- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

HATTERAS, N.C. — The Outer Banks is open for business despite being smacked by Hurricane Isabel just eight months ago.

Business owners and residents worked through the winter and continue to get the 137-mile beach resort ready for the important summer season, which unofficially starts today.

“We’re a community that hasn’t slept trying to get things back in shape,” said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “But everybody’s ready. There’s a complete different buzz in the air. We know we’re going to be busy.”

This summer, Americans are expected to take 334 million trips more than 50 miles away from home —a 3.2 percent increase from last year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Going to the beach is expected to be the second most popular activity, after visiting friends and family.

Outer Banks residents, who rely on tourism for their economic stability, hope the storm didn’t scare away newcomers or deter repeat customers from visiting the North Carolina coast again this summer.

Hurricane Isabel left its mark Sept. 18, hitting pockets along the East Coast, devastating some areas and leaving other parts — such as Ocean City and Virginia Beach — almost untouched. The storm caused about $300 million in damage in the Outer Banks, wiping out piers, homes, restaurants and motels. The island lost about 300 of its 3,200 hotel rooms.

Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and Hatteras Village were among the hardest hit.

Locals don’t know what to expect this summer. They are hoping curiosity draws in crowds and repeat visitors stay loyal. All eyes were on the Outer Banks during the recovery and rebuilding immediately following the storm.

“Isabel brought awareness,” Ms. McCormick said. “It was 100 days of a lot of attention on us.”

Tourism regroups

Officials hope that attention will turn into dollars this summer. Tourism is a $600 million industry for the Outer Banks. The island, which is about a five-hour drive from Washington, gets 5 million visitors a year — 3 million come during the peak summer months.

Officials started to see a resurgence in the winter. Occupancy was up 24 percent in November from a year earlier. The 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk in December helped push up occupancy by nearly 90 percent compared with December 2002.

“The bad news was Isabel and the good news is we’re over it,” said John Bone, president of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.

Robin James, general manger of the Beacon Motor Lodge in Nags Head, said the Outer Banks will have a busy season if the past three weeks are any indication.

Since the spring weather broke last month “we’ve been jammed every week,” Ms. James said. The 50-room motel already has strong bookings for July and August. At the end of the week, the motel had just a few rooms left for Memorial Day weekend.

“I don’t think we’ve lost anyone because of the storm,” Ms. James said.

For some visitors, Isabel is just an afterthought. The storm didn’t change the barrier island’s beauty or the attraction to such an untouched, noncommercialized beach resort.

Jean Liebig of North Port, Fla., was traveling up the coast with her son, Jack Skladony, and made a stop at Cape Hatteras to see the famed Hatteras Lighthouse. It was Ms. Liebig’s first trip to the Outer Banks.

“I just love them,” she said. “This was the way the shore was 100 years ago. It’s unspoiled.”

Still recovering

Visitors will see changes to the island’s landscape as well as remnants of Isabel’s wrath.

Kitty Hawk’s pier, one of eight on the island, is closed with no plans to rebuild it, Ms. McCormick said. Oceanfront homes have fallen on their side, while others are boarded up. But more homes are being rebuilt.

In Nags Head, south of Kitty Hawk, Isabel left another devastating mark. Parts of the town still look like a war zone. Yellow “caution” tape marks off condemned rooms at the Quality Inn Sea Oatel. Isabel ruined more than half of the motel’s 113 rooms. Those rooms won’t be ready until next year.

Jennette’s Pier, the oldest pier in the Outer Banks, was decimated, leaving just the 9,000-square-foot pier house standing. The 580-foot pier has been reduced to 40 feet.

The pier’s owner, the North Carolina Aquarium Society, plans to reopen the pier and the pier house.

“This pier has a lot of local history and is very important to the community,” said Mike Remige, general manager of the pier. “We really want to give them something they can be proud of.”

It has not been determined whether the pier, a major fishing spot, will be rebuilt using wood or concrete. Society officials hope to have it open by the start of the fishing season in April.

The pier house is expected to open by mid-June after workers secure some of the pilings under the building and finish off the little stretch of pier remaining. The pier house has been renovated to include aquarium exhibits and life-size replicas of the state’s salt-water fishing records. It also will have a tackle shop, beach shop, an arcade, an eatery and educational programs.

“I think everyone is looking to put Isabel behind us,” Nags Head Mayor Robert Muller said. “This will be a special summer. We have a lot to celebrate because of the recovery and rebuilding.”

Hatteras recoups

Newly planted beach grass lines the dunes in Hatteras Village, at the southern tip of Hatteras Island. It is symbolic of the rebuilding this 1-square-mile town has undergone since Isabel wiped out businesses and homes in its path.

About a half mile of new pavement on Highway 12, where Isabel cut off the village’s only connection to the rest of the island for two months, brings travelers into the heaviest-hit part of the village. It was the worst ocean storm since 1933, when a similar storm cut a hole in the same place.

Devastation is still obvious in some parts of the village. The General Mitchell Motel, with boarded-up windows and a frail foundation, is closed. Just 10 beach cabanas line the property next to it. Before Isabel there were 40.

A sign across the street for Taste Buds is the only indication a business once stood there. The bakery was washed away in the storm. Some homes still have “condemned” signs attached to them.

Most of the destroyed businesses were demolished shortly after the storm, leaving behind empty lots, some of which still have for-sale signs in front.

“I remember thinking this place will never be pretty,” said Tim Midgett, principal broker at Midgett Realty and chairman of the Dare County Tourism Board. “We’re much further along than we were. We’re going to have a good summer.”

New, light-colored wood makes up the bottom floors of many of the houses that were flooded. It’s a big contrast from the aged gray wood that Isabel left untouched.

Construction workers continue to hammer away, rebuilding the gigantic oceanfront homes. Some houses, which were supposed to be finished by this weekend, are far from completion, leaving real estate agents scrambling to find new accommodations for vacationers.

About 150 of Hatteras Island’s motel rooms were lost in Isabel. Many of those rooms won’t be replaced.

Diane Doyle, a resident of Hatteras Village for 23 years, still gets choked up when she thinks about what Isabel did to her community. She was one of about 300 residents who rode out the storm.

“We’re willing to withstand anything nature provides,” Ms. Doyle said. “This place is just paradise to us.”

What visitors won’t see is debris or half-standing homes. The majority of the work has been done or is in its final stages.

The Hatteras Marlin Motel underwent a $1.5 million renovation after Isabel flooded the ground floor. The motel’s two other buildings still need renovating. Crews worked diligently this week, bringing in new furniture and hanging pictures.

The Hatteras Marina was wiped out but the property, including a hotel and boat ramp, has been rebuilt.

Construction continues on Teach’s Lair Marina, which Mr. Midgett owns with some business partners.

Pre-Isabel plans called for three new buildings including restaurants and shops, but those plans were altered after the storm. Now one building, already constructed, will be a restaurant slated to open after Labor Day. The other two buildings, not yet built, will be apartments, adding much-needed accommodations.

Traffic outside the marina has started to increase and business has picked up with charters. A customer even bought a T-shirt last week.

“We haven’t sold a T-shirt since September,” said Bill Kingery, part owner of the marina. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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