By JOY CRIST
For better and for worse, 2016 was a memorable year.
And before we get into the meat and potatoes of this blog entry – a review of the stories that the got the most attention from readers over the past 12 months – I want to start with a brief disclaimer. This is my first blog for the Island Free Press as a staff writer, and I fully recognize that I have big shoes to fill.
Anyone who knows our editor knows that she is vital to our local media. She is a genuine gift that somehow landed on Hatteras Island, and who has made our community – and our access to essential information -- infinitely better.
Irene led her staff to a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 when she was managing editor of the Louisville, Ky.-based Courier-Journal. Irene is also the person who ran the now defunct Island Breeze for a couple of decades, sculpting it into one of the initial legitimate news sources for our islands, years before the Internet was a “thing.”
And once the Internet was a “thing,” Irene broke new ground by starting the fabulous publication you are reading at this very moment – the Island Free Press – which, in my not-so-humble opinion, was a revolutionary move that single-handedly made our local media much better than it ever was before. Other online newspapers followed, to be sure, which is a great thing indeed, but Irene was the first.
And, as usual, she set the bar.
This is the reason why I followed Irene when she launched her new Island Free Press endeavor almost a decade ago, and which is why I have been actively trying to write for her since I graduated college in 2002.
I’m honored to write for the IFP, and perhaps share a little info or a different perspective via a few blogs. I just wanted to make it clear – from the onset – that my voice is just a complementary voice to the editor's.
But, in my defense, I also have the best mentor you could seriously hope for. And my guess is, being the astute editor that she is, Irene may very well delete the first few paragraphs I’ve just written because they are in no way newsworthy.
So with that being said, let’s get started by taking a look at a somewhat easy – although highly debatable – topic for this inaugural blog entry, which are my choices for the most influential news stories of 2016.
It’s impossible to cover the past year without focusing on the back-to-back storms, Hermine and Matthew, which took aim at Hatteras and Ocracoke in the fall of 2016. Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 9, was an especially devastating blow, especially to Frisco and Hatteras villages, resulting in more than 70 flooded homes in Hatteras village alone,
and producing more soundside flooding than most islanders had seen in their lifetime, which included reports of more than 5 feet of water on Highway 12.
After the storm, we talked to a number of residents who attested that the flooding was the “worst they had seen,” which included lifelong residents who had lived through 1993’s Hurricane Emily and 2003’s Hurricane Isabel.
If there’s a silver lining to this story, however, it’s what happened after the storm, and what is still happening now.
In the days that followed, a massive island-wide effort took place that resulted in groups of volunteers helping out villagers in need. Residents were flocking to Hatteras and Frisco from Buxton, Avon, and even the tri-villages, under the much heard mantra of “They helped us when we were hit by Irene, Alex, etc. – so it’s our turn to lend a hand.”
This was coupled with the efforts of the local residents themselves, who are pretty well known for dusting off after a storm and getting back to business. In fact, a number of Hatteras businesses were open in time for the Thanksgiving crowd – including the hard hit Oden’s Dock and Sonny’s – and the 25th annual Hatteras Village Christmas Parade, which occurred just two months after Matthew, which was one of the most festive yet.
It could be argued that the historic flooding itself is the biggest story of the year, but to give credit where it’s due, the bouncing back of Hatteras is arguably the best story.
Though “getting back to normal” is what islanders do well – and, unfortunately, often – the support of the island, and the enthusiasm of Hatteras and Frisco in general to move forward, is what sets our area apart.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/10.09.2016-MatthewsStormSurgeMaySetRecordOnSouthernHatterasWITHSLIDESHOW.html
HOLY COW, WE'RE BUILDING A BRIDGE!
Apparently, good things do come to those who wait – and who are wonderfully and aggressively persistent.
The current Bonner Bridge surpassed its 30-year-lifespan in 1993. It was also ranked a “4” by the NCDOT out of a scale of 1 to 100 when it came to bridge safety, with 100 being the highest-- though we can rest assured that it is regularly checked by the Department of Transportation and safe for travel.
And yet, it still took years – or rather decades at this point – for groundbreaking on a new bridge to actually begin. Along the way, numerous residents and grassroots organizations joined the fight – from the “Replace the Bridge NOW” movement in the mid-2000s, to the more recent "Bridge Moms," who got politicians’ attention by sharing their very valid concerns for their families.
But begin it did, in March of 2016, and Highway 12 has been an annoying and yet glorious construction zone ever since, as residents and visitors look forward to the brand new bridge which is slated to be completed by November 2018. (The overall project, which includes the demolition of the current bridge, is scheduled to be completed by September 2019.)
And the new Bonner Bridge isn’t the only improvement residents can look forward to along Highway 12. The replacement “temporary” bridge across Irene’s Inlet is also in full swing, and the new bridge on the northern edge of Rodanthe that will bypass the troublesome S-curves and Mirlo Beach will also be underway soon.
