SWAN QUARTER, N.C. — Benny Lacks wanted to help his fellow Ocracoke Island residents, but it wasn’t easy.
He couldn’t drive his new Ford F-150 because the tsunami-like storm surge that tore through this island drowned it up to its steering wheel. He rode his bicycle instead, spotting fish on the washed-out highway as he pedaled in search of neighbors in need.
Because there was no running water, he saved his last bottle for an elderly aunt who needed to take her medication.
He periodically charged his phone at a beer and wine store, one of the few businesses letting residents use their generator.
“We have one general store. That was underwater. We have a gas station that has not opened for years but the pumps operate. That was underwater,” said Lacks, 55. “This is total devastation for most of the island.”
Scenes from the path of Hurricane Dorian
Sept. 7, 2019 | Destroyed homes and debris left by Hurricane Dorian in the Mudd neighborhood of Marsh Harbour, Bahamas. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Hurricane Dorian largely spared the southeastern U.S. coast after wreaking havoc on the Bahamas. But it dealt a blow to the string of peninsulas and barrier islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The damage was most pronounced on 12-mile Ocracoke, where the seven-foot storm surge flooded homes and left hundreds of residents without power and water.
The island was under mandatory evacuation, but authorities estimate most of the roughly 1,000 residents stayed behind. Many said they wanted to be there to quickly attend to damage and their neighbors.
The first crews reached the island by helicopter Friday, airlifting several residents with medical problems to mainland hospitals and shelters. Emergency responders arrived Saturday in ferries filled with utility crews, fuel trucks and vans packed with supplies.
“We have Army trucks going around town with men in it — this is so unusual,” said Mickey Baker, a 34-year island resident who spent Saturday drying dozens of shirts from her clothing store drenched by floodwaters. “Usually there’s men driving around pickup trucks with surfboards, dogs and kids in the back.”
Authorities said crews were going door-to-door checking on residents and offering meals and clean water. They urged those who wanted to make donations to call the Hyde County Emergency Operations Center.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said many Ocracoke residents are still in a state of shock at how quickly the water inundated the island, flooding areas that no one could remember having flooded before.
“We know how beautiful a place it can be and how it can become a part of your soul, so talking to a person who has lived in a home for 35 years who told me, ‘I’ve lost everything’ — that’s tough,” Cooper said at a news conference after he visited the island. “But then he said, ‘I’m so glad to be alive.’ ”
At least 10 Ocracoke residents left Saturday for the mainland by boat, according to a spokesman for the ferry system. But most stayed behind to start what will surely be a lengthy cleanup effort after the worst storm in decades.
The island’s only town converted its fire station into a makeshift emergency center, where volunteers distributed crackers, bananas and toiletries. Standing water reeked of fuel, sewage and mud. Uprooted cedar trees and debris littered the roads.
In a Facebook message, Ann Warner, who works at an island pub, said her house was surrounded by “doors, decks, piles of different sizes and shapes of wood, chairs, boogie boards, planters, signs, fish, mass quantities of seaweed, just about anything that was swept away.”
Many of the island’s cars were destroyed, making the recovery extra challenging.
Charles Temple, an English teacher at the island school, which also flooded, said he and his fiancee lost their cars to the flood. Now he’s trying to figure out how to relocate two cats, two dogs, a portable fridge and a generator to a temporary home nearby, and made a plea for those who wanted to help to lend their pickup trucks when the island reopens.
“Imagine trying to take something, but you don’t have a car and your neighbor doesn’t have a car and the people who do have cars are getting pulled six ways to Sunday,” Temple, 46, said.
Jerry Jennings, the region’s chief engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said that crews are working to clear mounds of sand off washed-out sections of Highway 12, which runs the length of the Outer Banks.
Residents who evacuated before Dorian were not allowed to return to Ocracoke and the southern reaches of Hatteras Island on Saturday afternoon.
The causeway leading onto Hatteras Island was lined with debris, piles of spartina grass and lines of utility trucks where crews are replacing the tilted, wrecked electricity line that left this island in the heat and dark.
Residents trying to return to the southern, most damaged end of the island were turned away at a checkpoint by federal officials only allowing repair vehicles to pass.
George and Judy Basnett, longtime residents of hard-hit Buxton on Hatteras, left shortly before Dorian hit. They said neighbors told them their house sitting up 15 feet fared better than most in the neighborhood, but they wanted to get back before any wind or water damage could morph into mold.
It’s one reason people don’t leave, Judy Basnett said. “If you’re there, then you can deal with a minor problem before it turns into a major problem,” she said.
This is the first time the Basnetts decided to evacuate. They drove up the coast to ride out the storm with their children and grandchildren and plan to head back as soon as they can. As they sit in the sun and wait, they’re convinced that wasn’t the right call.
“We’ve been through a lot worse hurricanes than that,” George Basnett said. “Knowing what I know now, I’ll never leave that place again.”
Ross, a freelance journalist, reported from Hatteras Island, N.C.