MARK JURKOWITZ: OBX lights are back on, assessing the impact

Posted August 4

Editori's note: Mark Jurkowitz is publisher of the Outer Banks Sentinel in Nags Head, N.C.

In the wake of a horribly-timed summer power outage, Danny Couch, the Dare County Commissioner who represents Hatteras Island, summed up the resilient attitude of a community not unfamiliar with disaster.

"People are hanging in there,” he said, a few days after the July 27 Bonner Bridge construction accident plunged Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands into darkness. “When you're only accessible by bridge or boat, you've got to be ready for this kind of thing. It's a price we pay for living here.”

During theweek-long power outage, residents made do and banded together in Outer Banks’ time-tested fashion.

While air conditioners went silent, emergency generators kept lights on and gave life a semblance of normalcy, even with water and power conservation measures in effect. Local heroes, the Cape Hatteras United Methodist Men, collected food for the needy while the Saint John United Methodist Church gathered everything from drinking water to batteries. The Inn on Pamlico Sound made its rooms available for free for those in need of hot water or "just a place that's a little more stable to stay."

With the power restored late Thursday, Aug. 3, some of the impacts of this disaster may quickly fade into memory — another hardy Hatteras story to tell the grandkids.

Even with the visitor evacuation lifted and tourists pouring back in, one effect is likely to have some staying power.

While there are no hard numbers yet on revenue lost when Hatteras and Ocracoke became tourist ghost towns at the peak of visitor season, Dare County Commission Chairman Bob Woodard solemnly noted: “It could not have happened at a worse time.”

There are some hints about the economic havoc that was wreaked.

Hatteras Island accounts for about one-quarter of Dare County’s summer economy. How important is the summer tourist time? Last year, just for the month of July, Hatteras restaurant income accounted for about $5.9 million.  Occupancy revenues on the island were about $35 million.

Michael Johnson, whose Avon gift shop is less than a year old, wonders if he can recover from the business lost during the blackout. He says a local restaurant owner is guessing he’ll lose $50,000 for the week without power. Debbie Scalia, whose family owns Hatteras Island Boardsports, puts one week’s losses at $35,000.

“It’s a real mess,” said Johnson, venting the frustration he shares with many Hatteras and Ocracoke merchants. “Somehow, the business owners need to be compensated for this.”

On that score, expect the lawyers to get busy. One class action suit has already been filed on behalf of “businesses, hourly employees, tourists and rental property owners who had been financially impacted by the Ocracoke, Hatteras Island blackout.”

There is, of course, one MAJOR group affected by this drama. The tens of thousands of visitors who save up and plan for annual family recreation on either Hatteras or Ocracoke Islands.

Not only have some of these trips been destroyed or at least disrupted by this outage, there is also the confusion and questions about whether these folks will be financially compensated by travel insurance policies.

While there’s been some speculation that policies won’t pay off for man-made disasters, several industry experts contend that an official visitor evacuation — such as the ones implemented on Ocracoke and Hatteras — automatically trigger payouts.

One thing’s for sure. The customer service phone lines at the rental and insurance companies have been overflowing with calls from nervous tourists.

Then there is the collateral economic damage to nearby, but unaffected communities. Last week, Currituck County, well north of the power outage area, sent a letter to news media outlets asking them to please be very precise in their language describing the affected areas.

“We are beginning to receive many calls from would-be tourists concerned about upcoming vacations,” the email read.


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