Irene strands 2,500 on North Carolina's Hatteras Island
At least 2,500 residents of remote Hatteras Island off the North Carolina coast remained cut off from the mainland Monday after floodwaters from Hurricane Irene sliced through the only highway onto the island.
Highway 12, which stretches the length of the Outer Banks, was left impassable by water and shifting sands. Aerial photos taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed at least three locations on the Outer Banks, a narrow ribbon of barrier islands, where floodwaters surged through from the Pamlico Sound to the Atlantic Ocean.
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"There’s at least one that looks pretty wide with water flowing through and some little fingers of water shooting out from there," said Bonnie Strawser, visitor services manager for the 13-mile-long Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks south of Oregon Inlet. The refuge, which is visited by 2.7 million people a year, is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The only bridge leading to Hatteras Island and the wildlife refuge was shut down because of flooding. Utility lines that supply electricity to the island were also severed, leaving residents without power.
State officials launched an emergency ferry service Monday morning from the coastal community of Stumpy Point, which also suffered severe flooding. The ferry arrived at midmorning, delivering emergency workers and supplies, along with North Carolina National Guard troops, said Dorothy Toolan of the Dare County Emergency Management Office.
The ferry ride takes 2 1/2 hours each way and is open only to emergency workers.
State highway officials were trying to determine the extent of road damage, said Bobby Outen, the Dare County manager. Residents said the same road was out for at least two months after it was cut by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
Outen said emergency workers were attempting to "get them [island residents] reattached to the world" as soon as possible.
State emergency officials said 1,800 state transportation department workers, nearly 400 National Guard soldiers and 300 state police officers had been dispatched along the coast.
The latest breaches to the fragile barrier islands were caused by what Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County commissioners, called "epic sound-side flooding."
When Hurricane Irene roared up the broad Pamlico Sound west of the Outer Banks late Saturday, it blew water back so fiercely across the side of the islands facing the sound that they cut through all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
For years, environmentalists and scientists have urged authorities to let nature take its course and create new inlets as the barrier islands shift in the winds and waters, as they have for centuries. They consider breaches natural inlets, which provide escape routes for floodwaters during storms.
But state officials routinely repair the highway and bridge to provide road access to Hatteras Island and other Outer Banks towns that rely on tourism and sport fishermen. The only other access to the island is by ferry or helicopter.
Sharon Sullivan of the Dare County Emergency Management Office said the breaches were not necessarily "inlets, per se."
"There are several places where the sound and the ocean converged," she said.
Outen, the county manager, described "compromised roads" cut off by "overwash at multiple places."
No injuries were reported on Hatteras Island, where residents in villages from Rodanthe to Frisco are accustomed to surviving hurricanes and nor’easters. Residents routinely ignore mandatory evacuation orders. Authorities had ordered all 35,000 Dare County residents to leave on Friday.
Asked on CNN whether she was upset with Hatteras Island residents for staying put, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue replied, "These are the real people of Hatteras Island, the ones who live there, not the tourists."
Perdue said the road and bridge closures effectively ended the profitable summer and fall tourist and sport-fishing seasons for Hatteras Island and other Outer Banks areas.
"The rest of our beaches are open for business," she said.
-- David Zucchino in Nags Head, N.C.
Photo: A woman walks along Highway 12, the main road that connects Cape Hatteras to the mainland, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irene. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / Reuters