AVON — Many tourists, and the businesspeople who rely on them, are unhappy about Dare County's decision earlier this month to reopen parts of storm-ravaged Hatteras Island to tourists.
Dare officials say it was crucial to revive the tourist season as soon as possible after it was cut short by Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27. They wanted to put idle island residents back to work as waitresses, store clerks, house cleaners and sport-fishing boat captains.
"In three days there after Irene, we had almost a thousand people going on unemployment," said Allen Burrus, a Hatteras grocer and Dare County commissioner. "Our food banks are all empty trying to take care of people that need it."
Critics, including Hatteras real estate groups and the Outer Banks visitors bureau and chamber of commerce, say the move was too hasty - and bad for business.
The island was closed to all visitors for three weeks after Irene severed its highway link to the mainland and battered three of its seven villages - Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo.
Hundreds of vacationers were forced to cancel beach plans. But about three-quarters of them were covered by vacation insurance, which reimbursed them for rental fees they had paid in advance.
Dare County lifted the evacuation order for Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras on Sept. 15. That was good news for vacationers who could make it back, and for motels, restaurants and rental agencies eager to receive them.
But it was bad news for hundreds more who couldn't get to Hatteras because the ferries were filled. The vacation insurance agencies canceled coverage, Hatteras real estate officials say, when the evacuation order was lifted.
"The big concern was what this was doing to the guests, and the fact they were back on the hook for rentals that were no longer covered by their travel insurance," said Scot Leggat, a vice president with Outer Beaches Realty. "The county made a discretionary decision that compelled them to lose money. They can't get here because the ferries simply don't have the carrying capacity."
A round-the-clock emergency ferry serves island residents between Rodanthe and Stumpy Point on the mainland, but it is not open to visitors.
A few hundred Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo residents still rely on a community center for three meals a day. Streets are lined with heaps of ruined furniture and appliances that no longer can cook their food or keep it cold. Dare County says the so-called "tri-villages" will remain closed to the public at least through Oct. 6.
With N.C. 12 closed for repairs until sometime in October, the only public access to the other four villages is via ferry from the mainland to the neighboring island of Ocracoke. And that's more traffic than the ferry can handle.
Real estate companies figure the Ocracoke ferry would have to handle 4,000 cars a week just to serve the vacation cottages on Hatteras that had been rented in September and early October. But 10 daily ferries deliver about 500 cars and trucks a day, many of them with vacationers bound for Ocracoke.
Leggat said vacationers had reserved about 90 percent of the 500 cottages his company handles, but only 40 percent were in use last week. That number may have been high, because there was almost no traffic on the streets and in shops and restaurants.
Anne McCleary of Coudersport, Pa., and her husband paid $600 for a week - last week - in an Avon cottage two rows back from the surf. After eight years of marriage, it would have been their first "just the two of us" vacation.
"We were really looking forward to it," McCleary said by phone. She figured their vacation was lost, but the money would be refunded, until Dare County announced Sept. 13 that the four southern island villages would reopen Sept. 15. Her vacation was scheduled to start Sept. 17.
"And it turned out the ferries were just booked," McCleary said. "So there's no way for us to get there."
Most cottage rentals run on a Saturday-to-Saturday calendar. The Ocracoke ferries are booked solid for most weekends into October.
"We've got some openings on Fridays, and during the week we're not booked up at all," said Lucy Wallace, the state ferry spokeswoman. "As you go further into October, the weekend of Oct. 22 is not booked up."
Jennifer Johnson and her father have a few customers at the Blue Pelican, her Hatteras Village gift shop, but she worries about the tourists she won't see again.
"People are out $1,200 or $1,500 for their week's vacation," Johnson said. "They're so mad at us, and even though it wasn't our fault, they're not coming back."
For those vacationers who were able to make it back to Hatteras, Natalie Perry Kavanagh is glad to see them. Her family sells groceries, tackle and ammo at Frisco Rod and Gun, and she supports the county's decision to reopen the four villages.
"I am happy to see strange faces in the door, I can tell you that," Kavanagh said. "It has been a nice transfusion of blood to the area, to help us limp along until we can get the road open and back to normal."
Beth Midgett, who handles reservations for Midgett Realty on Hatteras Island, said the cottage owners she represents will make their own decisions about refunds for vacationers who lost insurance coverage. Some owners have given money back, and others have invited visitors to schedule another week.
Every hurricane brings its own challenges to Hatteras Island, Midgett said. She tried not to worry last week when forecasters began tracking a new storm, Ophelia, moving across the open Atlantic.
"It popped up on the screen this morning when I watched the news," Midgett said. "I put my fingers in my ears and said 'La-la-la-la-la-la.' "