OBX power outage has businesses, visitors anxiously waiting

Officials on Tuesday night say electricity could be restored in four to six days

North Carolina Department of Transportation—North Carolina Department of Transportation
The N.C. Department of Transportation Ferry Division loaded two 90,000-pound electric generators bound for Okracoke Island aboard the Motor Vessel Sea Level. The Tideland Electrical Membership Corporation is hoping to use the generators to restore temporary power to much of the island. (North Carolina Department of Transportation—)

RALEIGH —— Last week’s power outage on the southern Outer Banks that led to the evacuation of about 50,000 people and brought parts of the coastal region’s tourism industry to a screeching halt is still being repaired, officials said in a press release Tuesday.

“Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative (CHEC) continues its execution of two simultaneous solutions to restore transmission service to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands,” CHEC said in the statement.

The outage occurred last Thursday when PCL Civil Constructors severed two underwater power cables while working on the new 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet that connects Bodie Island and Pea Island.

The mistake cut power to the southern Outer Banks, leading to the mandatory evacuation of all visitors to the seven villages on Hatteras Island (Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras) and Okracoke Island. The evacuation cut short the vacation of several travelers and put at risk the plans of upcoming visitors as repairs continue during the peak tourism season.

“It’s tough. Tourism is a huge business in the state — a $23 billion business that employs more than 200,000 people,” Wit Tuttell, executive director of the state Commerce Department’s N.C. Tourism, said. “So the impact has a ripple across most of the coast because these visitors, while they may stay on the Outer Banks, they’ll stop at other places along the way, too. So we hate to see anything like that happen and we hope it will be resolved as quick as possible.

“Crews have worked around the clock since the incident and already repaired one of the two severed cables, plus began setting poles to run an overhead transmission line on the east side of Highway 12, officials said during a Monday press conference, adding that whichever solution was completed and tested first would be used to restore power as soon as possible. CHEC estimated Tuesday night it would take four to six more days to turns power back on.

“I think clearly the Outer Banks have faced storms before that have knocked out power, so this is not anything that’s unfamiliar. … But this is a little bit different in that this is man-made accident that has occurred here and it’s a different situation,” Gov. Roy Cooper said during Monday’s press conference near the bridge construction.

The sooner power is restored the faster Hatteras and Okracoke islands can reopen to visitors. In the meantime, it’s a waiting game for those who have reserved homes in those areas and the businesses who count on the summer months to turn a profit.

“It is hitting at a very, very bad time,” said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association. “This is the very peak of the visitor season, so it is hitting them pretty hard.”

Further complicating matters is vacationers who opted out of paying for travel insurance — and even some who did pay — on their rental homes are at the mercy of leasing companies when it comes to refunds.

Midgett Realty, one of the companies that rents home on Hatteras Island, posted a “moving forward after mandatory evacuation” page on its website that outlines what renters can do if they were forced to evacuate or are at risk of missing their upcoming vacations.

On the page, Midgett gives three scenarios: those who purchased insurance; those who purchased insurance but the carrier is denying coverage because the incident is not a covered event (the page mentions Berkshire Hathaway as claiming the event is a man-made, not natural, disaster and thus not covered); and those who did not purchase insurance.

Midgett says on its site it will approach refund claims of those who did not purchase travel insurance on a case-by-case basis.

“Travel is about having a good time and having fun, so anything that doesn’t work out the way the visitor anticipates is a negative, and you hate to see that,” Tuttell said. “But it’s also a business, and like any other business there are contracts and details, and people stick to those details. It’s unfortunate when that happens, you never want to see that.

“Cooper said he would discuss options with state Attorney General Josh Stein to “find solutions for that problem.” Calls to Midgett Realty and Sun Realty, another Outer Banks vacation home rental company, were not returned.

Lee Nettles, executive director of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau that serves Dare County, said 75 percent of its tourism is “chugging along” but he is hopeful for a quick fix for the affected areas.

“It’s something else,” Nettles said. “We contend with hurricane season every year, but you really don’t expect something like this.”