OAK ISLAND — Recovery on Oak Island, arguably the coastal community hit hardest by Hurricane Isaias, is slowly making progress.
With half the island still cut off to visitors, the town set a new deadline for itself Wednesday, hoping to lift its western-end short-term rental ban by Sept. 3.
Access to the western end of the beachfront is limited, allowing only homeowners and approved contractors along a six-mile stretch, creating an oddly empty summer atmosphere. At the same time, an equally strange scene is playing out on the eastern end of the island, where tourists and residents pack open beaches, staking their claim in front of staircases that once led to the decks of beachfront houses — but now lead nowhere.
Mattresses, refrigerators, dryers, couches, browning palm fronds, and other soaked debris clutter the right-of-way, waiting for a town pickup set to begin next week. Recent rains make already hazardous driving conditions on the western end of the island worse, with several blocks still impassable for low-riding vehicles.
Empty but rebuilding
The few residents sticking around on the beachfront describe conditions as desolate and depressing. But still, a steady crew of volunteers and neighborly actions remind full and part-timers why they moved to the island in the first place.
“Every time I’m out there, it’s like someone is here with a little snack pack,” Shirley Gaddy said while gathering debris at the front of her home. “It’s why you love Oak Island. Everybody is trying to account for everyone else and taking care of everyone else out here.”
Though there was still a port-a-potty floating in the creek behind her house 10 days after the storm and the scenic walkway looks like a roller coaster, Gaddy is counting her blessings. Some residents made it through the storm relatively unscathed, with just ground-level damage on homes supported by stilts. Single-story homes on the beachfront with no lift are almost surely damaged beyond repair.
About 1,000 homes incurred nearly $10 million in property damage, according to town estimates. Cleaning up the mess Isaias left could cost the town millions. Because the storm hasn’t been declared a federal disaster, municipalities are left with less of a safety net in fronting clean-up costs themselves.
Overtime alone has cost the town $67,000 so far, according to Kelly. Sand clearing and as-needed utility repairs cost the town $160,000; vegetative and construction debris collection and monitoring will cost an estimated $2 million.
In a Thursday morning meeting, the town provided preliminary numbers to FEMA, state, and county agencies. Kelly hopes to find out whether the area incurred enough damage to be declared a disaster, which would help the small town recoup these large expenses.
Late Wednesday, N.C. Governor Roy Cooper announced he is seeking U.S. Small Business Administration assistance for those impacted by the storm in Bertie County. The administration referenced damage in Brunswick County but did not make commitments.
James Jarvis, executive director of the Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross, was out in front of the Beach Pantry with his team Thursday morning, catching cars granted access as they pulled in past Middleton Avenue. Volunteers passed out cleaning supplies, shovels, trash bags, peanut butter, bread, rakes, and bottled water to more than 100 people during their three-hour stop.
“We would have been here sooner but we were waiting for the island to lift the mandatory evacuation order,” Jarvis said. Besides the EF-3 tornado that touched down in Bertie County, killing two and injuring 14, he guessed conditions on Oak Island were probably the most severe in the state.
“It roared through much more powerful than people were expecting,” Jarvis said of Isaias.
A six-foot storm surge totaled dozens of vehicles, leaving them littered across the island the next day. It presented beachfront communities with a new problem: floating cars as fire hazards. Besides the danger of a 1.5-ton vehicle plowing through pilings, a car’s electrical system submerged in water can spark a fire, fueled by wood structures nearby.
Because Isaias brought southern Brunswick County beaches the largest surge in recent memory, leaders didn’t think to warn visitors and homeowners to move their vehicles further upland. After a series of devastating fires on Ocean Isle Beach, the town warned residents to disconnect car and golf cart batteries and move the vehicles away from structures two days after the storm — a storm precaution measure unfamiliar to many coastal residents.
The surge wiped out nearly all of Oak Island’s dune structures, leaving oceanfront homes exposed to future storms halfway through the busiest predicted storm season on record. Large lumps of sand rest on nearly every oceanfront side street, temporarily useless to town officials due to contamination and loggerhead sea turtle protections.
Isaias was a 10 or 25-year storm event, Town Manager David Kelly told Council in a meeting last week. By Aug. 14, all town utilities were back online after restoring sewer to the last several blocks along the west end.
“[It’s] been a little hectic but our Town is digging out and the community is working together and supporting our citizens and each other,” Kelly wrote in an email Wednesday.
Two weeks after Hurricane Isaias made landfall, about 200 residential units on Oak Island remained without power as of Monday, according to Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation spokesperson Sherry Skumanick. “We are reconnecting steady, every day we’ve been reconnecting,” she said.
After the storm, the town tagged electrical units with either visible damage or with suspected water damage. BEMC reenergized its local Oak Island system Aug. 8, waiting for town authorizations to restore power to about 1,000 tagged houses.
“Many of those homes were at risk and needed to be thoroughly inspected before reconnection,” Skumanick said. Though BEMC had to address tagged houses one-by-one, Skumanick said power restoration for Isaias was BEMC’s quickest yet.
“This is definitely not a run of the mill storm. In my tenure at BEMC, I’ve never seen the extent of damage that Isaias has caused,” he said.
‘They should have never built on these lots’
Twenty-one-year homeowner John Clift got his power turned back on midday Thursday after roughing it for the week. “At night, you leave all the windows open, you get a nice ocean breeze,” Clift said of his AC-less nights. Of Brunswick County’s seven waterfront municipalities, three ordered mandatory evacuations of non-residents: Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, and Bald Head Island.
Clift had weekly renters in his home the night the hurricane made landfall and heard stories of his neighbor’s renters getting rescued from the surge out of a one-story home. He said he felt the town glossed over Isaias’ predicted impacts.
“The town of Oak Island really missed the boat. They should have declared a mandatory evacuation and gotten these people out of here,” Clift said of vacationers.
The town didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until the day after the storm hit, needing to clear residents and vacationers out of a risky area lacking utilities.
A decade back, Clift remembers when the oceanfront lots in front of his home were designated as unbuildable. It’s hard not to consider that memory when looking at an under-construction house, its concrete slab buckled under the washout — a common sight along Beach Drive for recently-built homes.
Before the more recent building, Clift said his home was protected by a dune that was removed during construction.
“They came in and they scooped out the whole street side dune. What dune we had to protect us from the ocean was ruined,” he said of the development process. Since purchasing his home after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Clift said Isaias is the first time water reached his house. He believes development along Beach Drive left his home more vulnerable this time around.
“They should have never built on these lots. Not without an oceanside dune for protection,” he said.
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