Ocracoke Observer: Hyde commissioners meeting again to discuss reopening to visitors

N.C. 12 north of the pony pens on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. [Photo courtesy Tom Pahl]
By Connie Leinbach, OcracokeObserver.com

Hyde County commissioners decided on Monday to postpone a decision to reopen Ocracoke Island until another meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The special meeting was recessed while Hyde County Manager Kris Noble and Ocracoke’s commissioner Tom Pahl get more information about the state of damage to N.C. 12 at the north end from the weekend nor’easter and if the N.C. Ferry Division can add more ferries.

Early in the meeting, Noble said the highway will not open as planned on Nov. 22 and that NCDOT’s Highway Division has not forecast a new date for the repair completion.

Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6 breached N.C. 12 on Ocracoke north of the pony pens in two locations, closing it down. Road crews have been working on getting the road completed with a target date of Nov. 22, which also is the tentative reopening of the island to visitors.

When Pahl inspected the damaged road Sunday afternoon around low tide, he noted two more sections of the dunes were knocked down spilling water and sand onto the road.

Noble said Monday’s assessment showed that the area is still experiencing overwash, that 80 percent of the sand that had been placed there during the repair has washed away but the sandbag contractor got back to work on it Monday.

“We have no idea what the pavement looks like under there,” she said, and won’t until DOT excavates the sand on the road.

Moreover, N.C. 12 on Hatteras between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe also is dealing with overwash following the weekend storm. A Tuesday press release said “no additional structural damage” was found at the Ocracoke repair area.

Pahl and Noble said they would work today and Wednesday to get more information before Wednesday’s reconvening. The meeting will be held in the Government Services Center in Swan Quarter and in the Ocracoke Community center via teleconferencing.

In a lengthy discussion Monday night, Commissioner James Topping said it’s not about Highway 12 but about the state of the village.

“The island itself is still in shambles,” he said. “There’s a lot of trash along the road. The island is simply not ready to accept visitors.”

Ninety percent of the calls he’s getting are from islanders who say the island is not ready.

“I’ve gotten just the opposite,” said Benjamin Simmons III. “I don’t know what’s going to be accomplished by not opening.”

He and Commissioner Shannon Swindell and said they didn’t like government dictating when the island could reopen, that businesses should be allowed to make money and that the island should be opened now.

“I’m well beyond telling people to wait,” Swindell said.

Emergency Services is concerned about emergency medical transportation without Highway 12 access, although ambulances can use the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries. EMS does call in helicopter medevacs in dire medical emergencies.

Hyde County EMS Director Justin Gibbs noted that a second EMS crew is on the island because of the still-declared emergency. They are scheduled until Nov. 22.

The larger issue that the commissioners discussed was the continual damage of NC 12 from storms and that Ocracoke has to start thinking differently about Highway 12.

After Hurricane Florence in September 2018, the same narrow section of the highway was over washed. Sections of the asphalt were damaged.

The dune repair held through last winter and this year up until Hurricane Dorian struck Sept. 6.

“There’s nothing to say that two weeks after they complete that work, we aren’t gonna have another nor’easter and knock that right back down,” Pahl said.

He noted that there’s a limited amount of sand in the dredge spoil mound at the north end that is being used for this project.

Before the weekend storm, Pahl considered Highway 12 as a reliable means but now he doesn’t.

“A reliable 12 is not what we have anymore,” he said. “Considering how much damage the repair work sustained from just a weekend nor’easter, I think we have to start thinking differently about highway 12, and the reliability of that going forward.”

Commissioner Chair Earl Pugh Jr asked Noble and Pahl to talk to the Ferry Division about adding more ferries to make up for the inaccessibility of NC 12.

Pahl said the Ocracoke Control Group would also convene before Wednesday to discuss the situation.

In the public comment section, Sundae Horn asked that the Control Group announce when they’re having meetings and issue statements after them, even if that statement simply says that no new decisions have been made.

She also noted that as a resident who evacuated, she was not allowed back on the island until Monday, Sept. 9.

“I spent all of Saturday and Sunday trying to figure out why I wasn’t allowed to return to the island, and I wasn’t given any clear answers,” she said. “And so part of my frustration with the control group not being very transparent was that I was never given a good reason for why the wait was so long for us to not be allowed to come back until Monday.”

That’s the reason why many don’t evacuate, she said.

“And I think that not letting people back on the island is just driven home that they won’t evacuate next time,” she said. “And it was a punishment for the people who did what the county told them to do.”

Darlene Styron noted that we’re already having issues with getting workers and supplies here and asked that the DOT to increase the number of ferry runs should the commissioners reopen the island soon.

Gibbs said that he will talk to the Coast Guard and Dare County about collaborating with transporting potential medical emergencies.

Ivey Belch, chair of the Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team, noted the problems that workers have coming to the island. visitors will have also

“If you can’t get people over here for one day to work, how are you going to address visitors coming over here?” he asked

Simmons responded that he thinks the free market system should not be hampered.

Greg Brown, a contractor who’s been on the island since the storm, said when the ferry tolls resume, he and other contractors might not be able to make as many trips due to not being able to get reservations plus the added cost, or they will transfer the added cost to their customers.

He’s also concerned that the homes contractors have been paying to stay in wouldn’t be available once visitors are allowed back.

Robin Macek, owner of Oscar’s House B&B, told how difficult it’s been for her to get supplies to rebuild. She also suggested finding out how people on the island feel about reopening.

B.J. Oelschlegel asked if the county tells visitors to “go at their own risk,” can that legally release the county from its responsibility.