OCRACOKE, N.C. — On any normal late-fall day, the ferries that ply the 30 miles between Swan Quarter and this barrier island might carry vacationing retirees, sports fishermen and residents enjoying mainland getaways after the busy summer tourist season.
But two months ago, Hurricane Dorian washed away all signs of normalcy here. After buzz-cutting the Bahamas, the giant storm rolled overhead, raising a seven-foot wall of water in its wake that sloshed back through the harbor, invading century-old homes that have never before taken in water and sending islanders such as post office head Celeste Brooks and her two grandchildren scrambling into their attics.
Ocracoke has been closed to visitors ever since. Island-bound ferries carry yawning container trucks to haul back the sodden detritus of destroyed homes. And O’cockers — proud descendants of the pilots and pirates who navigated these treacherous shores — are faced with a reckoning: whether this sliver of sand, crouched three feet above sea level between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, can survive the threats of extreme weather and rising sea levels. And if it can’t, why rebuild?
“That’s the unspoken question. That’s what nobody wants to say,” said Erin Baker, the only doctor to serve this community of 1,000. “It’s a question of how do we continue to have life here.”
Scientists have long warned that Ocracoke’s days are numbered, that this treasured island is a bellwether for vast stretches of the U.S. coast.
“Virtually everyone from Virginia Beach south to the U.S./Mexico border is going to be in the same situation in the next 50 years,” said Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine affairs at Duke University. “And it’s only going to get worse after that.”
If Ocracoke’s ultimate prognosis is grim, Tom Pahl, the township’s county commissioner, remains committed to its recovery.
“Is this really sustainable? The answer is pretty clearly no,” he said. “But what’s the timeline? No one has been able to say, ‘You’ve got 15 years, 40 years, 100 years.’ The clear-eyed vision is resiliency then retreat.”
The disaster has in some ways shortened people’s outlook.
“I don’t think we’re thinking that far ahead right now,” said Monroe Gaskill, 64, echoing in the distinctive island brogue the immediate concerns of many “ol’ toimers”: whether the island will be open in time for duck-hunting season later this month; where students will study next semester when they have to relinquish their temporary classrooms in the old Coast Guard Station; and what will become of all the displaced residents, who are holed up in rental units, once the tourists return next Easter.
Even as some houses are being bulldozed, neighbors are working together to raise others.
“Now I know there is no such thing as high enough,” said Janet Spencer behind the counter of the hardware store, which reopened without power right after the storm. She and her husband jacked up their home 18 years ago — just one cinder block too few to keep out Dorian. Still, she said, long-term residents won’t leave.
“It’s the only thing we know,” she said.
There are hazards everywhere, said Amy Howard, 47, a local historian and craft store manager, and hurricanes have shaped the culture of this storied village. She showed off the floorboards her great-grandfather cut out in 1933 to relieve pressure from mounting water and prevent the house from floating off its foundations. The building was raised in 1944 after a storm, and her father plans to elevate it further.
Alton Ballance, a descendant, like Gaskill and Howard, of the island’s earliest white settlers, has heard the call to retreat. “Time to get off that island!” one friend, an ocean scientist, has told him. “There may come a day when it’s not feasible to continue,” Ballance concedes, but for now he is methodically stripping out the old family home and installing new electrical outlets waist-high.
“It’s easy for people in government and sometimes in the media to target a small place like this,” Ballance said, rocking back and forth on a porch swing outside the room where his mother was born.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided support for rebuilding roads and other infrastructure. But a recent decision to deny residents individual assistance, which would have helped with temporary housing, has provoked ire when so many coastal communities received funds after hurricanes such as Sandy in 2012.
FEMA said it provides the funding only when state and local resources are overwhelmed.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has signaled his commitment to rebuilding. But the islanders’ sense of injustice reflects a broad dilemma, according to Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University — a lack of clarity about which parts of the nation’s threatened shoreline can and should be protected.
“There is no clear national plan,” said Young, so FEMA’s decision “comes across as arbitrary.”
While Young does not advocate mass migration, wetter storms are raising questions about using taxpayer money to rebuild coastal communities.
