Rodanthe, N.C. — If tourists are the life blood of the Outer Banks economy, N.C. Highway 12 is the artery through which they flow – and a temporary bridge erected in the wake of Hurricane Irene has become the artificial heart that pumps them up and down the island.
Irene gashed Hatteras Island a year ago ripping holes in N.C. 12 and isolating the southern part of the island from the mainland.
About eight weeks and $10 million later, N.C. 12 reopened, courtesy of a metal bridge that was shipped to the area in sections and assembled.
"It's not the prettiest bridge, but it gets the job done, and I think that's what everybody wants in this case," said Pablo Hernandez, who supervised the project for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The DOT could begin construction on a 2-mile permanent bridge as early as the first part of next year, Hernandez said.
Businesses on the island, such as Rodanthe Watersports, had a lot of rebuilding to do as well.
"(Irene) flooded everything out. This whole place was a mess. We just had to come in and redo it all," Norman Stresemann said.
The work has paid off, Stresemann said, noting that he now has 50 to 60 customers on a busy day.
Sally Hawthorne, who was vacationing on the Outer Banks with her extended family, said she was surprised at the speed of the recovery after Irene.
"There's not a lot of evidence of devastation," Hawthorne said. "You can see the sand drifting from either side of the highway. Every now and then, you see some driftwood – pieces of plywood from houses – but other than that, it looks really nice."
At Waves Market & Deli in the town of Waves, the staff is seeing many tourists returning from last year. But what they are really watching is the weather – waiting for the next big storm.
"Hopefully, it won't flood the whole island out again, but we'll see," Nathan Stancil said.
Hernandez said he also keeps his eyes on the weather.
"I've been on the Outer Banks 14 years, and I pay attention to the weather. It always makes me nervous because anything can happen," he said.