On Hatteras, 'We just need help'

Men's shorts and mosquito repellent are still in demand at the Really Really Free Market, a take-what-you-need center for hurricane-stunned Hatteras Islanders. The local volunteers are stockpiling cold-weather goods, too.

"We're having to take in stuff for needs that are three and four months down the road, like January-February winter clothing," said Jennifer Johnson of Hatteras, one of the market organizers. "Many people lost all their clothing when it floated away with their mobile home or whatever. Everything that was stored under most people's houses is gone."

Five weeks after Hurricane Irene pushed a four-foot wave from the sound to the sea, the 5,000 residents of Hatteras Island are cut off from the world and fending mostly for themselves.

A Dare County deputy parks south of Salvo to keep outsiders out of three northern villages that absorbed Irene's worst blows. The streets of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo are lined with smashed campground trailers and heaps of spoiled beds, chairs and refrigerators still being dragged out of a few hundred houses that were flooded in the Aug. 27 storm.

"We just need help," said Chris Davis, 28, of Kill Devil Hills, a Hatteras Island native who volunteered for a couple of days to help speed the recovery. "This place is a whole lot worse than what any news channel's ever said."

Davis was part of a three-member crew organized by N.C. Baptist Men to yank ruined flooring and wallboard out of damp, stinking houses. He was sweating as he pulled wet, yellow insulation from a Salvo bookkeeper's home and heaved it into his pickup truck.

Irene opened a new inlet north of Rodanthe on Hatteras Island and closed a five-mile section of the island's indispensable highway, N.C. 12. It severed the mainland link for all seven villages - and for most of the sport fishermen, birdwatchers, campers and cottage renters who sustain the Outer Banks economy. Tourists are allowed to visit only the four southern villages, and only if they reserve passage on the overbooked ferries from the mainland to neighboring Ocracoke.

For residents and others with passes, an emergency ferry provides round-the-clock runs from the Dare County mainland to Rodanthe. Passengers sometimes wait five hours for the two-hour trip.

The isolation has slowed the island's recovery.

Susan Gray could sell truckloads of lumber - and more carpenters could get busy fixing houses - if she could persuade more of her suppliers to make deliveries from the mainland to Dare Building Supply, the store she manages in Waves.

Normally their trucks would drive out from the mainland on U.S. 64 to the northern Outer Banks, and then turn south on N.C. 12 - a 30-mile drive from Nag's Head.

"Very few of our suppliers have been willing to come over on the ferry," said Gray, 44. "Most of the companies are not willing to pay drivers the ferry time, two hours over and two hours back. ... You can't promise anybody anything because of the ferry, the long lines, and the weather."

Losses uncounted

There is little government activity here. No public or private agencies have compiled a comprehensive estimate of Irene's damages.

Greta Skeen, the Dare County tax assessor, published a preliminary count five days after the storm, listing 500 houses damaged - including 51 deemed uninhabitable - in Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo and Avon. Island residents say those numbers probably are low.

Skeen quit counting when Dare had enough information to qualify for federal disaster status, and she said she had no plans to update the numbers. Other parts of the county also suffered, especially Colington Island near Kill Devil Hills.

Some Hatteras residents say they'd like more of a presence by county officials. Gray said she was fed up after calling health, mosquito control and emergency management offices in Manteo, the county seat, and hearing long recorded messages each time.

"When people are calling that are paying your taxes to get county services, you should answer the phone," Gray said.

Officials say they try

Bobby Outten, the county manager, said he has visited the island several times since Irene struck at the end of August.

"It's basically all the county has done for a month," Outten said. "Just about 99 percent of our attention has been devoted to Hatteras Island. All of our agencies are up and working there - emergency management, social services, health department, building inspectors - the people who do the things you need for recovery."

County administrators work mostly from Manteo, about 30 miles north of Rodanthe, in a disaster recovery center staffed also by FEMA and several state agencies. Each weekday afternoon they confer by radio with Hatteras Island's volunteer fire chiefs.

"We put in our requests for supplies so the county or whoever can work on filling those needs," said Mike Daugherty of Waves, the Rodanthe-Waves fire chief.

He said county officials moved fast on the chiefs' pleas for cleaning supplies, rakes and pitchforks. They sent more than 1,000 wax-coated corrugated fish boxes for residents to store personal items salvaged after the storm.

"As soon as we put in a request for tetanus shots, they set up three clinics," said Daugherty, 44. "They gave out hundreds of free tetanus shots to residents and rescue workers."

New New Inlet grows

Hatteras is one of the longest islands in the United States, forming a slender shield between the turbulent Atlantic and the broad Pamlico Sound estuary. On the map, the island is a bony arm reaching 50 miles south from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Inlet, with a bend at the Cape Hatteras elbow.

