Cheri Crossley and her husband loaded up the car with luggage, extra batteries, flashlights and their two children before setting off on a 15-hour drive from their home in Bridgeport, Conn., to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Crossley, a math teacher, and her husband had been saving for the vacation since January and had spent $4,000 to rent a five-bedroom house with a pool on Hatteras Island, a popular summer retreat. They’d been warned about a power outage in the Outer Banks on Friday as they departed, but it wasn’t until Saturday morning, when they were nearly halfway there, that they found out their rental had been canceled. The island was under mandatory evacuation orders.
“We’d been thinking about this for six months, the kids were so excited,” Crossley said. “We are heartbroken.”
She is one of tens of thousands of people who were forced to cancel their Outer Banks vacations at the height of the season after a construction accident caused a widespread power outage. An estimated 50,000 people were evacuated from Hatteras Island and another 10,000 from neighboring Ocracoke, leaving such tourist hot spots as Rodanthe, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras nearly desolate.
“June to August represents about 70 percent of our annual business, so you can imagine that taking out a week or two could be devastating,” said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “Hatteras Island alone is about a quarter of our tourism economy annually, so it’s having an extraordinary impact on us.”
Most islanders found out about the power outage Thursday morning when they couldn’t switch their lights on. They soon discovered that construction crews working on the Bonner Bridge had accidentally driven a steel casing into an underground power cable, cutting it completely, according to a statement from Dare County, where Hatteras is located. The 2.7-mile bridge is part of Route 12, a two-lane road that runs from Corolla in the north down to Ocracoke in the south and then to the mainland. Part of the route is by ferry, the only way to reach Ocracoke by car.
“With the amount of people on the island in the middle of summer, the load was too high for the generating system to provide continuous power for air conditioning and pools,” said Laura Erdal, spokeswoman for the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, which provides power to Hatteras Island. “It boiled down to a safety issue, so Dare County had to call the evacuation.”
The cable breakage cable occurred during efforts to replace Bonner Bridge, a nearly $250 million project slated for completion in 2019. PCL, the construction company working on the bridge, said in a statement Sunday that it is “making the necessary repairs quickly and safely.”
Erdal said one underwater cable was cut and two were damaged, and the timeline for a complete repair is between one and two weeks. Crews are working on two solutions simultaneously: splicing the underwater cables together and building a new overwater transmission line to bypass the submerged cables.
The mandatory evacuation will remain in place until mainline power is back on, affecting travelers and local businesses this week and perhaps next — and leaving some in a dire situation at the height of the region’s most lucrative season. Most tourists evacuated Saturday.
“It’s been devastating, to say the least. We lost probably $50,000 from just that one weekend alone,” said Caleb Lewis of the Frisco Woods Campground on the Cape Hatteras seashore. Lewis, whose family has owned the campground for three generations, said the last weekend of July is usually one of the top-grossing weekends of the season for his family. “It’s completely empty right now, so they had to lay off half the staff. We are losing money day by day.”
Most restaurants, shops and banks were eerily quiet on Ocracoke. The Ocracoke Oyster Co. had just three patrons Monday afternoon, and it was the one of only three restaurants that remained open for the 900 local residents.
“But we all know our income has gone to zero, so we can’t afford to go and eat anyway,” Leslie Lanier, who owns Books to Be Red, a bookstore, said Monday. “We are seasonal people, we don’t work year-round. We need every day of the summer to be able to live in winter. We’re all a little bit in shock trying to figure out what to do going forward. Starting tomorrow, when rent is due, that’s when it’s gonna hit a lot of people.”
Some of the most hard-hit businesses are vacation rental companies, which account for about half of the area’s tourism revenue.
“We manage about 250 homes, and they’re all empty now, except for a few occupied by owners,” said Jack Whitehead, general manager of Ocracoke Island Realty. “This is when everybody on this island makes the bulk of their income for the year, so it’s definitely a setback. We were at over 95 percent occupancy before the evacuation.”
The sudden disruption is particularly tough for areas still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, which passed by the Outer Banks in October. It sent storm surges into residential areas and damaged the highway.
“We had just about turned the corner from the last disaster when we had an evacuation and another one hits,” said Sam Walker, news director at Max Radio of the Carolinas, a local radio network. “It’s having a ripple effect.”
Crossley and her family are staying in a relative’s house in North Carolina and taking day trips to salvage the rest of their vacation before heading back to Connecticut.
“This is our family’s annual one-week vacation,” she said. “This is all we get; we don’t have any others. It’s not the vacation we envisioned.”