KILL DEVIL HILLS — Barefoot and fighting blinding rain, Denis Hromin edged his way down the Avalon Fishing Pier as the core of Hurricane Irene crossed the northern Outer Banks.
Below him, 15-foot waves clubbed the wooden pylons, shooting water over the banister and wiggling the end like a serpent's tail. The waves sounded like a helicopter as they crashed and echoed under the boardwalk.
The ocean appeared as if it could swallow the pier, just as it destroyed two others as the hurricane chewed the North Carolina coast.
"She might come apart if it got any higher," Hromin shouted against the wind. "If the storm came like it was supposed to, we'd probably lose a section of it."
Hromin didn't want to let that happen. For him, it was man vs. wild. And he planned to walk into the teeth of the storm.
Repairing the pier
Like other salty souls who are longtime residents of the barrier island, Hromin is protective of his paradise.
The 45-year-old works construction. He helped repair the pier after previous storms.
Built in 1958, the building connected to the 696-foot pier caters to fishermen, selling bloodworms, squid and mullet as bait.
"These are the last of the privately owned piers," he said. "If they go down, they aren't going to rebuild them."
Hromin was concerned about a support beam knocked loose in the hurricane. To inspect it, he must travel toward the end of the pier, where it is twisted - courtesy of previous storms.
Wearing a rain-slicked jacket and surfer shorts, he stepped over a 3-foot sand dune formed by the wind at the pier entrance and pulled open the gate, which was half ripped off the hinges.
Before walking out on the pier, he says, "Check your cojones. You'll need them."
The pier bucked underneath him and swayed side to side. The wind sheared the waves, turning them into a firehouse spray.
At the halfway point, Hromin turned back. The conditions were too dangerous. And he felt confident the pier would survive after checking support beams in the middle.
"It was scary safe," he said.
On the way back, he found that the wind ripped off half the narrow deck and door he had used to reach the pier. Any more and he could have been stuck.
He grabbed a drill from the car and tacked half the door across the entrance to fashion a makeshift gate. "It hasn't fallen in yet," Hromin said. "And we'll make it even stronger next time."
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