OCRACOKE, N.C. — When Hurricane Dorian pounded the wisp of earth that is Ocracoke Island, a wall of Atlantic seawater flooded Bob Chestnut’s home, surf shop and four vehicles.
Seven months later, his shop was ready for business. But the coronavirus pandemic kept the doors locked. Now, as the abbreviated summer season shifts into high gear, Chestnut is focused on economic survival, welcoming crucial tourists while hoping the potentially deadly virus never arrives.
“Since we already lost the fall season and the spring season, this is it,” a masked Chestnut said on the steps of his shop, Ride the Wind. “This is the one time period that we’ve got a shot to make some money.”
This secluded tourist destination on North Carolina’s Outer Banks is recovering from the most damaging hurricane in its recorded history while in the midst of one of the world’s worst pandemics.
Virus-related restrictions on visits were lifted in May. But just over half of the hurricane-ravaged businesses have reopened, welcoming tourists like a smile with missing teeth. The island is now also casting a wary eye toward August, which is when the hurricane season is expected to heat up again.
“Ocracoke is a paradise on good days,” said Tom Pahl, a Hyde County commissioner who lives here. “But when things go bad, they go really bad. And we’re aware of that. We dig in, and we help each other get through it.”
He added: “This has been an unprecedented level of really bad.”
Hurricane Dorian struck Ocracoke on Sept. 6 and launched a 7-foot (2-meter) storm surge over parts of the island’s village, which measures about a square mile.
About 400 of the island’s nearly 1,000 year-round residents were forced out of their homes, many of which had flooded for the first time. Dozens of structures have had to be demolished.
Many people are still displaced or waiting for houses to be raised higher off the ground. The island’s one school, serving about 170 students, is being rebuilt. Metal debris containers remain in some yards, while backhoes and bulldozers still share roads with golf carts and beach cruisers.
Chip Stevens, whose Blackbeard’s Lodge hotel is still being rebuilt, expressed various worries, including the loss of tax revenue from both the hurricane and the pandemic-related business closures.
“We have a big reckoning coming,” he said.
The island has attracted the likes of singer Jimmy Buffett over the years. And its businesses rarely require shoes. Now they’re requiring masks.
Ocracoke is reachable only by plane or boat, and the island has reported no confirmed cases of the virus. But people are arriving from places where COVID-19 remains a deadly reality — and is even surging.
Kari Styron, rental manager for Ocracoke Island Realty, said even at a reduced capacity, the island is “very busy right now.”
And yet Ocracoke remains an ideal destination during a pandemic, boasting miles of undeveloped beaches as well as spaced-out rental homes and a handful of mostly quaint hotels.
Visitors have included Mark Aaronson, 46, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and has been visiting Ocracoke since he was a kid.
“We can do the whole social distancing thing with a much better view,” he said in late June outside a coffee shop with his family.
For the first time in months, Aaronson said he was able to sit at a bar, in Howard’s Pub, albeit spaced out from other customers. It felt “liberating” and prompted him to send photos to friends.
Aaronson said the pandemic was never going to interfere with his vacation plans. But he said he was a little “freaked out” at times by the lack of mask wearing on parts of Ocracoke compared to what he sees back home.
Since then, North Carolina’s governor has imposed a statewide mask requirement, which took effect June 26. The following week, North Carolina saw a new high in coronavirus cases in other parts of the state.
Meanwhile, island residents like Chestnut are trying to adjust and survive. For his shop, that means teaching surfing classes in the age of social distancing.
People can spread out on the beach for the beginning part of the lesson, but instructors still need to hold the back of a customer’s surfboard while in the water.
“People want to come here,” Chestnut said. “I’m encouraged by it. But we’re in hurricane season already. Another storm that takes out the road for a couple weeks is just not going to be pleasant.”
Even if a hurricane does blow through, Scott Bradley said he and his family won’t evacuate their island home unless it’s a Category 4 or Category 5 storm.
“Where would you go with the virus out there?” asked Bradley, who is president of the nonprofit Ocracoke Foundation, which supports community projects and aims to preserve the island’s maritime heritage. “This is probably the safest place to be.”