And while the March 8 groundbreaking ceremony was certainly an initial highlight of the story, the ensuing path to a new bridge had some other momentous occasions throughout 2016 as well – namely, when two runaway barges landed in Avon after Matthew blew them south and had to be moved 30 miles back to where they belonged.
So in short, it looks like the Bonner Bridge is going to remain on the “Top Stories of the Year” list for a couple more years to come. And the great news is that – with the exception of unexpected setbacks (like a runaway barge) – it looks like this story will have an eventual happy ending.
There were some bright aspects of 2016 to be sure, (see the aforementioned ‘Holy Cow! We’re Building a Bridge!’ section), but not all the news coming out of 2016 was nice and tidy.
Enter the realm of commercial and recreational fishing.
Local anglers dealt with a lot of blows from a number of combatants in 2016, which included a possible expansion of the USS Monitor Marine Sanctuary that the fishing and diving industries think could adversely affect them, new regulations on cobia fishing, recent proposed new troubles with shrimping and other commercial fishing restrictions, and the continued battle to get out of Hatteras Inlet without bumping bottom or getting stranded.
Watermen fought back, of course, and were present and vocal at local public meetings that addressed the aforementioned issues, but it’s a topic that is worrisome for many residents, and fishermen all across the islands are continuously concerned about what’s happening now, and what’s to come.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/01.12.2016-NOAAReleasesExpansionProposalForMonitorNationalMarineSanctuary.htm
Another low point in 2016 was the high number of drownings and near-drownings that occurred throughout the summer and fall months in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
As of Oct. 19, a total of eight people had drowned off the islands’ beaches, which included two deaths reported on Ocracoke, four deaths in the tri-villages area, one in the northern end of Buxton, and one in Frisco. For comparison, there were no drowning deaths reported in 2015, and it’s highly unusual for more than one or two drownings to be reported along the national seashore in a year's time. The eight deaths is a record number -- or at least the highest number that most seashore officials and residents can remember.
All the drownings have been linked to rip currents, which are the major cause of death in the seashore. They are also, according to the National Weather Service, the number one public safety risk on the nation's beaches -- even though sharks grab more attention and get bigger headlines.
The National Park Service and local organizations, including the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, the Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue (which celebrated its 30th season in 2016), and area vacation rental companies, are already active in rip current education, but you can look for them to step up their game in getting the word out about rip current safety in 2017.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/10.19.2016-75YearOldVisitorIsSeashoresEighthDrowningDeath.html
RECORD NUMBER OF SEA TURTLE NESTS
The National Seashore had a record number of sea turtle nests in 2016, with a total of 325 nests reported for the year, according to data gathered from http://www.seaturtle.org/. It was the second consecutive year that this record was broken and was part of a national trend that saw high numbers of sea turtle nests all along the Southeastern Seaboard.
In addition, 2016 also marked the first full year that the National Park Service added ORV corridors to help keep more beaches open, despite the sky-high number of nest sites. Roughly 20 corridors had been temporarily established by late August, during the height of the nesting season, according to Michelle Havens, the former chief of resource management for the NPS Outer Banks Group. “They’ve been a tremendous success in allowing access to areas where the beach would have otherwise been closed,” she said in an Aug. 12 interview.
The reason for the influx of turtle nests has been tied to national conservation efforts that have been in place for years, as well as weather and environmental factors, which means that 2017 might very well be another banner year for island visitors of the turtle variety.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/08.12.2016-SeashoreHasAnotherRecordYearForSeaTurtleNests.html
It’s a fact of life that strange things wash up on the local beaches, but when they do, it always causes a stir. It’s the reason why photos of unusual finds go viral on Facebook and social media, and why many locals still talk about The Great Dorito Jackpot of 2006, where hundreds of bags of Doritos washed ashore along the Frisco shoreline – and what a glorious day that was!
And in 2016, locals were left scratching their heads over the mystery of a Cuban refugee boat that washed ashore in Avon off of Greenwood Place on Sept. 27. The roughly 20-foot Styrofoam and wooden vessel still had supplies on board – which included bottled water, 30 cans of sardines, and 40 gallons of extra diesel fuel – but the former passengers were nowhere in sight, leading officials and locals to speculate what had happened.
Then, to add to the mystery, two more apparent Cuban refugee boats washed up in Avon close to the same locale just a couple weeks later on Oct. 8. These two vessels included a rustic pallet that had been marked by the U.S. Coast Guard, and a second boat sans-markings that was in much better shape, and which had a diesel engine, extra fuel, and a number of leftover items, such as hot dogs, ball caps, and giant bags of crackers.
Officials and locals theorized that the boats’ arrivals coincided with the recent storms, but the mystery remains as to what happened to the people onboard. Meanwhile, the vessels became a curious exhibit of sorts, and -- thanks to Jarvis Williams of Jarvis’ Towing -- the boats can still be examined at their temporary home by the Exxon gas station in Buxton.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/10.08.2016-TwoMoreAbandonedRefugeeBoatsWashSshoreOnHatterasaWITHSLIDESHOW.html
Locals and long-time visitors everywhere were devastated to find that one of the island’s most popular watering holes and seafood joints – Pop’s Raw Bar – had caught on fire on Oct. 6. The eatery is a local icon, with at least one patron describing is as “Like 'Cheers,' but extra salty,” and the fire that started at 5:03 p.m. held up traffic along Highway 12 for several hours, with southbound traffic backed up all the way to Buxton Village Books by 7 p.m.
