Workers who accidentally chopped into a power transmission line at the base of Bonner Bridge early Thursday also cut short the vacations of thousands of travelers on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands and into the income of business owners who depend on tourist spending.
“We just got to the island yesterday,” said Ryan McGenney, who arrived at Ocracoke from Maryland on Thursday afternoon with his wife and their dog. The couple had planned to stay two nights at a bed and breakfast, and on Saturday, welcome 19 of their extended family members who were joining them for a week. The McGenneys had rented one house and their relatives had rented two more.
They noticed everything on the island was dark when they arrived, except for businesses that had emergency generators, but rumors at the time suggested Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative was working on repairs.
Then came word, around 5 p.m. Thursday, that the power might not be restored for days or weeks, and Hyde County officials ordered everybody off Ocracoke except emergency workers, residents and property owners by lunchtime Friday. Ferries took residents off the island on three routes, to Hatteras Island, Cedar Island and Swan Quarter, until late Thursday. They resumed early Friday.
“We haven’t had any problems,” said Colby Sawyer of Hyde County’s emergency services office. “Some people are upset. But if I were planning to spend my weekend in Hyde County paradise, I would be, too.”
A handful of restaurants remained open Thursday night and at least one opened Friday morning to serve breakfast using portable generators for power.
The McGenneys, who have vacationed on the island for 30 years, grilled their supper on the beach Thursday night, and waited until the last minute to leave on Friday. The waiting paid off when other family members finally found a substitute vacation home big enough to accommodate everyone.
“We’re headed to Corolla,” McGenney said, pulling out of the parking lot at the Ocracoke-to-Hatteras ferry.
The lights went out on the Outer Banks destinations when crews from PCL Construction, the contractor for the Bonner Bridge project, reportedly drove a steel casing into the underground transmission cable that runs from the south end of the bridge to the first riser pole on Hatteras Island about 4:30 a.m. Thursday.
Crews worked through the night to provide intermittent power using the diesel generating plant in Buxton, along with portable generators in Avon and Waves, Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative officials said Friday.
The Brunswick and Roanoke electric cooperatives were expected to arrive to Hatteras Island on Friday to help run nine portable generators around the clock.
The first of three generators arrived on Ocracoke island Thursday night, and a small area of the island near Ocracoke lighthouse received power by 3:30 a.m. Friday, according to Tideland Electric. Two larger generators arriving by ferry from Swan Quarter were expected to be in use by Friday night.
Officials were reminding people that the generators can only handle the load if power is used conservatively, especially as the temperature rises.
Until there are enough generators in place, there will be rolling blackouts, which means there will be intermittent power, with different areas getting power at different times.
The time frame that local electric cooperatives gave for the repair remains several days to weeks.
The blackout prompted Gov. Roy Cooper to declare a state of emergency for both islands, allowing certain restrictions to be waived to speed up the repair process.
No insurance, no luck
Travelers affected by the mandatory evacuation, which applied only to Ocracoke, may be entitled to a refund of some of their reservation money if they purchased trip insurance. Local officials said the island was at near capacity, with about 10,000 visitors staying in campgrounds, bed-and-breakfast inns, motels or rented homes. On its website, Ocracoke Island Realty warns customers: “According to N.C. law, if trip insurance is offered and you decline it, you waive your right to a refund in the event of an evacuation or unforeseen emergency.”
Those who had made plans for southern Hatteras Island, in Dare County, where there was no mandatory evacuation order, could stand to lose money.
Kayne Lermitt, vacationing with family in an eight-bedroom rental house near the Rodanthe Pier, said his crowd of 23 people – including 11 cousins under the age of 9 – would likely head home to Pennsylvania a day early. Lermitt guessed that it was at least 85 degrees in the house, which made it uncomfortable for some to sleep. But during the day, the family was enjoying being on the beach and in the ocean.
“We can’t use the pool,” he said. “Because when the power went out, the filtration system stopped working.”
The outage will be hardest on local business owners, many of whom are still recovering from losses from last year’s Hurricane Matthew, which flooded buildings with water from Pamlico Sound.
Vicki and Robert Harrison and their children, Alana and Graham, have owned Harbor House Seafood in Hatteras for a decade. They got four inches of water in the shop from Hurricane Matthew, which ruined their generator. They cleaned up the shop and bought another generator, which was humming Friday afternoon to keep their freezers running.
Normally, Vicki Harrison said, the store sells between 250 and 350 pounds of fresh-caught shrimp every day from local fishermen who count on her to buy their catch. Friday, the shrimp were iced down and displayed like jewels in a fogged-up case, but the customers weren’t coming. Business was down 75 percent, Robert Harrison said.
The family has lived on the island through many hurricanes, but those are accompanied by flooding and destruction. Even then, the power usually is restored within a couple of days.
“This is like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” Alana Harrison said. “The power is out, but the road is open and you can get to everything. But a lot of stuff is closed. It’s just weird.”
Note: This article has been changed to correct the destination of one of the ferries. The ferry goes to Cedar Island not Cedar Point.