Ocracoke and southern Hatteras islands began to awaken from a fitful summer nap on Friday as evacuation orders were lifted and the first visitors were allowed in after a forced weeklong hiatus.
Workers at businesses across the area affected by a major power outage were glad to see the first few customers trickle back in once entryways were reopened at noon. They hope the weekend will bring tens of thousands more.
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“I’m tired of this idleness,” said Fern Farrow, standing behind the cash register at Sonny’s Restaurant in Hatteras Village. “We’ve had our break. We’re rested. We’re ready to get back to work.”
Thousands of people who work in seasonal businesses that rely heavily on the summer tourist season are lamenting the loss of a week’s wages to a construction accident that cut into the main transmission lines supplying power to Ocracoke and the lower end of Hatteras. Just as a strong summer season has a ripple effect throughout a community, so does a sudden work stoppage.
If gift shop owners, kite salesmen, housekeepers, waiters and dishwashers don’t work, they don’t get paid, and for many, that means they can’t patronize their neighbors’ businesses.
“Some can’t pay their rent,” said Gael Hawkins, one of many volunteers who keep the Village Thrift running on Ocracoke. The nonprofit purveyor of used Hawaiian shirts, old dishes and spare pot lids relies on its weekly receipts of more than $500 to help support projects for the island’s youth, including a new soccer field.
Pastor Wade Weigel said many people are struggling after losing their food because of the outage and then, with no paycheck with which to go shopping, they had to eat up what was in their pantry. It will hurt them later, too, he said, because most would have set aside part of those wages to see them through the months from October to April.
Weigel said he is especially concerned for children on the island. Hatteras has about 600 school-aged children, 53 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunches at school last year.
“What’s lost is lost,” Weigel said. “You can’t get that back. Even though the visitors are coming back onto the island, it’s not like employers can pay people two weeks’ wages for a week of work.”
Dare and Hyde county governments will collect data to determine the cost of the blackout to businesses. After the power went out on July 27, about 60,000 visitors were ordered to leave the two islands by last Saturday, and the 60,000 who would normally have come in that weekend to campgrounds, hotels, condos and beach houses were barred.
Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative had crews on the job around the clock to provide generator power to locals and to run new power lines, but by the time the work was finished and Dare and Hyde counties announced visitors could come back on Friday, some already had made other plans.
“I had a travel agent on the phone when I saw the announcement (that the evacuation order would be lifted),” said Beth Addis, who expected to spend two weeks at Ocracoke with her family. They missed last week because of the power outage, and were about to make reservations at Kiawah or Hilton Head in South Carolina.
“We wanted to come here,” she said after picking up the keys to her rented beach house from Ocracoke Island Realty. “We just love it here. It’s laid back. You can just relax, go to the beach, fish, go kayaking. You can really turn off here.”
Tourists will find an island eager to receive them.
On Friday, some restaurants on both islands were already open, but some were closed while owners were awaiting deliveries of fresh food.
During the blackout, islanders were a little more unplugged than usual, but they made do. People in their 80s now who grew up on Ocracoke recall keeping lanterns and gas stoves handy for power outages. Some recall generators that supplied power to the village but were turned off at a set time each evening.
During this outage, the electric company provided large generators for all the communities affected, but residents were asked at different times to conserve power and especially to limit their use of wattage-hogging air conditioners. In each community, people say, elderly residents and others who have difficulty in the heat were allowed to run their air.
“It’s Ocracoke, so people pull together,” Hawkins said.
One night, more than 200 people – 20 percent of the island’s permanent population – came out for a meal provided by Bill’s Barbecue in Wilson. Another day, dozens of people of all ages gathered to play in an impromptu soccer tournament.
“You gotta find something to do if you’re used to working and you can’t work,” said Brieanna Boos, who works at the Island Ragpicker, a whatnot shop on the island. Boos is trying to save money for her freshman year as a nursing student at Carteret Community College this fall. Friday was her first day of work since the power went out.
She and others remarked on how strange it has been to be on the island in the peak of the season with so few people around. Ocracoke and the small towns on Hatteras are all busier in January and February, when the die-hard fishermen are still around, than they have been the past week.
Terry French has rather enjoyed it. French and his wife, son and grandchildren remained at Hatteras Sands Camping Resort through the blackout. Though they had a couple of mornings with no electricity and had to limit their air conditioning use, “It was like we had this whole island to ourselves.”
French and his wife come regularly to Hatteras from their home in Gate City, Va., and they’ve been there in October when the summer crowds have faded.
This was even better.
“The weather has been perfect and there’s been nobody here,” French said. “We’ve joked that the vacation’s over now that the people are coming back.”
How to help
Pastor Wade Weigel, who runs Lifeline OBX Food Pantry in Salvo, said normally at this time of year his operation is building up stocks of canned and frozen foods so it can help island residents through the winter months, when nearly all the businesses close up and many are out of work.
In addition to making sure people have enough to eat now, the food pantry is collecting money to make sure there no child has an unpaid lunch voucher at school this year. And it is also collecting school supplies.
Visitors coming onto the island can contribute items to the food pantry, next to the Liberty gas station in Salvo. If the pantry and thrift shop are not open, there is a donation box just off the front porch. Checks can be sent to Lifeline Outreach P.O. Box 359,Salvo, NC 27972. The organization is a 501-c non-profit.
Weigel said two other food pantries need help as well. They are the Hatteras Island Food Pantry at Buxton United Methodist Church, Buxton; and the pantry at Ocracoke Island Assembly of God Church.
Lifeline is especially in need of: canned soups, vegetables, fruits and meats; boxed meals, pasta, rice and beans; peanut butter and jelly; flour, sugar and oils; gravy and pasta sauces; instant mashed potatoes; pancake mix and syrup; cereals and muffin mixes; pet foods; paper good; diapers and wipes; toiletries and feminine hygiene items.