It's the central link in North Carolina's Outer Banks, a fragile chain of barrier islands and a major tourist destination. Most of the island is taken up by the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

N.C. 12, running from Corolla to Ocracoke, serves as the Outer Banks' economic lifeline.

Inlets have opened and closed over the centuries. The village of Hatteras was cut off for two months in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel blew out a 3,000-foot section of N.C. 12 south of Frisco.

This time, Irene scarcely ruffled the southern end of Hatteras Island. The new breaches in N.C. 12 are clustered at the north end.

The biggest opening in the island, five miles south of Oregon Inlet, is a 220-foot gap that has been dubbed New New Inlet. It's not far from old bridge pilings that mark the historic site of New Inlet, which dates from 1720 and was last closed in the 1930s.

A nor'easter two weeks ago opened the inlet a bit wider, enough to topple a National Park Service storage building that had teetered on the edge. Contractors for the state Department of Transportation are working around the clock to span the inlet with a 662-foot-long modular steel truss bridge.

Four miles south of New New Inlet, DOT last week began repaving a blown-out section of N.C. 12 that has been rebuilt and bolstered with hundreds of three-ton sandbags. Pablo Hernandez, a DOT engineer supervising the work, expects to reopen N.C. 12 in mid-October.

Volunteers needed

Irene undermined expensive vacation homes in Rodanthe's Mirlo Beach neighborhood, a vulnerable spot that had lost several houses to the surf over the past decade. But most of the damage this time came to year-round residents who live less lavishly on the sound side.

"My house got 19 inches," said Gray, the building supply store manager. Irene was the first storm ever to flood her single-story home, built in 1957. "Just enough that it got all the beds and pretty much all my furniture. I had water in my oven, water in the dryer."

Carpenters will make Gray's house livable again, and others as well. The first step is ripping out wet insulation, floors and wallboard, to arrest the spread of mold in walls and ceilings.

"It's getting worse," said Billy Layton, an N.C. Baptist Men volunteer who oversees teams of five to 20 workers each day. "This mold starts, and it grows up the wall."

Layton's crews pull out the soggy stuff, spray bleach to kill the mold, turn on fans and open windows to let the houses dry.

"If I could have had 45 or 50 volunteers for the last two weeks, I'd be through here," said Layton, 54, who lives near Rocky Mount. "It's taking longer for them to get here, so the mold is still growing."

In August, he was part of a Baptist Men's team erecting four new houses in Bertie County to replace homes destroyed in April by a deadly swarm of tornadoes. After Hurricane Irene struck the North Carolina coast, he decided there was more need for his help here on Hatteras Island.

The Bertie residents can afford to wait a little longer, he said. They have safe places to stay until their new homes are ready.

"But these folks don't have temporary housing here," Layton said at the community center in Rodanthe, where the Baptist Men provide showers, laundry and three meals a day for hurricane victims.

"You've got folks living with neighbors, and some still living in mold-infested homes. People out here on this island have asthma and all kinds of breathing difficulties, and we're tearing out their walls and everything, and they're still trying to live there," Layton said.

Gov. Bev Perdue visited the community center and the Really Really Free Market Friday to thank the volunteers.

Too few places to live

Homeless islanders are sleeping on friends' couches and on cots in fire stations. They'll need beds for the winter while their homes are repaired. Hatteras has more than 2,000 rental cottages, but they're priced high above what most residents can afford.

FEMA gave Daugherty and his wife a rental allowance of $650 a month - the water ran 30 inches deep in their little house - and that's about half the market rate for a week at the beach. They found a cousin who accepted the money to let them sleep upstairs in a house that is being repaired downstairs.

Laura Dillard, a housing counselor working in Rodanthe for the state Emergency Management Division, tries to help Irene's victims find affordable places to stay.

"What we need here are FEMA camping trailers, at least, to get these people through the wintertime," Dillard said. "People say, 'If I can just get something to live in on my lot, while I rebuild.' These people cannot move out of this area. They work here."

Marvin Davis, a FEMA spokesman in Raleigh, said decisions about trailers are made on a case-by-case basis where other options are not available.

Across Dare County so far, FEMA has approved $2.5 million in requests for repairs, appliances, clothes, rent and other Irene aid.

Back at the Really Really Free Market in Waves, Janet Bigney of Rodanthe inventoried a truckload of baby clothes, toys and formula just delivered from a church in Nag's Head. She consulted one of the many lists that are compiled and checked every day.

"They need size-one diapers at the community center," Bigney said. "So if we have any here, I'll take some."

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