Life after the outage: Hatteras Islanders struggle with losses

By on November 6, 2017

John Hooper of Lighthouse View Motel reimbursed customers after they were forced to evacuate.

Story and Photos By Molly Weybright
Mediahub

The power was out when Jane Metacarpa woke up on July 27.

It was early, still dark, and after flicking a light switch on and off a few times, she went to look for flashlights. She had to finish helping her 9-year-old son pack for camp and figured the power wouldn’t be back on for a couple of hours, at least.

After dropping off her son, she went about the rest of her morning as well as she could. Her restaurant, the Sandbar & Grille, would close for lunch because of the outage, but she hoped that by dinner the power would return, and she’d be able to feed the summer tourists who flock to the island.

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The owner of Sandbar & Grille, Metacarpa frequently deals with storm damage because her building is located directly on the Pamlico Sound.

But as the morning progressed, something felt different.

Metacarpa is used to the menacing, heavy feeling in the air as a hurricane approaches. She is used to the reluctant, but inevitable, slowing down of island activity as the season ends. But the feeling she got that morning was unfamiliar. And ominous.

“We are so used to random things happening that you just suck it up and take it for a day off and hope that that’s all that is,” she said. “But it wasn’t.”

It wasn’t even close.

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The underground transmission line that provides the entirety of Hatteras Island with power was cut, leaving almost 4,000 locals and 60,000 visitors without power.

Sandbar & Grille owner Jane Metacarpa often deals with storm damage. Her building is on the Pamlico Sound.

Tourists were ordered to evacuate the island and leave behind long-awaited vacations. As vacationers drove away, business owners could already feel their wallets getting lighter.

Restaurant owners watched their food go bad with no one around to eat it; motel owners looked in on empty rooms; retail store employees stared at merchandise untouched on shelves.

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After one week, the power returned, but Hatteras Islanders knew the real darkness was yet to come. They knew that the week without power was only the beginning. They would soon have to face hurricane season and the slow winter months without crucial revenue from the busiest week of the year.

As Metacarpa watched the events of that week unfold, she thought back to last year, when Hurricane Matthew damaged floors in her restaurant that still need replacing. When Hurricane Alex ripped the roof off her building 13 years ago. When Hurricane Isabel destroyed the old Sandbar building less than a year before that.

The power outage was different in many ways, of course, but not so different that she couldn’t feel the familiar weight of frustration and loss.

On July 27, the day the power went out, PCL Civil Constructors, a Raleigh-based construction company, was working on the $246 million replacement of the Bonner Bridge, the only land access to Hatteras Island.

The replacement began in March of 2016 and is scheduled to open to traffic by the fall of 2018. The new bridge is state of the art and will have a 100-year lifespan.

The main transmission line — made up of three cables — runs under the old bridge, then underground on the south side.  A crew was setting aside a steel sleeve used to position pilings for the new bridge and accidently drove it into the lines.

Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch.

Hatteras Island Commissioner Danny Couch remembers crossing the bridge that morning. As he drove, he saw boats and trucks swarming the bridge like bees to a hive, their orange lights cutting through the sunrise’s reflection on the Atlantic Ocean.

Couch calls the outage “a complete loss of momentum.”

The Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative was able to restore power after one week. But, according to a Dare County official, the preliminary estimate of its economic impact on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is shaping up to be around $10 million.

That number only begins to reflect how detrimental the outage was to local businesses. Some businesspeople estimated that they could lose as much as 10 percent of their annual income.

PCL Construction, which declined to comment for this story, has promised to reimburse local businesses for the money lost. And while many local business owners remain optimistic, there is an apparent undertow of skepticism, as if it is just too good to be true.

Hatteras Island is 50 miles long and skinny, only 3.5 miles at its widest point in the village of Buxton. At almost any point on the barrier island you can see the Atlantic Ocean on one side and turn to see the Pamlico Sound on the other.

This is as dangerous as it is beautiful, the water always threatens to wash away livelihoods. All it takes is a strong wind and tall waves to threaten the loss of roads, buildings and even lighthouses.

Yet despite the threat of storms, locals often never leave. Outer Bankers are different. The Outer Banks wouldn’t exist without the ocean. The ocean gives and the ocean takes away, and the islanders live with the constant reminder that nothing is permanent, but the beauty of the Banks is worth it.

