It’s hard to live on Ocracoke, islanders say, but it’s even harder to leave it.
”It’s home,’ Monroe Gaskill said on Friday, a week after Hurricane Dorian sent up to seven feet of water from the Pamlico Sound rushing onto the island, flooding more than half the homes and businesses. “I don’t know nothing else and I don’t want to be nowhere else.”
Gaskill didn’t evacuate for the storm; most residents didn’t, figuring they already had lived through Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the only storm in their lifetimes so far to rival the unnamed Hurricane of 1944. High-water marks indicating the depth of the flooding from those storms still are scratched into the clapboards of some local buildings.
Unexpectedly, Dorian surpassed those marks, leaving outsiders to wonder why 1,000 people would want to live year-round in a place that has one grocery store, is physically cut off from the North Carolina mainland except by boat, and sits in the path of nearly every hurricane that rolls up the East Coast.
Hurricane Dorian itself shows why, residents said Friday, after local officials lifted their ban on news crews visiting the island.
”We have a long history of pulling together as a community,” said Tom Pahl, who lives on Ocracoke and represents it on the Hyde County Board of Commissioners. “You have to work hard to get here, and you have to work doubly hard to stay here.”
Those resilient, self-reliant, stubborn few who do share a bond, Pahl said, whether they’re descended from settlers who came in the 1700s and 1800s, or visited here in the past two decades, loved it, moved here and opened a bike rental outfit or gift shop selling mermaid art to summer tourists.
The island’s isolation is both its charm and its vulnerability.
Declining to evacuate
Officials ordered all visitors to evacuate ahead of the storm, and advised permanent residents to leave too, though they knew most would likely remain for a storm that was predicted to be a Category 1 or 2 by the time it arrived. About 800 did stay, and for a couple of days found themselves with no electricity, no landline phones and water that had to be boiled to make it safe to drink.
Videos and photos shared on social media on the morning of Sept. 6 show inundated streets, houses with enough water inside to float kitchen appliances and cars in up past their wheel wells. The water came not from the ocean but from the sound, after the eye of the storm passed and the wind started coming from the west/southwest. The same storm surge swamped parts of Hatteras Island, to the north, and Cedar Island, to the south. On Ocracoke, it came up a little after 7 a.m., residents say, and dropped by mid-afternoon. Island officials say there were some minor medical issues but no major injuries, though some people had had to swim out of their houses.
The next day, when it was safe for ferries to travel, the island’s population began to swell again as emergency medical workers, cell phone technicians, power company linemen, fuel suppliers, members of the N.C. National Guard and others poured in. They were quickly followed by volunteers from the N.C. Baptists on Mission, Samaritan’s Purse and other faith-based relief groups, who began the work of hauling furniture, family photos and ruined rugs into the sunshine or toward the edges of narrow, sandy streets.
As they drove into the village, they were greeted by spray-painted signs that read, “OcracokeStrong,” as much a motto as a source of encouragement.
”We’ve got a mess,” said David Esham, who was able to hire a crew to start stripping down the first-floor rooms of the Pony Island Motel. “It’s bad. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a long recovery.”
The low-lying island is covered with mountains of debris. Refrigerators and stoves lie on their backs. Patio chairs and ruined beach umbrellas sit curbside along with chests of drawers and rusted bikes. Mattresses and box springs bobble on top of thousands of board-feet of splintered plywood.
The island is littered with 300 to 400 cars that were caught in the floodwater, despite islanders’ efforts to protect them by parking on the high spots. They’ll have to be hauled away along with other refuse.
”I feel like everywhere we look, it just gets worse,” Esham said.
A hit to tourism
Esham’s parents bought the Pony Island, named for the wild ponies that roam the undeveloped land outside the village and under the control of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in 1973. Esham took it over in 1999 and has seen tourism business on the island steadily increase, with more than a quarter of a million visitors coming to Ocracoke in the fiscal year that ended in June, according to a report by the U.S. Travel Association.
The hotel’s two buildings have 50 rooms, 36 of which will have to be rebuilt after 6 inches of water seeped inside.
Just as some buildings on the island escaped damage, some items within the flooded rooms were spared; there was black mud on the floor but white towels sat perfectly folded and unsoiled on a shelf. Other items appeared salvageable: Gideon Bibles, flowered bedspreads, paintings of seashells and lighthouses.