“At some point, there is going to be a breaking point,” he said, “when the public sector is either not going to want or to be able to afford to accept the risk.”
Meanwhile, the future of the Outer Banks is made more precarious by development, said Stanley Riggs, who devoted his career at East Carolina University to studying the state’s 10,000-mile coastline.
“We’re loving these islands to death,” Riggs said, constructing roads and bridges to bring in tourists and blocking the natural flow of tides and storms that over millennia have shaped the 175-mile string of shifting sand banks.
Riggs served on a stateadvisory panel that in 2010 predicted more than three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, prompting a backlash from lawmakers skeptical of climate change and developers. A compromise bill, based on a shorter timeline, passed in 2012, even as the jeopardy has become clearer here: The coastline of Cape Hatteras, north of Ocracoke, is eroding rapidly, retreating by more than a mile since Hurricane Isabel in 2003; to the south, once-vibrant Portsmouth is a ghost town.
Sitting outside the makeshift classrooms, middle school science teacher Patricia Piland described how climate science has become real for her eighth-graders. Their curriculum this semester focuses on the hydrosphere, but she has moderated her message for students shell shocked by their narrow escape.
“One girl said, ‘So, we’re screwed.’ ” Piland recalled. “I told them I believe we can plan for sea-level rise.” Doing so, she said, will require working with nature rather than responding to the demands of developers.
Enrollment at the school has dropped from 174 to 157 since the storm, and Brooks, the post office head, is seeing the community fray slightly as families file change-of-address forms. “There will be more,” she predicted, weeping as she recalled the trauma of being trapped by rising water.
Some people who lost their jobs took off quickly. Others are still deciding. Tom Parker, 66, who moved here 20 years ago, wiped away tears as he sat under the live oak tree where he has made a steady income charging tourists $1 to have their photo taken among its gnarled branches.
“I’m tired of having this constant risk of having it all destroyed,” he said.
But for many people who come here to wait tables or clean motel rooms, Ocracoke remains a place of opportunity, not retreat. The storm was a setback for Idalid Maldonado, a seasonal worker already facing problems this year with her visa, but she hopes it’s only a temporary one.
She set down the wheelbarrow she has been using to lug the salt-stained contents out of guest rooms to ponder whether she will be back next summer.
“I don’t know,” Maldonado said. “I don’t know.”
About one-third of Ocracoke’s population is Latino, many of whom came like Maldonado to serve summer visitors and then were seduced by the gentle year-round rhythm of island life where children can roam free.
“We talked about moving, but here, it’s a special place,” said Gloria Benitez-Perez, whose husband is in the construction business and built their house on stilts. “We are going to be fine.”
But, like the shipwrecks that surface after storms, existing problems gained prominence following Dorian’s blow. Stanley “Chip” Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge, named after the fearsome buccaneer who was beheaded here, said there has been no full accounting of Dorian’s damage and of the impact on people living in sheds and trailers who are “the backbone of our service workforce.”
He advocates more building, not less, to support the “shadow economy” on which Ocracoke — and impoverished Hyde County — depend.
“What the island needs is affordable housing,” Stevens said.
Aid workers, meanwhile, comment on the extraordinary challenges of offshore construction. Every box of nails, each bottle of bleach and all the two-by-fours have to be driven out through low-lying country before being loaded for the almost three-hour ride across the Sound. Contractors face a round-trip commute of six hours or more, or they have to find a place to stay.
There is another, shorter, route out of Ocracoke.
North of the village, past the discarded cars and the corroded appliances, Highway 12 leads through the National Park’s windswept dunes to an isolated ferry terminal.
Dorian chewed up the tarmac. Only four-wheel drives are allowed to make the trip, tucking in behind a tow truck that leads over rutted, chassis-scraping sand to the waiting Hatteras ferry.
Once the road is passable — perhaps by late November — it will provide a lifeline. But it won’t restore normalcy or eliminate the sense that this little paradise is in limbo.
“The hard part hasn’t started yet,” said Baker, the island doctor, who is monitoring patients’ stress at the metal mobile clinic shipped in to replace her flooded facility. The hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas had reduced to a Category 1 by the time it swamped Ocracoke, she said.
“There’s a whole new level of fear for those who stay.”