SALVO, N.C., NOV. 2 -- Gaskill "Gask" Austin remembers when the houses in this fishing village were connected only by footpaths and the way to leave his home on Hatteras Island was unreliable -- by "a little old wooden ferry."

The world of the "bankers," as the several hundred permanent residents of North Carolina's remote Outer Banks called themselves, was without electricity, automobiles, strangers and many everyday commodities. "I didn't know what red meat was until I was 15 and went to New York," said Austin, 61, a Dare County commissioner.

On Hatteras Island, a skinny finger of sand jutting into the Atlantic sort of like a 60-mile-long letter "j," "it was a totally different kind of life," he recalled.

That world, and the ferry service, effectively ended 27 years ago with dedication of the soaring, 2.3-mile Herbert C. Bonner bridge over Oregon Inlet. Eight days ago, time stepped backward for the "bankers."

At 2:21 a.m., as State Trooper A.C. Joyner watched in amazement, the 200-foot dredge Northerly Island careened into the bridge during a fierce storm whose winds peaked at 90 mph. The bobbing dredge sliced the bridge in two, sending 370 feet of the two-lane roadway into the inlet in a fiery explosion of electrical cables.

Panicky tourists, who had become the island's economic lifeblood since the bridge opening fueled rapid growth, fled the island by the only remaining land route, south to Hatteras village for a 40-minute free ferry to Ocracoke Island.

Never mind that they immediately became trapped for almost two days on that narrow, 12-mile island where as many as 600 vehicles lined up for the 2 1/2-hour toll ferry ride to Swanquarter and Cedar Island on the mainland.

"They said: 'To hell with this. Let's get out of here,' " said John E. Coleman, who owns Hatteras Marina near the ferry terminal. An official from neighboring Hyde County where the tourists were dumped, politely described the exodus as "a mild panic."

After state officials conceded that bridge repairs may take six months, Hatteras Island's 5,000 permanent residents found that they would have to alter their lives radically.

"It's like Saddam Hussein capturing Kuwait and saying we're not going to let you have any supplies," said Coleman at the marina where 22 charter boats sat idle. "Tourism is the only thing that keeps this island going."

Coleman and many other merchants began laying off workers even as the annual surf-fishing season, an event that attracts thousands of fisherman and dollars, was to begin.

"We're kaput," said Richard Darcey, a former Washington Post photographer who sells decoys and wildlife art in Rodanthe, northernmost of the island's seven villages. "We've got fish, beautiful weather. What we haven't got are people."

Dare County officials estimate that the county may lose between $16 million and $20 million because of the collapse. Because the island has no industry, workers must survive the winter on unemployment checks, officials said.

Unlike Dare's popular northern beaches at Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, Hatteras long has cultivated a different fall clientele -- well-heeled sport fishermen. The typical fisherman on a fall weekend here spends about $350, said Frank Folb, owner of Frank and Fran's, a large tackle shop.

Using four-wheel-drive vehicles on the sandy beaches, many of them stark and remote, fishermen line the shore from dawn to dusk, casting for easily available drums, blues and speckled trout, the sport fish most often found only at sea elsewhere along the Atlantic.

The crush of fishermen in November often provides the margin that many small merchants say they need to survive bitter winter months when most stores close. "This is our heyday," Folb said. "We'll work all summer just to get to these {final} eight weeks."

Carol Dillon, president of the Hatteras Island Business Association, said residents are "going to be hurt real bad, and I don't think anyone realizes how bad." Dillon earlier gained widespread attention for her effort to fight a federal proposal to move the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse inland from the eroding ocean front at Buxton, vowing to "shoot anybody that tries to move the lighthouse."

This week, she laid off 13 maids at her Outer Banks Motel and said she probably will have to return $35,000 to $40,000 in room deposits.

On Wednesday, only one visitor came to the endangered lighthouse, which has guarded the cape since 1870 and whose interior has been closed since 1983 because of maintenance problems. Normally, 500 people visit daily in November, National Park Service rangers said.

The storm that severed the bridge brought the Atlantic to within about 100 yards of the lighthouse, exposing huge, sand-filled nylon bags that the Park Service has stacked under a dune around the tower. Ranger Marcia Lyons described it as the "Band-Aid" approach and noted that "Mother Nature will decide when" drastic action is needed.

Commissioner Austin, like most Hatteras residents, said he expected that a hurricane would be first to cripple the Bonner bridge. The recent storm "will wake a lot of people up to how fragile this place is," he said.

The accident has reopened a 20-year environmental debate about whether man should fight the sea. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), locked in a tight reelection race, used the occasion to announce that the Interior Department, which owns the land on either side of Oregon Inlet, had dropped opposition to building two huge rock jetties into the sea.

Hatteras Island's plight is unique, banker Wayne Lehman said in Buxton, because the bridge collapse destroyed the economy without physically destroying the island. Unlike Hurricane Hugo, which left islands off South Carolina awash in federal flood-insurance money last fall, little new money is expected here.

County officials have expressed hope of restoring limited ferry service to the island, perhaps by next week. Electric power was restored this morning, and fuel and supply trucks have been crossing the inlet in 40-year-old landing craft pressed into emergency service. Few merchants said they expect that ferry service would bring back enough tourists to restore the economy.

Ricki Shepherd, who rode the Metro subway to work at Dupont Circle from her Northeast Washington home until she moved to Hatteras eight years ago, closed up her sandwich shop philosophically and without bitterness.

"The season has ended early," she said. "When you live 40 miles out in the ocean, you take what you get."

Sandy Kerzkowski, who grew up on Hatteras, saw it more simply as she and her school-teacher husband prepared to close their "Blue Whale" convenience store: "I think we all forgot we live on an island."