Damage to the building was significant, but anyone who has driven along Highway 12 in the months since the fire has surely noticed the progressing construction as Pop’s gets put back together – giving plenty of hope for cold beer and seafood fans everywhere.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/10.05.2016-FireAtPopsRawBarSnarlsTrafficInBuxtonWITHSLIDESHOW.html
While national politics certainly had its share of memorable moments in 2016 -- and I’m not going to touch that subject with a 10-foot pole -- our own local political scene saw some big changes as well.
Allen Burrus, who had served for 10 years on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, decided not to run for re-election for health reasons in 2016. During his tenure, Burrus tackled a number of issues that put islanders’ interests first, and said he was proudest of the work the board has done to improve substance abuse prevention andtreatment in the county. Also at the top of his list was getting ground broken for the Bonner Bridge replacement and other Highway 12 projects on northern Hatteras, according to a radio interview with Irene Nolan for Radio Hatteras earlier this month.
Burrus’ replacement, Danny Couch, is another strong Hatteras Island proponent who is well known as our island historian, and who is a lifetime local with a strong interest in community and civic organizations. Danny has a popular tour bus business, is a Realtor, and is an active community member in volunteer organizations, such as the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, where he serves as president. In many locals’ minds, Danny is the perfect replacement to represent islander’s interests, due to his passion and long history of supporting his hometown community.
But perhaps the political story that will linger well after 2016 is the loss of Warren Judge, who passed away in early November at the age of 65.
Warren was a true friend to Hatteras Island. Serving nine years on the tourism board before he was elected to the Dare County Board of Commissioners in 2000, Warren was a very familiar face throughout the island, where he travelled to attend almost all public meetings and events, and lent his voice to the issues that islanders cared about the most – from the replacement of the Bonner Bridge, to concerns over the USS Monitor Marine Sanctuary expansion.
On a personal note, Warren Judge -- with help from Allen Burrus – was responsible for getting me home after being evacuated for roughly 10 days after 2011’s Hurricane Irene – a remarkable kindness I have never forgotten.
When the evacuation was lifted, we waited in a hot line of cars in Stumpy Point for about five hours for the emergency ferry to take us back home, when at about 9 p.m., the ferries stopped running for some reason. Wondering what was going on, we called Irene, who in turn called Warren, who got the ball rolling to get the ferries running until all the hundreds of families who were stuck on the mosquito-infested mainland could get back to the island.
Once I was onboard with my grumpy pets and equally grumpy husband, Warren – who didn’t know me from Adam – even called me personally just to make sure I had gotten on a ferry.
I finally thanked him in person for helping us just a few months ago, and while he was incredibly gracious, it appeared he didn’t remember the incident as clearly as I still do – understandable, considering it was just one good deed in a very long list of good deeds he performed over a lifetime.
Simply put, all of Dare County and Hatteras Island will continue to miss Warren in the months and years to come. But the lives he touched, and the projects that he had a hand in launching – from new bridges to beach nourishment – will be a lasting mark of just how important he was to our community.http://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/11.06.2016-DareCommissionerWarrenJudgeDiesInNorfolkHospital.htmlhttp://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/12.05.2016-AConversationWithOutgoingHatterasCommissionerAllenBurrusWITHVIDEO.htmlhttp://islandfreepress.org/2016Archives/11.22.2016-AConversationWithDannyCouchHatterasIslandsCommissionerElect.html
I hope you have enjoyed Joy Crist's first blog, as much as I have.
Joy is doing a great job helping us cover issues that matter for The Island Free Press -- from the Dare County Waterways Commission to the sudden and severe erosion in parts of south Avon. Now I welcome her help with providing fresh and interesting blogs for our readers.
I started the blog a year or two after we started the Island Free Press almost 10 years ago, and, since then, I have written more than 400.
I love writing the blog, but at a certain point, I feel that I am boring myself, therefore, I must be boring you.
Furthermore, there's not as much to write about now that most folks are happier with the Park Service and the Southern Environmental Law Center has kindly allowed us to replace the Bonner Bridge.
I hope Joy will bring a new tone and outlook on our island life and issues with her blogs.
I appreciate all the nice things she said about me -- though she is right that I trimmed her prose a bit. I left what I did to focus not on me but on the importance of locally produced community news and to remind our island small businesses that we are a small business also and that we need their support to keep this newspaper going forward.
As for her noting that she has big shoes to fill, I will say that my shoes are big only because they are stretched out from many years of wear and tear in this business.
Going forward, Joy and I will share blogging duties on no particular schedule.