NAGS HEAD, N.C. — On a normal day in the August peak season, Cahoon’s Market wouldn’t be able to sell its deck chairs, beach toys and beers fast enough. But over the past 48 hours, this general store on North Carolina’s vulnerable coast has mostly been selling water, crackers and batteries to its remaining few customers.
“We’ve managed to get a bit of business today – but that’s because we’re the only store still open,” said Brad Donnan, the store’s manager, as he glanced around the quiet aisles. “I’ve lived here for 22 years and this one might be the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
As Hurricane Irene nears the Outer Banks, a thread of land just off the state’s main coastline, tourists have been hurriedly vacating its popular beaches. Residents have been hunkering down for what could be northeast coast’s most serious tropical storm in the past 50 years. Previous hurricanes have left roads blocked and homes without electricity here for over a week.
Irene is expected to hit the Outer Banks overnight Friday and then move up the shoreline to Washington, New York and points north over the weekend.
By Friday afternoon, Nags Head was a ghost town. Almost all of the motels and swimwear shops on the main thoroughfares were closed. Several were boarded up. The weather was cloudy and humid.
Local ocean rescue officials, armed with walkie-talkies in case cellphone signals go down during and after the storm, had placed red flags in the sea to warn people that swimming was already unsafe. Police officers were going to door-to-door to remind residents that the county-wide mandatory evacuation orders did not just apply to tourists.
The Outer Banks’ 33,000 residents are normally fairly stoic when it comes to hurricanes. Many describe it as a part of the excitement of living close to nature and even enjoy throwing “hurricane parties,” boozy get-togethers that make the most of the fact that everyone has to be inside while the storm rages. However, on this occasion, even some stalwarts have decamped to the mainland.
“Why gamble?” said Jamie Terrell, a 34-year-old construction worker, as he and his wife loaded their black SUV with crates of food and bags of clothes. Terrell was driving 300 miles west to his brother’s house in Richmond, N.C. He and his wife have lived in Kill Devil Hills, the neighboring town to Nags Head, for 12 years and usually stay put during the hurricanes that regularly hit these beaches. But they decided that Irene, which is predicted to be a Category 2 or 3 storm when it reaches their neighborhood, could cause more damage than usual.
Meanwhile, business owners were already counting their losses in an area heavily dependent on tourism.
“We’ve lost several thousand dollars of revenue this weekend,” said William Peters, who has been running the Cypress House Inn in Kill Devil Hills for seven years. All six of his rooms, priced at $199 per night, had been booked this weekend. “We have to refund deposits — it would be harsh not to — and there’s no way to make the money back. Once the weekend’s passed, it’s passed.”
However, despite fleeing tourists and police visits, it looked as if most residents in this part of the Outer Banks had decided to stay put. “We have to stay because, if you leave, you can’t get back,” said Mary-Lou Allen, 56, who was boarding up her house in Nags Head on Thursday evening. She recalled that, during 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, those who left the islands could not get back home for eight days due to flooding.
Allen, like many of her neighbors, had stocked up on water, ice, canned food and crackers. She had also bought gas for her generator.
Other remaining residents agreed that they would rather stay at home so they could attend immediately to any damage and prevent looting. In any case, with Irene predicted to hit several parts of the East Coast that are unused to hurricanes, leaving the Outer Banks did not necessarily guarantee a pleasant weekend.
“People here are more prepared than those inland. They know what they’re doing,” said Peters. “In lots of ways it’s better to stay.”