Ferry service is expected to resume Friday across sand-choked Hatteras Inlet – using a detour route that will send ferry boats looping miles out into Pamlico Sound.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge is slowly digging sand out of the ferry channel, a job that won’t be finished before mid-March. Shoals have kept the main channel closed since Jan. 18.
“This is the longest period our ferry system has been shut down, ever, between Ocracoke and Hatteras,” said Harold B. Thomas, ferry division director for the state Department of Transportation. The inlet ferry route is part of N.C. 12, which has linked Ocracoke and the Dare County Outer Banks since the 1950s.
Ocracoke Island’s 1,000 year-round residents rely on the four-mile, 40-minute ferry for daily trips to Hatteras Island, Nags Head and the mainland.
This week, a Coast Guard vessel placed navigation buoys to mark a circuitous 10-mile path across the water. The alternate route will take about 70 minutes.
After a final series of trial runs Thursday evening, Thomas expects to announce that Hatteras Inlet ferry service will resume Friday morning on a schedule from 5 a.m. to midnight. After a first-day timetable with 14 round trips between the two islands, the schedule will be expanded to 18 daily round trips.
Ocracokers have had to improvise while the ferry was out of commission. The courier service that serves the Ocracoke Health Center relies on the ferry, said the center’s director, Cheryl Ballance.
“We’ve had some obstacles sending our lab test specimens off the island, because they are very time-sensitive, and then receiving prescriptions for patients,” Ballance said.
When the ferry is up and running, the courier brings an average 20 packages of prescription medicine to Ocracoke each day, and delivers 10 to 30 lab specimens for another courier who picks them up in Hatteras.
A Coast Guard boat crew began substituting for the courier in January. Ocracoke health workers and a Hatteras pharmacist meet the boat at each end of the trip.
“I can’t say enough about the Coast Guard,” Ballance said. “They even ferried the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from Hatteras and Ocracoke back and forth, so they can play each other.
“If nothing, we are flexible down here,” she said.
DOT officials have said that Hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012 shared much of the blame for clogging the ferry channel with sand. At the same time, dredging schedules were cut back as the Corps of Engineers coped with reduced funding to meet its responsibility for keeping the navigation channel open.
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