Tourism officials question move to reopen Hatteras

By on September 15, 2011

Crews are scrambling to fix N.C. 12. (NCDOT)

With the ferry system booked beyond capacity, tourism officials urged Dare County Thursday to reconsider the decision to open lower Hatteras Island to tourists.

Late Friday, the county placed what it called “a mandatory prohibition on visitors without ferry reservations.” While re-enforcing an early policy, it did not substantially change the re-entry decision.

But the latest bulletin seemed to put additional emphasis on access being limited by ferry capacity, which could play into whether travel insurance claims will be honored.

N.C. 12 is still impassable north of Rodanthe, so the only way for visitors to get to the island’s southern communities is by making a reservation on a ferry from the mainland, driving through Ocracoke and taking the free ferry to Hatteras Village.

Scot Leggat, a Hatteras Island real estate executive, asked the Dare County Tourism Board to pass a resolution seeking another look at the call to reopen Hatteras Village, Frisco, Buxton and Avon. Re-entry for tourists started Thursday morning.

Leggat, a member of the tourism board who was participating in Thursday’s meeting by phone, said that 75 to 80 percent of the visitors who have already paid for rental houses cannot get there.

“Getting off of here is going to be close to impossible,” he said.

The resolution was passed unanimously and sent to Dare County officials.

County Manager Bobby Outten said Thursday that he and members of the Board of Commissioners made their decision in the interests of people in Dare County who faced losing their jobs if some business did not return to the island.

He acknowledged that officials were aware of the potential problem with ferry access, but they weighed that against the prospect of layoffs by businesses struggling in the three weeks since Hurricane Irene.

“For the people of Dare County, it was the right decision to make,” he said.

Layoffs now would lead to unemployment benefits running out by February, the middle of the winter, he said. In normal times, many start receiving unemployment later in the year when businesses cut back or shut down for the season, so their benefits last until the next season starts.

As for the tourism board’s request, he said, “I don’t see how we can possibly rescind this now.”

Complicating any decision is that some travel insurance no longer is valid if a mandatory evacuation order is lifted. So in many cases, vacationers who have already paid for their rentals cannot get to them and may not be reimbursed.

Paid ferries run to Ocracoke from Swan Quarter and Cedar Island. (N.C. Ferry Division)

One insurance company on Hatteras Island will still honor claims because it includes lack of highway access in its coverage. The county is trying to persuade a second company to honor claims on the basis of access being limited by mandatory ferry reservations, Outten said.

Leggat said that ferries are booked through next Tuesday. Saturday reservations, when most rentals turn over, are also booked solid.

The emergency ferry from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe is reserved for residents, property owners, essential personnel and vendors. Opening that ferry route to tourists would likely mean losing FEMA funding to keep it running.

Outten explained the decision in an interview with the Island Free Press Monday, but aside from Leggat, members of the tourism board seemed surprised by its complications. Only when board member Bob Woodard made a cell phone call did they learn who was behind the decision.

Woodard said it was made by Warren Judge, the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Mike Johnson, who also leads the Dare County Control Group, and Hatteras Island Commissioner Allen Burrus.

The control group is made up of county and town officials who make decisions on evacuations and other emergency procedures for hurricanes.

Gary Perry, Kitty Hawk’s mayor pro tem, said he stepped in for Mayor Clifton Perry during Hurricane Irene as a member of the control group. He and Manteo Mayor Jamie Daniels, another member of the control group, said there was no discussion about when to reopen Hatteras Island to tourists.

The decision has also created a backlash on Ocracoke Island because Hatteras vacationers are now competing for limited ferry reservations.

Real estate management companies are concerned that the decision will have a long-term negative effect on the Outer Banks. Complaints are circulating widely on social media such as Facebook.

Leggat said that management companies were nearly unanimous in opposing the decision.

Most Hatteras vacationers usually get there by driving over the Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet and taking N.C. 12 south. But sound surge from Hurricane Irene cut two large inlets and several smaller ones north of Rodanthe, leaving all of the villages without land access.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is making $10 million in emergency repairs that include building a temporary bridge over the largest inlet, which is in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and filling the rest with sand.

Transportation officials say the road could be re-opened sometime in October. No decision on permanent repairs has been made.

Extra ferry is added for weekend. Click here for more »
See the Tourism Board’s resolution »

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