By Rob Morris
Gov. Pat McCrory made a surprise visit to the Outer Banks Monday to see for himself storm-damaged N.C. 12 and later heard urgent appeals from Hatteras Island residents to fix the road now.
Transportation Secretary Tony Tata was slated to lead a town hall gathering in Manteo Monday, but he said that after the morning cabinet meeting in Raleigh, McCrory asked to join him.
McCrory, Tata and other officials walked along the battered S-Curves north of Rodanthe earlier in the day before attending the 7 p.m. question-and-answer session in the county commissioners meeting room.
Almost a week of heavy surf from a huge offshore storm pounded the Outer Banks shoreline, forcing the closing of N.C. 12 between Rodanthe and Oregon Inlet at each high-tide cycle. N.C. 12 is the only land access to Hatteras Island.
"Until you see it, you can't believe it," McCrory said. "And we saw it at a good time."
McCrory said he was attending the town hall meeting to listen and learn. About 60 people attended. Concerns ranged from publicity leaving wary renters unsure if the island will be accessible, to residents unable to see doctors, to people just feeling trapped.
Cheryl Blankenship, who lives in Rodanthe, said she owns a business with headquarters in Nags Head and a satellite office in Rodanthe. She said she worries whether she will be able to get back home to her 8-year-old son and husband, who works at the Dare County bombing range.
"If I leave for work and the swell and tide are too big, I am unable to return home," she said. "Where does that leave my son? We have two dogs and a cat. Where does that leave them? This is not a second home we're talking about. It's our primary residence."
The state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked out an agreement to pump sand onto the beach at the S-Curves, where the heavy surf of the past week exposed giant sandbags installed after Hurricane Sandy tore up the road in October.
Many at the meeting advocated beach nourishment followed by a maintenance program. Tata and McCrory agreed. The governor said he was not empowered to bypass federal permitting requirements on Hatteras Island, which includes large areas of National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land.
"But there are things that I can do as governor, and we're meeting with your elected officials right now on issues like permits," he said. "And if there are state permit things that make common sense to look at changing them, we can change them.
"But you're right, we need to be specific on what exactly needs to be changed to deal with the short-term problem and also try to deal with the long-term solution."
The town hall meeting followed an informal open house in which highway officials presented options for longer-term solutions, including the new bridge over Oregon Inlet and a span at Rodanthe -- either in the existing right-of-way or looping over the sound and away from the trouble spot.
"I can't fix nature tomorrow," McCrory said. "I don't want to set unrealistic expectations for you and smile and keep promises I cannot keep. I will not do that. I will be very direct with you. I will be very pragmatic with you."
But he pledged to take action.
"You may agree with the action or disagree, but we'll take action one way or the other," he said. "And that's why we're here today."