The old fishermen's creed that adorns Ken Bradley's battered, wooden pier took on new meaning today: "You should have been here -- yesterday."
That's what they say here to folks who don't catch fish. Today the saying referred to something even more elusive for this tiny barrier island community: a hurricane named Gloria.
Never have so many shuddered so hard over so little. For two days, Atlantic Beach, on the southernmost barrier island of North Carolina's Outer Banks, was believed to be Ground Zero for Gloria's terrifying onslaught. Only eight feet above sea level, the homes, businesses and piers on this fragile, half-mile-wide stretch of sand were expected to be submerged under tides of 12 feet.
But that was yesterday.
Just past midnight, long after residents, surfers and tourists had fled this and other Carolina coastal communities, Gloria veered suddenly to the east, skipping the entire mainland. As she passed, winds of 80 miles an hour swept eastern North Carolina, shattering several piers, including Bradley's, knocking down trees and power lines and spraying water everywhere.
But when dawn broke, Atlantic Beach was largely intact. Total property damage here was $300,000, city officials said, emphasizing that there are more than 30,000 condominium units and hundreds of businesses in the area.
"It's hard to believe there was a possibility of losing the whole thing," said police Chief C.W. Pelletier, who stayed on the island throughout the storm, defying friends who begged him to clear out with his town. "One thing about a hurricane: It's always beautiful when it's gone."
By midmorning, most of the refugees had streamed home to tear the masking tape and barricades off their windows and carry on -- almost as though nothing had happened.
Wally Courie, owner of several ocean-front condominiums, inspected his property early today and found everything in order. Clad in shorts and a muscle shirt and carrying a hammer, he strolled the dunes under a benevolent sun and partly cloudy skies, stopping now and then to knock in some nails jutting from numerous beached, wooden pilings -- the remnants of Bradley's pier.
"My tenants went to a shelter in Morehead City, but they're back already," said a nonplused Courie. "Hey, I'm back in business."
Even Cape Hatteras, where Gloria hit land about 60 miles from here, had fairly moderate flooding, according to the National Park Service. And the historic Hatteras lighthouse, battered for decades by winds and waves and considered a "long-term losing proposition," as one official said, miraculously made it through.
Compared to his neighbors' luck, Bradley's misfortune seemed even worse. Gloria's winds sheared away 300 feet of his 1,200-foot fishing pier, leaving it in two free-standing pieces, as if a locomotive had barreled through. He assessed the damage to his 21-year-old business at $100,000. And he said his flood insurance was canceled a month ago.
"I guess we'll just have to look for a friendly bank," he said.
But overall, perhaps the best metaphor for what happened here last night came at a makeshift shelter in nearby New Bern, where a pregnant woman began experiencing contractions at 15-minute intervals and was rushed to Craven County Hospital in torrential rains. Excited shelter coordinators predicted that the mother would name the baby Gloria.
But this morning, hospital officials said the woman was not in labor and was about to go home. "I think she was overexcited by the storm," a spokeswoman said. "Your basic false alarm."