by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 20, 2009
WHERE'S THE PIETA?
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C., Nov. 18, 2009 -- You saw it on the news. A region on the stormy shoulder of the Atlantic seaboard known as the Outer Banks was bracing desperately for a storm that was about to ram a nameless pile-driver into its quaint and pretty towns.
But it was a little different on the ground. Traffic moved slowly along Hwy. 158, weaving in and out of lanes to avoid the great pools of standing water. The rain cames in splayed pelting gusts, making it hard to see the truck that has suddenly slowed to a crawl just before the intersection, proceeding with caution through what looks like a river crossing.
Turning into a small neighborhood, the road is completely submerged; the yards are small ponds. Most of the houses are on stilts and so only the carports flooded. Others, however, were not so fortunate: the water lapped at foundations and doors.
As I drove through town as we waited for the storm to hit, I noticed the crowded parking lot outside the pier. Contrary to what I expected, considering the forecast of 18-to-25-foot swells that will come with the evening's high tide, I find people smiling. A weatherman is filming in the doorway. A few people stand on the deck, gazing towards the ocean, laughing and sometimes shouting hellos to some new arrival.
Around them, foam flies through the air with each crash, forming great sweeping piles on the planks. The wind is suddenly much more intense, even relentless, forcing the men to lean into each gust. The angry surf comes in white frothy pulses, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the individual waves. Looking to the end of the pier, the swells appear much larger, surging violently through the pylons sending great plumes of foam and spray high into the air.
Below, the water rushes over the sand, lapping at the base of the dunes. The beach is visible only intermittently. One of the men who is not with the tv crew says: "I can tell ya' she'll be gettin' wild tonight!" The photographer chuckles, "You say that like you're looking forward to it."
The man shakes his head grinning, "Well, storm's gonna do what it's gonna do. I figure ya may as well try 'n at least enjoy the spectacle."
Among Outer Banks locals, that was the predominant attitude as last week's storm lashed the region, one that has faced more than its share of them for a long, long time.
Talking to seasoned residents, there is a certain feeling of hardy nonchalance, as though this is nothing new, that it's "just another storm." Despite the winds, rain, and threatening surf, everything seemed normal. The lights are all on, and the neon signs say OPEN. Step into a restaurant on the eve of the storm and you might easily convince yourself the sun is shining.
A young man tried to explain: "Pretty much, it's just a lot of rain. You sit inside someplace or another and you wait it out. Sometime, it'll stop rainin'. Probably will've eaten up a little beach, maybe caused some damage to the houses that're right there on it - nothin' too serious. If it was like that, they'da been tellin' us to leave."
What makes this sentiment interesting is the knowledge that in the days before the storm, a hushed, invitation-only town meeting was held. A local business owner in attendance told me that an official from FEMA was present amid a group of local dignitaries. The possibility of serious damage being inflicted along the more vulnerable southern portions of the island was the main topic of discussion.
In postcard-pretty Rodanthe, for instance, Hwy. 12 runs through sections of land about as wide as a tough par five. Many of the homes through this stretch of beach have no dunes, leaving them extremely vulnerable to damage. In the wake of Hurricane Isabel, Hwy. 12 was rendered impassable, leaving southern residents stranded for days on end. However, Isabel was a Category 5 hurricane at one piunt.
What meteorologists deem to be the greatest threat from last week's storm were the high tides that occured last Thursday evening and Friday morning, when swells were expected to reach 18 to 25 feet. Unlike a hurricane, which typically only lasts a day or so, this storm lingered for nearly a week, dumping tremendous quantities of rain that cause a lot of flooding. On top of that, there was the surf that pushed over the dunes and into the streets.
Perhaps, if there were some greater effect, the clandestine meeting would not have been such a strange event. Yes, large mounds of sand were moved into place to block the gaps in various dunes that protect more populated areas. Utility trucks mobilized, and the fire department patrolled the beaches. But, as usual, storm-seasoned residents were dismissive of the possible danger.
On the official Outer Banks Website, the attitude becomes less enigmatic: "You may have heard that we are currently experiencing a classic Outer Banks nor'easter," the site noted, "with steady rains, strong surf and gusting winds which may carry into the weekend... This event aside, the Outer Banks has some great deals on accommodations and lodging, plus some great shopping opportunities... Fresh seafood is in season and plentiful."
It was a lot worse on tv.