John Hooper, the owner of Lighthouse View Motel, has lived on Hatteras Island for 63 years — his entire life. He inherited the motel from his father. Running a successful tourist business is in his blood.

He says he hasn’t seen anything in his life like the power outage. Hurricane season is bad, but not during the peak months of business, he says, so when evacuations happen, it feels ok, if not normal.

But this was different.

“It was a very odd feeling the whole time,” he says. “To be in the very middle of the summer and pull out onto the road, look both ways and not a car in sight.”

And now, as the season ends and business owners face the slow business of the off-season, Hooper is optimistic about reimbursement.

Although the power outage lasted for one week, he has made a claim for four weeks of lost income, saying that the tourist season is like a balloon. The outage deflated that balloon, and it took time to fill it back up.

He is confident in being reimbursed fully, but Hooper says he has some concerns about his neighboring businesses.

“I do worry about the small-time guy that doesn’t have the ability, or doesn’t have the records to report,” he says.

Hooper sits at a desk covered in paperwork relating to his reimbursement claims. If he and other businesses are made fully whole financially, he says, the island will heal. He’s ready to fight if need be.

Jane Metacarpa is exhausted; it’s obvious in the way she talks about the power outage and hurricane season.

But she keeps a smile on her face and laughs often, joking that the Sandbar & Grille should be renamed “Hurricane Jane and the Restaurant of Doom.”

That humor is in large part the understanding that most Hatteras Islanders share about where they live.

“It’s not convenient living here,” Couch says. “Dredges going through the bridge, severing the cables, what’s it going to be next? Is a lighthouse going to fall over and crush the electric co-op? You never know.”

Metacarpa laughs at this, cautioning Couch not to say that or it may just happen.

But, it is clear that these islanders love their home, no matter how volatile. Every time Metacarpa walks past a map of North Carolina with her two young children, she makes sure to point out Hatteras Island.

“You see the squiggle?” she tells them. “That’s us. Do you understand the magnitude of what that means? That skinny little squiggle is us.”

Down the road at the Lighthouse View Motel, Hooper gestures toward the window of his second-floor office.

“I could throw a baseball to where I was born,” he says. “It’s home. We keep on trucking. It seems to me that we have more issues all the time, but I think that’s just where we draw our line in the sand. A lot of people don’t see that, but we manage. We’ll figure it out.”

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Comments

Dave

Wednesday, Nov 8 2:11 pm

It is extremely insensitive and narcissistic to say that a week without power in the middle of the season when your neighbors earn their living is “the absolute best week of the summer.”

Join the human race. No tourists, no economy and life on Hatteras becomes very difficult and untenable.

Nigel

Tuesday, Nov 7 8:20 pm

The only over reaction is that of greedy local lawyers! PCL took full blame & many locals have already settled…no lawyer, no drama!!

gsurf123

Tuesday, Nov 7 5:19 pm

@CJ – You are completely uniformed. There was not enough power to supply the tourist industry and the locals. The losses are being addressed by PCL in a timely manner. Some business owners have decided class action is the route to reimbursement, but they will be proven wrong. They will win in court, but not financially once the legal team takes their cut. Only a greedy lawyer would recommend, much less pursue the class action option unless it was the only option left. Hopefully the judge will be less than favorable with plaintiffs since they chose to opt out of the solution offered by PCL. I am aware of two businesses who settled with PCL for the amount they were asking for.

Nigel

Tuesday, Nov 7 4:15 pm

So much for the hardy self-sufficient islanders! The only winner in this one is the lawyer. You know what you’re getting into on Hatteras but yet you want someone else to pay for an honest mistake.

Bud

Tuesday, Nov 7 6:57 am

It was the absolute best week of the summer! Power was was off for only 36 hours. Such a blessing to work and live that week without the hoards of tourists.
The second evacuation was also nice. It is business as usual for many of us during evacuation orders.

Carter McKay

Monday, Nov 6 11:02 am

The price of doing business on an island!

CJ

Monday, Nov 6 6:49 am

The mandatory evacuation was a mistake that never should have happened. It was an over-reaction to an inconvenience.

Comments are closed.