HARKERS ISLAND — Whether it’s a severe storm or an outbreak, Outer Banks residents are no strangers to weathering tough times.
This was one of the takeaways from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Story Circle Thursday. The online streaming event, broadcast on Facebook and YouTube, was part of the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism initiative. Thursday’s event was titled Islands on the Edge: North Carolina’s Maritime Culture in the Time of the Pandemic.
Harkers Island resident and Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center Executive Director Karen Amspacher joined Smithsonian Earth Optimism Coordinator Betty Belanus, Hatteras Village resident Ernie Foster and Ocracoke resident Alton Ballance as they talked about how Outer Banks communities have been affected by severe weather and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Outer Banks communities have a history of rebuilding after severe tropical weather. Ms. Amspacher, a Harkers Island native, said the settlers of Diamond City, a settlement formerly on the east end of Shackleford Banks, were driven inland as a result of an 1899 hurricane and relocated to Harkers Island.
“Much like Hatteras and Ocracoke, we’re grounded in our families,” Ms. Amspacher said. “Here on the edge, we have our own challenges.”
Mr. Ballance said he’s a lifelong resident of Hatteras; his parents were born and raised on the Outer Banks, as were their ancestors.
“We get approximately 1 million visitors a year here.” he said. “Early people who settled here built there houses on the sound side. They knew the effects of shifting sands.”
Mr. Foster said he, too, was a native of his village. He said all his grandparents were born on the island.
“I’ve seen a few things in my life involving storms,” he said.
Attitudes toward severe weather, like tropical storms and hurricanes, have changed over time. Ms. Amspacher said in Harkers Island and the surrounding communities, they “know a little bit about storms.”
“This generation’s reality training goes back to (Hurricane) Isabel in 2003,” she said. “It was pretty much a shock, but it was a shot across the bow.”
While Isabel was a wake up call to the severity of hurricanes, it wasn’t the last time attitudes changed in Harkers Island.
“(Hurricane) Florence changed everything,” Ms. Amspacher said. “It was no longer a discussion of if another storm will hit, but when. What I think we realized after Florence was before we took it storm-by-storm, but now we looked at the cumulative effects. Roads had to be rerouted.”
Storms and hurricanes like Florence can often result in property damage. However, there’s a human side to what some people might only see as debris.
“When you see these piles of wet mattresses and dresser drawers, that’s people’s lives,” Ms. Amspacher said.
While Florence hit Carteret County hard, Hurricane Dorian in 2019 did less damage. However, Mr. Ballance noted neighboring Ocracoke wasn’t so fortunate.
“It was Dorian that uprooted the lives of many people on Ocracoke,” he said. “It’s taken me a year to rebuild my house…Rebuilding from such a traumatic event has been challenging, and then the pandemic (began).”
While Outer Banks communities have weathered storms, a viral outbreak like the pandemic is something new to most of them. Ms. Amspacher said most of the communities have been removed from the direct effects of the pandemic, but it’s influenced them in other ways.
“It shut down the economies around us,” she said. “It put the fear in us. We’ve had very few cases in our county…we don’t know what the future holds…Whatever the pandemic brings, we know the communities will come together for the long haul.”
Mr. Foster echoed Ms. Amspacher’s message. He said the biggest change for Hatteras has been the lack of social events.
“No weddings, no funerals, it’s been very difficult on a personal level,” he said. “On the news, I’ve seen people debate (the effects of the pandemic), but here there’s no question it’s a problem. But we’ll get through it.”
Mr. Ballance seemed to agree.
“For us, like in any community, we’re concerned who might bring the virus here,” he said. “Most (visiting) people have been respectful and following social distancing. It’s uncharted territory, but it’s another storm, and we’ll get through it and rebuild.”
“The bottom line is we’re here to stay,” Ms. Amspacher said. “We’ll make it work.”
The Core Sounds Museum has recently reopened at the facility on Harkers Island. A new exhibit, Living on the Edge, explores Down East’s history with storms, climate change and future.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.