The state Department of Transportation says it will reopen N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island by next Tuesday - more than six weeks after Hurricane Irene cut the road into pieces and severed the mainland lifeline for 5,000 island residents.
"Hallelujah!" Allen Burrus, a Buxton grocer and Dare County commissioner, said Wednesday when he heard the news. "It can't be quick enough. I'm ready."
DOT said the indispensable island highway will be open for traffic as soon as possible. "The hope is we can do it before Tuesday, maybe Monday," said Greer Beaty, a DOT spokeswoman. "But everything is crazy-dependent on the weather. Weather could blow everything off."
DOT contractors are building a 662-foot-long steel truss bridge across a gap, known locally as New New Inlet, created by Irene at the northern end of Hatteras Island.
Four miles south of the inlet, near the flooded resort town of Rodanthe, road crews are repaving parts of N.C. 12 that were washed away when Irene pushed a wall of water across the narrow island.
An overtaxed ferry system has provided the only access since Irene breached N.C. 12 on Aug. 27, separating Hatteras and neighboring Ocracoke islands from the mainland.
The limits of ferry service slowed the pace of hurricane recovery and suppressed the tourism traffic that sustains Ocracoke and Hatteras islands. Some businesses never reopened because the ferries did not deliver enough customers.
"I can't stay open with just 20 or 30 people a night in my big building," said Jane Metacarpa, co-owner of the Sandbar & Grille in Buxton. "I have to do 50 or 100 a night."
The reopening of N.C. 12 may come too late for Metacarpa's restaurant. Her business season normally ends in mid-November, and she doesn't know whether it will be worthwhile to reopen next week.
The repaired road also will restore public access to the heavily damaged villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, which remain closed to tourists and other nonresidents.
Ocracoke Islanders have suffered from the loss of N.C. 12, too. They receive most of their tourism business via N.C. 12 and a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Island, and they rely on the same route for trips to doctors and shopping centers near Nag's Head.