA buoy at Diamond Shoals, about 15 miles off Cape Hatteras, was registering waves of 16 to 18 feet. By 9 p.m., the wave height was up to 21 feet. At 2 a.m. it was 27 feet, and then an hour later, at 3 a.m., the buoy registered a 44.6-foot wave and stopped reporting, likely due to heavy damage.
It’s estimated that the storm surge was 6 to 8 feet with 15- to 20-foot waves breaking onshore in Hatteras village. That would have put the wall of water with tremendous energy hitting the shoreline in the range of 21 to 28 feet.
The immense power of the storm surge plus the wave energy was apparent in Hatteras village. Motels along the beach were destroyed, with buildings moved into or across N.C. Highway 12. Buildings, such as the Hatteras Cabanas, were moved across the highway and into the soundside marsh. Other buildings were washed off their pilings. Houses sat in sinkholes with only a few feet of the top floor and the roofs above water. At least one entire house was washed out into the Pamlico Sound. Buildings stood with only side of cinder-block walls, the front and back walls blown out by the wave energy, and the buildings swept clean of furnishings. Cars and trucks were flipped and crushed, and many feet of sand filled the lower floors of most buildings and homes.
Although most of Hatteras Island did not have major soundside flooding during Isabel, even homes in Hatteras village that were not on the oceanfront were not immune from damage. The surge with the waves on top washed over the eastern end of the village and into the sound near Sandy Bay. The east wind blew the water around the back of the village and through the creeks that run through it. Homes were flooded, the Hatteras habors were heavily affected, and debris from the oceanfront — refrigerators, air conditioners, beds, dressers, motel room doors with the numbers still on them — lined the back creeks into the village.
Most noticeable when it came to damage was the formation of a 2,000 ft. inlet that began on the edge of Frisco and extended to Hatteras village, and was estimated to be as deep as 15 feet at one point. The new inlet washed away all utility connections to Hatteras village, including power lines and water pipes, as well as dunes, houses, and a portion of the highway.
Initially, long-term solutions to the Isabel Inlet such as building a bridge or a ferry system were considered, though they were ultimately canceled in favor of pumping sand and filling the inlet. On November 22, a little more than two months after the hurricane struck, N.C. Highway 12 and southern Hatteras Island were both finally reopened for public access. On the same day, the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke was also reopened.
During this timeframe, Hatteras village relied on emergency services and the local community to stay afloat. Children were transported to the Cape Hatteras Schools in Buxton via boat. Donations and emergency supplies, like portable showers, were transported to Hatteras village so that residents could have food, water, and essentials. Rebuilding was slow and methodical, and the majority of homes and businesses in northern Hatteras village were torn down and not replaced or rebuilt until years later.
While Isabel caused minor damage to northern Hatteras Island and moderate damage to Ocracoke, the storm is most closely tied to Hatteras village.
Though Isabel is forever linked with waves of bad memories, mirrored only by similarly devastating storms like 1991’s Hurricane Emily and 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the storm did usher in a new era of resiliency and community spirit throughout the islands, and was responsible for the creation of the annual Day at the Docks festival.