Outside of the vitriol, ire, and speculation racing through the digital world of #OBXBlackout, Hatteras was a very different place during the recent blackout. It was quiet. It was January with warm water; a hurricane without the devastating property damage.
Around 4:30 the morning of Thursday, July 27th alarm clocks shut off, fans slowed, and refrigerators began their slow warming process. True to form, Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative started assessing the problem long before the sun began to peek over the horizon. It would not be for several hours until residents and visitors learned that overnight construction of the much-needed new Bonner Bridge accidentally severed the transmission cable responsible for carrying electricity to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.
As quickly as rumors and theories began sweeping the beach, portable generators were rumbling across the state. Everyone was asked bid farewell to their beloved air conditioning so as to allow the Buxton diesel generating plant to come to life. Tideland Electric Membership Corporation attempted to bring the Ocracoke generator online, but it failed. With additional generators not scheduled to arrive until Friday, a mandatory evacuation was ordered.
As rolling blackouts circulated electricity between Buxton and Hatteras village, more generators arrived. Those who held memories of the island’s isolation after a dredge crashed into the Bonner Bridge in 1990 began to speculate if Hatteras would be evacuated too. Officially, Hatteras was open and ready to continue through the busiest weeks of the summer, the make-it-or-break-it days. Crews worked overnight to bring generators online but encountered setbacks. Parts were ordered, help arrived from neighboring linemen and construction crews, and a mandatory evacuation of visitors was ordered to begin early Saturday morning.
As guests left, the power slowly began to return to the northern reaches of Hatteras Island. Bottles and words began flying through the air towards people working on the new bridge. Internet arguments intensified. Death threats were called into rental companies. Businesses closed. Hot weather and rumors of long repair timelines fueled anger on every side of the situation. In the era of instant gratification, uncertainty and fear fed fiery tempers. Hard earned vacations were lost and employment status became suspended in mid-air. During the busiest weeks of the summer, no one was left unaffected when the lights went out.
Then the wind shifted. A northeast breeze brought October temperatures through the open windows of Hatteras Island. Outside of the internet, a quiet calm fell over the beach. The blackout was an unprecedented event, but to play to the old cliche, Hatteras folks are hardy. While rare, something like this blackout seems almost normal. One could argue that to live on Hatteras is to expect that, eventually, you will have to rough it. To live here is to almost assume that despite all of our modern conveniences, life will, at some point, will be made difficult simply by nature of geography. A week without lights could be chalked up to just being a part of life on this ever-shifting sandbar no matter how unusual it may be in reality.
I have been on the island in some capacity my whole life. I am too young to fully remember “The Old Days,” but old enough to sense a familiarity in our forced summer break. The quiet stillness felt like the winter, but the warm air paired with that stillness felt like those faded memories of my early childhood. I have spent more years than I care to admit working in hospitality and while the days without power were amongst the most stressful of my career, the simple life forced upon us by a construction accident proved to be intensely restorative.
There is a particular quiet that befalls Hatteras when our visiting population leaves. There is an endless sea of stars above when no one can interrupt with eternally lit outdoor lights. The frog chorus sings loud and clear without competition from the hum of Highway 12. The perfectly timed albeit unseasonably cool breeze brought the sound of the ocean through open windows. Left hand turns could be made with ease. Despite the fears and apprehension of what lay ahead, locals did the best they could to make the most of our January in July. Communities came together for stargazing, cookouts on the beach, and general merriment. Locals banded together in support of each other.
Livelihoods were affected and food was lost. A week without visitors could spell death for a small business. Food banks were depleted. It was a hurricane with great weather. On Friday, August 4th the evacuation was lifted and Hatteras was ready to welcome our visitors back. The return of full power brought the return of summer, this time with a fresh sense of gratitude sweeping in with the return of our guests.