OCRACOKE ISLAND, N.C. (AP) One sentiment seems to over ride all others when islanders talk about closing their only road for 10 weeks this winter: It could be worse.
“This is a better situation than when we had Hurricane Isabel,” said Cheryl Ballance, the director of Ocracoke EMS, referring to the two months in 2003 that N.C. Highway 12 was closed in Hatteras.
“The road was closed and we had no plans. This is a controlled situation.”
Seven bridges on N.C. 12 will be replaced between Jan. 2 and March 15. Instead of having one lane of traffic for at least 16 months, the North Carolina Department of Transportation decided, with the community’s input, that it made more sense to do all the bridges at once.
With the road between the ferry docks and the village closed, traffic on the 16-mi.-long (25.7 km) island will be diverted onto a 3-mi. (4.8 km) stretch of beach — a first since the road was opened in the mid-1950s. Traffic will be detoured off N.C. Highway 12 between the pony pens and the campground. As a practical matter, vehicles should be four-wheel drive.
“We recognize the challenge and the hardship this project will be,” Jerry Jennings, state Department of Transportation division operations engineer, said during a presentation Oct. 3 at the Ocracoke Community Center.
Jennings said he has heard the project being compared to pulling wisdom teeth: It’s dreaded, but it’s best to get it over with.
“We know it’s not the ideal situation,” he said.
Contracted to Carolina Bridge Co. of Orangeburg, S.C., for about $8 million, the project is funded by the North Carolina Moving Ahead program, said Stan White, who represents Division 1 on the state Board of Transportation.
White said that fund requires a project to be completed in two years. Early on, contractors had determined that the Ocracoke bridges were not made to be cut in half, a necessity to maintain one lane of traffic.
“Somewhere in that line of conversation, someone said, ’Well, if we can do it all at once, we can do all of them,’” White told the packed room. The inconvenience of the closed road would be compensated, he said, by the project being completed in one fell swoop without having to worry about losing the funding.
Over the months, the DOT has worked with the National Park Service, Hyde County, emergency and medical personnel and the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association in establishing a plan that would ensure that all services are maintained and emergency needs could be taken care of.
Staging for the project will begin in November, said Sterling Baker, DOT division maintenance engineer. The goal is to have about 40 percent of the pilings in place before the detour begins.
Provisions in the plan include:
• Dedicated ferries will be provided for contractors, and garbage and gas trucks will be assigned priority on certain days.
• The normal ferry schedule will be modified.
• Two ambulances will be staged at the pony pens, and another in the village.
• Ramps on and off the beach will be equipped with a grid fabric.
• Park rangers will patrol the beach. A patrol also will be made after the last ferry.
• Message signs to inform the public about the detour will be placed at Whalebone Junction, Avon and at the Hatteras, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferry docks.
• Medication, laboratory sample and mail deliveries will be assisted by the park service.
• An air pump will be available at the northern ferry terminal.
• Towing services for vehicles stuck on the beach will be provided by the DOT at no cost.
People are encouraged to yield to emergency vehicles and avoid sightseeing while traveling on the detour.
Although a few innkeepers are concerned about the loss of business, very few businesses are usually open during those months, said Jamie Tunnell, who represents the business and civic association on the control group, which plans for emergencies.
“That’s why the project was designated at this time,” she said. “It is absolutely the deadest time.”
Many of the estimated 850 year-round residents typically leave the island for the winter or hole up, said Tunnell, who also is the county’s part-time administrative assistant on Ocracoke. But this winter, she said, those villagers who venture out will be urged to avoid going north as much as possible and to car pool and help each other with rides.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for the community to work together,” she said.
Carl Classen, the interim county manager, said the tourist season begins Easter weekend, which in 2008 is just one week after the road is scheduled to reopen.
Although the project will not be completed until mid-May, he said that the contractor has “big incentives” to reopen the road by the promised March 15.
“Whatever we plan for, Mother Nature will dish up something that we have to deal with,” he said. “All I can tell you is we are doing our best to plan for all the contingencies that we normally plan for on an island.”