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Along the Outer Banks, Cautious Optimism Returns Along with Tourists

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BUXTON — The telephone won't stop ringing at thefront desk of the Outer Banks Motel.

That's hardly a nuisance to Carol Dillon, since most of thecalls are from people who want to be penciled in to herreservations ledger for the 50-unit resort she opened more than 40years ago along N.C. 12 in Buxton.

She and other business owners lost a lot of customers whenHurricanes Bertha and Fran forced hundreds of thousands to evacuatethe Outer Banks last summer. The storms bypassed the popular beachdestination and laid waste to beaches south of here to the tune ofbillions of dollars.

Despite out-of-state rumors that the Outer Banks also sufferedharm, most of the tourists that left are coming back.

``We've had a few people who had their reservations cancelledbecause they went somewhere else,'' said Dillon, 68. ``But I toldthem, `There's absolutely no damage here.'''

Few tourists who come annually to the hurricane-prone OuterBanks appear to be taking the near misses as hints it's time to tryanother beach.

``If there was a threat of a hurricane, we would be warnedaboutit, wouldn't we?'' said Jerry Turnbaugh, 34, of Baltimore, walkingalong the Kill Devil Hills beach at sunset recently with daughtersLindsey, 8, and Sara, 6. ``The hurricane season doesn't bother usat all.''

The season always makes for anxious locals who have one eye onThe Weather Channel and the other eye on tourist dollars.

``I think you're always worried,'' John Couch said. He runsLighthouse Auto Parts down the road from Dillon's motel. ``You do alot wishing a storm goes the other way. You mentally prepare for itevery year ... It's always a false sense of security.''

So far, hotels and cottages on Hatteras Island and north acrossthe Bonner Bridge to heavily-developed Nags Head and Kill DevilHills are filling up at the same or a better rate than this timelast year, according to county tourism officials.

Bookings for Midgett Realty's 325 units were at 83 percentcapacity for the season through June 15, compared to 73 percent onJune 15 last year, says rental manager Susie Austin.

``You can't worry about Mother Nature,'' Austin said. ``She'sgoing to do whatever she plans to do.''

The year-round Dare County population of 20,000 balloons tomorethan 200,000 during the summer. Hotel and motel revenues total morethan $2 million daily, says county tourism spokeswoman ChrisMackey. That doesn't include the millions tourists spend on beachshirts at Wings, miniature golf at Jurassic Putt and hang-glidingat Kitty Hawk Kites.

So it hurts even more when business loses even one day due tothe threat of bad weather. Dare County lost several days last yearwhen evacuations were ordered due to hurricanes Bertha and Fran.

Even storms like those that never reach the Outer Banks canwreck business. News that Fran caused calamity on the NorthCarolina coast gave the mistaken impression that included the OuterBanks.

``We heard on the news that Nags Head got hit,'' said Ray Lowe,67, a retired accountant from Indianapolis, enjoying the OuterBanks with his wife and friends. ``But we didn't see anything.''

Don't think that Hatteras Island residents scoff at hurricanes.The island took the brunt of the last storm to strike the island -Emily in 1993. It caused $13 million in damages, the worst sinceHurricane Donna in 1960.

Dillon is reminded of Emily every day: a waterline three feethigh on the juniper-paneled walls of the hotel parlor mark how highthe flood waters reached. The roof of Couch's business ripped offhis building like a sardine can, leading to $250,000 in damage.

Moving south along N.C. 12 to Frisco, Emily's wrath can be seenalong the roadside nearly four years later. Pine trees broken likematch sticks remain split in a patch of forest land.

Repairs are going slowly at the home of Harry Willis, recentlyhammering screen wire on a chicken coop flooded by Emily.Storm-pushed water from the ocean and the Pamlico Sound drowned 125of his chickens.

``We're 95 percent back on our feet,'' said Lee Anne Willis,Harry's daughter-in-law, who lives next door. Since the storm,they've erected their homes on 10-foot stilts so they'll rise abovethe next storm.

At 66, Harry Willis has seen many storms, including the 1936storm that prompted his family to move from Hatteras village tosomewhat higher ground at Frisco. Emily is still fresh in his mind.

``That last storm, that was the one that hurt us the most,'' hesaid, taking a breather from working on the coop. ``I'm hoping thatthe next one will miss us.''

The next one doesn't seem to matter this day at Hatterasvillage, where tourists waited in their cars in the sun-glistenedmorning to take the ferry over to Ocracoke Island.

``We'll deal with it when it comes,'' said Chris Teutsch ofWestchester, Penn., traveling with his wife and their two daughtersin the family minivan.

Back in Nags Head atop the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge StatePark, the view of cottages and hotels sitting between the ocean andRoanoke Sound gives perspective to the destruction a storm couldcause.

``It would be terrible if one hit here,'' said Bert Moore, aretired minister from Virginia Beach, Va. ``... It's beautiful herein the summer.''

By GARY D. ROBERTSON,Associated Press WriterCopyright ©1997 AssociatedPress. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,rewritten, or distributed.