Hurricane Irene is still making itself felt along the Outer Banks, where persistent shoaling is clogging the narrow Hatteras Inlet channel and disrupting service on the state’s busiest ferry route.
Ferry operations were suspended Sunday and Monday evenings on the Hatteras-Ocracoke route, stranding travelers on both sides overnight. The ferries were running again with light loads Tuesday morning – only to shut down after five hours, because of safety concerns.
State Department of Transportation ferry officials blame stiff northeast winds, tides running lower than normal, and heavy shoaling that has shoved sand into the ferry channel since August, when Irene scoured the Pamlico Sound.
“It’s very unsafe,” said Lucy Wallace, a DOT spokeswoman. “The winds keep pushing our boats into the shoals. The channel is so narrow and so short that we cannot maneuver. We cannot get across there when the tide is low.”
The ferries were running fine Tuesday morning, but had to be shut down about 12:45 p.m.,” Wallace said. “We were churning up some mud,” she said.
Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran short of money for dredging the inlet this year, it took an emergency appropriation from Congress to clear the channel in March and keep the ferries running.
Local officials are hoping for the arrival late this week of a Corps sidecast dredge that is expected to start working Saturday in Hatteras Inlet. It could take about two weeks to dredge the channel, a Corps official said.
“It’s going to be an off-and-on situation until the Corps can get in there and get it dredged properly,” Wallace said.
Ocracoke Island residents depend on the ferry for mail service. They take the ferry to Hatteras Island to buy groceries, play baseball and visit the doctor. Ocracokers worry that a prolonged interruption will cut off the tourist traffic that sustains their economy.
“When the ferry stops, there’s no business, there’s no sales tax, there’s no employment,” said Darlene Styron, a Hyde County commissioner who runs an Ocracoke snack shop. “We’re just hoping and praying they can get the dredge in here.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/