Carloads of tourists rolled in, stores stocked seafood counters and kitchen workers chopped vegetables Friday as two North Carolina islands reopened to visitors after a weeklong power outage at the height of vacation season.
A line of cars was waiting to drive onto Hatteras Island at noon when vacationers were allowed to return, said Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Hester. It was a welcome sign that things were returning to normal on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands a week after a construction accident cut power, threatening seasonal businesses' bottom lines.
Word that power was fully restored Thursday set businesses racing to get ready for a wave of tourists arriving this weekend.
"I went fishing this morning and caught some and cut it and put in the bar anticipating customers coming in," said Nicholas Wolosuk, owner of Buxton Seafood on Hatteras Island.
He said he also made a special drive off Hatteras Island to a seafood supplier to get fully stocked. He said that Friday and Saturday are crucial days when arriving visitors buy food for the week. While he missed a prime week of business, he's glad the outage didn't last longer.
"It's a relief. I know these boys with the power companies, they have been rolling to get it all get done," he said.
To the south on Ocracoke Island, the kitchen staff at the Back Porch Restaurant was busy chopping vegetables and doing other prep work ahead of a Saturday reopening. Owner Daphne Bennink said generator power allowed them to save some high-priced meat and seafood, but they lost other food and had to order all new fresh produce.
"I've got a staff of about five people who are going to be putting in two full shifts today and tomorrow to be ready for tomorrow's dinner service, in my case, where everything is prepared fresh from scratch," said
Bennink, who employs 34 total at the restaurant and a cafe that serves lunch.
She said her staff also did a deep clean of the kitchen and tried to stay ready because of the uncertain timeframe for reopening.
"While we're used to having an evacuation, there's almost always a weather event that sort of gives us a tangible, visible timeline," she said. But because of the uncertainty about the outage, she said: "We've been perched, sort of ready."
Power was cut to the two islands early on the morning of July 27 when workers building a new bridge drove a steel casing into underground transmission lines. An estimated 50,000 tourists were ordered to leave during a make-or-break period for seasonal businesses, many of which close during the cold-weather months. It was initially feared that repairs could take weeks.
Dare County officials estimate that Hatteras Island businesses easily lost $2 million overall for each day of the outage, Hester said. She said the rough estimate is based on last year's tourism figures and could change.
Meanwhile, about 100 people attended a meeting Friday for business owners to begin tallying losses on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County. County spokesman Donnie Shumate said one restaurant owner calculated that the power outage was likely to cost the business around 11 percent of its yearly revenue.
Shumate said the county attorney will be leading negotiations to recoup business losses from the construction company that caused the accident, PCL Construction.
The company already faces at least four lawsuits by local business owners. Separately, those who had vacations cut short or canceled are working with property owners and travel insurance underwriters to try to recoup losses.
PCL Construction spokeswoman Stephanie McCay said in an email that the company has started a claims process to offer assistance for those affected by the outage.
Many visitors scheduled to arrive this weekend spent the past week closely watching updates from Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative. Those vacationers finally got a definitive answer Thursday afternoon when utility officials announced that power was back on.
Maryland resident Colleen Sax is heading to a rental house on Hatteras Island with her husband and two adult daughters, while other extended family is staying nearby.
"By Wednesday evening you were feeling optimistic; Thursday you were feeling much more hopeful," said Sax, who plans to start the eight-hour drive early Saturday morning. "I was really surprised when I found out it will be (reopened) today at noon.