Commissioners stand by decision to open Hatteras

By on September 19, 2011

The Stumpy Point emergency ferry. (N.C. Ferry Division)

Stores were stocked, an extra EMS crew was on duty, trash pickup was running and the water system was at full capacity when Dare County officials decided to reopen lower Hatteras Island to tourists last week, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners said Monday.

With access only by ferry, an evacuation, though unlikely, could still be handled, Chairman Warren Judge said, and the county’s medevac helicopter was backed up by Sentara’s Nightingale and East Care’s air ambulance.

At the same time, Judge said, hundreds of people were out of work from business lost since Hurricane Irene at the end of August.

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Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras Village, he said, had suffered significantly less damage than the northern villages.

“The conclusion that came from all this was that the lower villages would be capable of sustaining visitors and sustaining them safely,” Judge said.

At the end of their regular meeting Monday, Judge and other commissioners addressed criticism that none of the island should have been reopened. Many said it was not ready and that visitors had paid for cottages they could not reach because ferries were fully booked.

With N.C. 12 closed, ferries are the only way in.

Last week, the Dare County Tourism Board and The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce passed resolutions urging the county to reconsider its decision.

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“You all have seen something unprecedented in this county when some of our organizations have publicly come out and have criticized us for opening part of Hatteras Island back up,” Judge said.

“But we felt that this was an important step to make in the recovery.”

If workers applied for unemployment now, their benefits would run out in the middle of winter when there is no work, Judge said.

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“We were just looking at hundreds of people that would be suffering greatly,” Judge said.

Commissioner Mike Johnson said the resolutions and complaints from real state companies were driving the relentless criticism on social media and splitting a community that had come together after the storm.

“It’s a big decision, and your social and economic decision might not be like mine,” he said. “We make a decision based on the good of the whole.”

The tourism authority’s resolution was initiated Thursday by Scott Leggat, a member of the tourism board and a Hatteras Island real estate executive. Re-entry for visitors to lower Hatteras started Thursday morning.

Some travel insurance will not honor claims if a mandatory evacuation order is lifted by reopening an area or if a reservation is 30 days past the mandatory evacuation. Without insurance payouts, property management companies and property owners face losses from refunds and credits or a backlash from customers if they keep money already paid to them, as the law entitles them to do.

Criticism was also directed at how the decision was made. But Judge and County Manager Bobby Outten said it did not stray from standard procedures.

Johnson is the chairman of the Dare County Control Group, which is also made up of leaders of the six towns, the National Park Service and the Sheriff’s Office.

Outten said the Control Group makes the calls on decisions that affect all members, such as a county-wide evacuation. The group also decided when to reopen the northern Outer Banks.

Towns still make their own decisions regarding curfews and other emergency measures. Duck, for example, decided that it would not reopen when the other towns did, Outten said.

“The control group cannot make anybody do anything,” Outten said.

County officials have made decisions independent of the Control Group on phased re-entry to Hatteras Island, Outten said, because it does not affect any of the towns.

Johnson is the board’s designee on emergency management matters and consults with Emergency Management Director Sandy Sanderson, the county manager, EMS, law enforcement and others, Outten said.

“No decision is done in a vacuum,” Outten said. “and no decision is made by one person, although ultimately he’s the one that has to sign off on it because that’s the way the system is done.”

N.C. 12 is still impassable north of Rodanthe. 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.

Residents, non-resident property owners, emergency workers, insurance adjusters and vendors can use an emergency ferry route between Stumpy Point and Rodanthe.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has filled an inlet at Mirlo Beach and several smaller breaches. A temporary bridge is being built over a larger inlet farther north in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Judge ended Monday’s discussion on a hopeful note.

“We are truly one county,” he said.

Previously: Tourism officials question move to reopen Hatteras »

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