Local News

Along the Outer Banks, Cautious Optimism Returns Along with Tourists

Posted June 25, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

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

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

She and other business owners lost a lot of customers when Hurricanes Bertha and Fran forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate the Outer Banks last summer. The storms bypassed the popular beach destination and laid waste to beaches south of here to the tune of billions of dollars.

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

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

Few tourists who come annually to the hurricane-prone Outer Banks appear to be taking the near misses as hints it's time to try another beach.

``If there was a threat of a hurricane, we would be warned about it, wouldn't we?'' said Jerry Turnbaugh, 34, of Baltimore, walking along the Kill Devil Hills beach at sunset recently with daughters Lindsey, 8, and Sara, 6. ``The hurricane season doesn't bother us at all.''

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

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

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

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

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

The year-round Dare County population of 20,000 balloons to more than 200,000 during the summer. Hotel and motel revenues total more than $2 million daily, says county tourism spokeswoman Chris Mackey. That doesn't include the millions tourists spend on beach shirts at Wings, miniature golf at Jurassic Putt and hang-gliding at Kitty Hawk Kites.

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

Even storms like those that never reach the Outer Banks can wreck business. News that Fran caused calamity on the North Carolina coast gave the mistaken impression that included the Outer Banks.

``We heard on the news that Nags Head got hit,'' said Ray Lowe, 67, a retired accountant from Indianapolis, enjoying the Outer Banks 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 since Hurricane Donna in 1960.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in Nags Head atop the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park, the view of cottages and hotels sitting between the ocean and Roanoke Sound gives perspective to the destruction a storm could cause.

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

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