With link to world out, Hatteras shops suffer from too much peace and quiet

November 11, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SALVO, N.C. -- It is 1962 again on Hatteras Island.

Take a walk on the beach in the Indian summer sunshine, and you are joined only by trotting sandpipers. Rear back to cast a fishing line into the gray surf, and the only crowd to contend with is a squadron of pelicans gliding low across the curl of a wave.

But 1962 meant something else, too. You came to Hatteras Island by boat or you didn't come at all, which made it a great place to relax but a not-so-great place to do business.

Two weeks ago the past returned with a gigantic splash, when 60-mph gusts blew an anchor-dragging barge into the 2.5-mile-long bridge that has connected the island to Nags Head and the rest of the world since 1963. A 370-foot span shuddered, buckled and was gone, lost in the eddying tidal surge of Oregon Inlet.

Disappearing with it was the business from fishermen and tourists that gives the island's 5,000 residents a livelihood. Though the state recently has begun running a fleet of six ferries across the inlet, the trip is a 90-minute zigzag between shoals and islands that can become a far longer journey at low tide. Or, you can come up from the south by riding a two-hour, reservations-only ferry to Ocracoke from the mainland, then hopping a free 40-minute ferry from Ocracoke to Hatteras. The bridge won't likely be repaired for another three months, and even then it will take an additional three months before both lanes are open.

So, the whine of tires on the island highway has given way to the hiss of the wind and surf, and for tackle shops, restaurants and renters of beach houses, the tranquillity is maddening.

How bad is business? Just ask Ann Privett, behind the counter of The Fishin' Hole, a tackle shop she and her husband, Russ, run in Salvo, where the sign out front says, "If they swallow it, we got it."

Today, with cigarette in hand, Mrs. Privett has so little to do she's rearranging the hooks, sinkers, swivels and lures in the parts department. "We've lost over 90 percent of our business easily, and last week we lost more than that," she says.

This time of year is usually the busiest for a Hatteras tackle shop. It is the time for catching red drum, a prized fighting fish that attracts an almost cultlike following. Then there is the popular speckled trout, and any day now voracious schools of bluefish will come screaming down the coast from the north on their annual migration.

The fishing is generally good up to Thanksgiving, and now is supposed to be the time of bounty that lets a business survive the lean months of winter.

"This time of year is our meat and potatoes," she says. "We're having our best speckled trout right now, and there's nobody here to enjoy it. Some people here like it because you can fish without a crowd, but it doesn't feed you. . . . Yesterday, some of them were playing out in front of the store, laying down in the road like they were asleep, and the whole time, nobody drove by."

Mr. Privett emerges from the back of the store and says that on a good weekend this time of year he usually sells about 600 pounds of bait mullet. In the past week they've sold maybe 10 pounds.

"And while we're sitting here talking, I might have sold 16 pounds," Mr. Privett says.

"We picked up a couple dollars worth of business today," Mr. Privett says, "but not enough to pay the electric bill."

All this has been enough to make Mrs. Privett worry about the tuition bills due in January for their two kids in college, but Mr. Privett figures that in a way they're among the lucky families. "I've been in business long enough to where I can make it," he says. "But a lot of people won't."

At the Channel Bass restaurant in Hatteras village, at the south end of the 48-mile-long island, there have been similarly disastrous numbers to report. On the day after the bridge broke apart, when thousands of tourists were still stranded in town, the restaurant served almost 200 dinners to customers. Five nights later, customers bought four dinners.

At Salvo Realty, Phil Elmstrom says that last weekend he rented out only one of the 36 properties he manages. And at Outer Beaches Realty, which manages the most properties on the island, there were cancellations of all but 30 to 40 of the 150 homes it had rented for the weekend, and the only rentals were to determined fisherman who had come up on the two-ferry trip via Ocracoke.

Apart from business, life on the island has returned to normal in fits and starts. For three days after the bridge went there was no power, because the lines that ran on the underside of the bridge were severed.

There were also thousands of tourists to take care of, many of whom were marooned in all-electric houses, unable to cook. Local fire chief Bob Huggett oversaw the feeding of 3,000 meals at his station house, most of them to tourists. Restaurants pitched in with baked hams and other items.

"The whole atmosphere on the island was nice," Mr. Huggett says. "Everybody was just as good as gold."

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