The state Department of Transportation says it will reopen N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island by next Tuesday - more than six weeks after Hurricane Irene cut the road into pieces and severed the mainland lifeline for 5,000 island residents.
"Hallelujah!" Allen Burrus, a Buxton grocer and Dare County commissioner, said Wednesday when he heard the news. "It can't be quick enough. I'm ready."
DOT said the indispensable island highway will be open for traffic as soon as possible. "The hope is we can do it before Tuesday, maybe Monday," said Greer Beaty, a DOT spokeswoman. "But everything is crazy-dependent on the weather. Weather could blow everything off."
DOT contractors are building a 662-foot-long steel truss bridge across a gap, known locally as New New Inlet, created by Irene at the northern end of Hatteras Island.
Four miles south of the inlet, near the flooded resort town of Rodanthe, road crews are repaving parts of N.C. 12 that were washed away when Irene pushed a wall of water across the narrow island.
An overtaxed ferry system has provided the only access since Irene breached N.C. 12 on Aug. 27.
The limits of ferry service slowed the pace of hurricane recovery and suppressed the tourism traffic that sustains Ocracoke and Hatteras islands. Some businesses never reopened because the ferries did not deliver enough customers.
"I can't stay open with just 20 or 30 people a night in my big building," said Jane Metacarpa, co-owner of the Sandbar & Grille in Buxton. "I have to do 50 or 100 a night."
The reopening of N.C. 12 may come too late for Metacarpa's restaurant. Her business season normally ends in mid-November, and she doesn't know whether it will be worthwhile to reopen next week.
The repaired road also will restore public access to the heavily damaged villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, which have remained closed to tourists and other nonresidents.
Ocracoke Islanders have suffered from the loss of N.C. 12, too. They receive most of their tourism business via N.C. 12 and a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Island, and they rely on the same route for trips to doctors and shopping centers near Nag's Head.
Tommy Hutcherson, who sells groceries and hardware at his family's Ocracoke Variety Store, said suppliers have found it hard to make deliveries while N.C. 12 is closed.
"It has hurt the locals trying to come and go from the island," Hutcherson said. "It has really impeded vendor traffic seriously, and it's been detrimental to the tourist industry."
The future of N.C. 12
DOT's $10 million repair is a temporary fix for N.C. 12. Gov. Bev Perdue has said state officials will develop a long-term solution to the frequent storm damage and repair costs for the highway.
Stanley R. Riggs, a coastal geologist who published a book this year on North Carolina's barrier islands, said he hoped DOT officials will think carefully about the future of Hatteras Island and N.C. 12.
Riggs and other scientists predicted two years ago that storms would breach the Hatteras highway in vulnerable spots at two locations that were damaged by Hurricane Irene. DOT engineers have invited Riggs to discuss plans for N.C. 12 at a meeting later this month, but he is skeptical that they'll listen to him.
"In the past I've given them a lot of time and energy and results from our research, and they've pretty much ignored it," Riggs, a professor at East Carolina University, said by phone from a ferry crossing Pamlico Sound. He was returning from a workshop with school teachers on Ocracoke Island. "I'm old enough not to waste more time if they're not interested in it. I can make better use of my time educating the public."
Riggs contends that efforts to stabilize the highway have made the island itself more fragile because they interfere with the Outer Banks' age-old tendency to migrate westward - retreating on the ocean side and growing on the sound side.
"I think they're trying to figure out how to hold the road where it is for 50 years, and I don't think they get it," Riggs said. "This is an expensive highway. How many times do we have to rebuild something before we realize it doesn't work?"
Until about eight years ago, Riggs and other coastal geologists were granted quick access to study storm-damaged beaches as soon as the hurricanes had moved away. But their permits were revoked, and he is still waiting, more than five weeks after Irene's passing, for access to the worst-damaged sections of Hatteras Island.