Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 2019: From devastating storms to record visitation

Ocean flooding at Mirlo Beach during November 2019 nor'easter. [NCDOT photo]

Despite a 35-day government shutdown, Hurricane Dorian, Tropical Storm Melissa and an unnamed but intense November nor’easter, Cape Hatteras National Seashore visitation set a 16-year high in 2019.

It was, no doubt, a challenging end-of-the-decade for the National Park Service’s Outer Banks Group, which includes Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Hurricane Dorian’s Sept. 6 landfall on the Outer Banks devastated Ocracoke and Hatteras islands with record-breaking storm surge, followed by a tropical storm and nor’easter hampering recover efforts.

Continued storm recovery and adapting to a dynamic coast are top priorities for the Outer Banks Group in the coming year, Superintendent David Hallac said during a year-in-review meeting with journalists this week.

“The coast is changing and we’re running out of options when it comes to business as usual,” he said.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac, left, shows U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy the damage Hurricane Dorian wrought to N.C. 12 at the north end of Ocracoke. [photo courtesy NPS]

After Dorian wiped out homes, including staff housing, and sections of road on Ocracoke, Billy Mitchell Airport on Hatteras Island became an emergency management center, with 75 relief workers staying on site alongside fuel trucks, generators and other disaster supplies.

Today, much of Hatteras Island is back to normal, and Hallac said he hopes to have the visitor center on Ocracoke Island ready to reopen by May 1 ahead of another busy visitor season.

The Outer Banks Group employs about 80 staff and 100 seasonal workers, with help from volunteers who clocked about 20,000 hours last year. The group’s budget is $15.4 million, which includes about $9.7 million in federal funds, an increase of about $150,000 from 2019.

Last year’s storms, and the government shutdown from Dec. 22, 2018 and Jan. 25, 2019, didn’t put a damper on those wanting to visit – it was the seashore’s busiest season since 2003.

David Hallac, superintendent of the National Park Service Outer Banks Group, talks about visitation at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 2019. [Kari Pugh photo]

Some of the year’s biggest events included the 50th anniversary celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial of the first moon landing and the 25th anniversary celebration of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse move, which probably helped boost visitation numbers, Hallac said.

Other notable highlights of 2019:

  • Oregon Inlet Marina gained new management, with the former concessions contract now a lease through the National Park Service. The new lessee is conducting much-needed repairs to a bulkhead and plans to move the administrative building from its current site, prone to flooding, to a safer spot, as well as elevate the building.
  • The N.C. 12 pavement preservation project continues. The $6.9 million rehabilitation of the only main road between the seashore and the rest of the Outer Banks is now complete from south Nags Head to the Basnight Bridge.
  • Water and electric were added to the Oregon Inlet Campground, which also stayed open this winter for the first time.
  • A lifeguard stand was added to the Frisco beach access, so now all the major beach access points on the seashore are protected by lifeguards in season.
  • It was a record year for sea turtle nests on the seashore, with 473 nests recorded during the season. And even more good news, very few were lost during Hurricane Dorian.

So what’s coming for the Outer Banks Group in 2020? Hallac says continued Dorian recovery, revitalization of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and improvements to the Wright Brothers National Memorial will be at the top of the list. The NPS will also begin to look at housing improvements for seasonal seashore staff, who are now living in “double-wide trailers on cinder blocks put up in the ’60s,” Hallac said.

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About Kari Pugh 468 Articles
Kari Pugh is digital director for OBXToday.com, Beach 104, 99.1 The Sound, 94.5 WCMS and Classic Rock 92.3. Reach her at [email protected]