December 6, 2013

Once again, Hatteras and Ocracoke islanders cope without their highway

NCDOT officials say it could be weeks before Bonner Bridge is repaired and traffic is restored on the Outer Banks highway, N.C. 12, which links Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to the mainland. Residents adjust their lives to the emergency ferry schedule and say they’re glad this didn’t happen during tourist season.

The fish are biting on Hatteras Island beaches, but the surfcasters are staying home.

Island residents are canceling doctor’s appointments in Nags Head and holiday shopping trips to the mainland. They’re adjusting their lives around a new emergency ferry schedule while the state Department of Transportation plans repairs for the severed highway link that connects Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to the rest of the world.

Outer Banks officials and business people said this week that it will be hard to live without Bonner Bridge, which was closed indefinitely Tuesday after rapid erosion undermined bridge supports and aroused safety concerns.

But they know it could be worse, because they’ve seen a lot worse.

“Of course we always hate to lose that link, especially right here at Christmas when all the women want to go shopping up the beach,” John Fletcher of Ocracoke, a Hyde County commissioner, said Thursday. “But it’s better than happening in June or July, because that would be disastrous for tourism.”

It’s the third year in a row that DOT has cranked up the emergency ferry to Rodanthe on Hatteras Island from Stumpy Point on the Dare County mainland after closing N.C. 12, the Outer Banks highway. Usually when this happens, bad weather is involved.

Hurricanes Irene and Sandy flooded the highway in 2011 and 2012, trashing beach houses and curtailing the mid-autumn tourist season. This time the highway is closed without storm damage, and without crowds of tourists trying to get back onto the island.

“We can manage with what we have right now,” said Beth Midgett of Hatteras, who rents beach houses to vacationers through her family’s Midgett Realty Co. “It’s definitely a relief that if it had to come, it came at the time of year that it did.”

A dredge that was already at work in Oregon Inlet this month, conveniently close to the eroded section of Bonner Bridge, was repurposed Thursday with new orders to dump sand around the undermined bridge supports. More substantial repair work was expected to get underway in the next two weeks.

Most of the Outer Banks tourism businesses have already turned off their lights or at least cut back their hours for the season. But there’s usually a spurt of activity around Christmas and New Year’s, when beach house owners come down to the coast and other tourists trickle in for the holidays. DOT officials said it was too early to guess how long the repairs would take, but some islanders are not expecting to see the bridge reopen before 2014.

“That will be a big hit for the restaurants and hotels,” Midgett said. “It’s the one thing you count on during the winter.”

Cut off from hospitals

Natalie Kavanaugh of Frisco is taking time off work at her family’s grocery and sporting goods store, Frisco Rod and Gun, to stay home with her 5-year-old son and his newborn twin brothers.

“Usually there are a few cars in the store parking lot, but it’s just dead here today,” Kavanaugh said. “The weather’s fine, though. And they’re catching puppy drum on the beach, and a few speckled trout. Usually with a mention of that on the Internet, you’ll have people coming down from Raleigh and Norfolk to fish. But they’re not coming.”

During her pregnancy, Kavanaugh was driving north across Bonner Bridge twice a week to see her doctor in Nags Head, and sometimes farther north for a specialist in Norfolk, Va. Her last visit to Norfolk came eight weeks ago, shortly after startling news of a big piece of concrete that fell off the 50-year-old Bonner Bridge.

Her doctors were reluctant to send her back home. They checked her into the hospital for a few days, and she gave birth in Norfolk.

“Right before I went into labor, that big chunk of concrete fell off the bridge,” Kavanaugh said. “That was what scared them.”

Now DOT is running 12 daily ferries to the mainland. It’s a 2.5-hour ride across Pamlico Sound – sometimes after a wait in line of a few hours – and another 30-minute drive if your destination is the Outer Banks Hospital at Nags Head.

That wasn’t a great option at 3 a.m. Thursday, when a pregnant woman in Hatteras began having contractions. Dare County EMS workers, who have plenty of practice with this, summoned the Coast Guard for help.

A dense fog kept helicopters grounded, so the 23-year-old woman was driven by ambulance to a boat dock on Pamlico Sound near the southern end of Bonner Bridge. A Coast Guard boat carried her across Oregon Inlet to the Coast Guard station on the northern shore, and another Dare County ambulance finished the journey to the hospital.

It was the Coast Guard’s second medical evacuation that night. An unconscious 28-year-old woman made the same ambulance-boat-ambulance trip from Hatteras to the hospital.

John Watts, Dare County’s public safety director, said EMS workers and other first responders began making plans last week, when DOT officials said they would need to make emergency repairs on Bonner Bridge. Work schedules were adjusted so a few more EMS employees would be on duty on Hatteras Island.

Watts was preparing to move the last few people into place Tuesday afternoon when DOT abruptly closed the bridge, with little advance notice. He was one of many Dare County residents caught off guard.

“But that’s the way things work,” Watts said. “We’re used to surprises in this line of work.”

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