Esham said most motels on the island had sustained some damage, and are expected to be closed for weeks or months. That will all but eliminate the rest of this year’s tourist season and the paychecks that residents would have used to get them to next March or April when visitors start their pilgrimages back to the island.
As they surveyed the damage and began to clean up, residents whose homes didn’t flood reached out to their neighbors to offer a place to stay until their houses can be made livable again.
Edith Trejo and her family weren’t sure where they would stay after discovering their rental house had taken in a foot and a half of water, destroying most of the contents, including all of youngest child Allison’s toys.
Edith and her husband, Orlando, have lived on the island for years. Both work for Sorella’s Pizza & Pasta on the island, and Edith cleans houses on the side.
”I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Edith said, until their boss called and offered them a rental house he has on the island for free.
”You don’t have to worry,” he told the couple. “We got your back.”
The Trejos moved in on Friday, bringing little more than the items they took when they evacuated the island before the storm.
‘A storage problem’
Supplies have poured onto Ocracoke with such speed and plenty that island officials have asked donors to hold off sending material goods until needs can be assessed. Instead, they said, cash donations sent to the Outer Banks Community Foundation’s disaster fund can be used to satisfy a range of needs.
”It creates a storage problem,” said Darlene Styron, standing inside the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, whose fire trucks have been parked across the street so the three-bay garage can serve as a resource center for islanders. It’s filled with canned beans and soup, stacks of diapers, bottles of bleach and boxes of Band-Aids.
Styron joked that she had been “voluntold” to organize the army of volunteers swarming onto the island, forming them into teams and sending them where they could do the most good. With the hotels and campgrounds closed, workers either have to leave the island on an outgoing ferry each evening, or be part of a group such as the Baptists on Mission who have set up housing in a local church. Some companies who have sent crews to Ocracoke provided them with big travel trailers that are parked around the island.
The storm also damaged island infrastructure. As of Friday, power on the island was being provided by large generators as crews worked to make repairs to the electrical grid that brings power down from Hatteras Island. The water was safe to drink again, and septic systems appeared to be working normally.
But north of the village, N.C. Highway 12 will be closed until state Department of Transportation crews can rebuild several hundred yards of the asphalt roadway that fell to pieces in the storm.
Island residents have said they hope the Federal Emergency Management Agency moves fast with financial help. President Donald Trump approved the state’s request for pre-storm help, but has not yet acted on Gov. Roy Cooper’s request for a federal disaster declaration that would activate additional FEMA aid.
Until N.C. 12 is repaired, ferries traveling from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke are being rerouted from the ferry landing at the north end of Ocracoke to the one in the village, turning the hour-long ride into one that takes more than two hours. Once they arrive, visitors will find the ferry terminal building closed and porta-potties parked outside until damage to the structure can be repaired.
Starting Saturday, those coming to the island via the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries could go back to using the reservation system. The ferry from Hatteras will continue allowing people to board based on a priority system that favors emergency workers and other necessary personnel.
State and local officials have been checking the credentials of professional work crews asking to travel to Ocracoke, they said, to prevent scammers from getting a foothold.
They’ll rebuild, no question
Bob and Ruth Toth, who have lived on Ocracoke for 40 years, consider themselves lucky, and not just because they live near the tip of an island in a house where they can sit in the sea breeze on their screened porch and watch the ferries come and go.
Ruth left the island to stay with her mother on the mainland, and Bob stayed at Ocracoke for the storm. He said he saw the wall of water coming, first in waves about three feet high, then five and six feet high.
”It just kept coming and coming,” he said.
It beat down the breakaway walls of the shed area under his house, but being perched high on stilts kept the house from getting wet. His air conditioning units will have to be replaced, along with some tools and some of the home’s underpinning.
But even if it had been much worse, the couple said, they would find a way to rebuild, no question. They’ll work on their own house and like other islanders, will help their neighbors without being asked.
People off the island often wonder why Ocracokers would cling so hard to a place where outsiders see them as being cut off, isolated, trapped.
”The only time we feel trapped,” Ruth Toth said, “is when we’re off the island, on the mainland, and we can’t get back.”