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Hatteras After Irene: A Community Rebuilds and Rediscovers Its Passion for Kiteboarding

By Sara Grove/www.kittyhawkkites.com

The bottom level at Kitty Hawk Kites post Irene. Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

The slender islands of the Outer Banks in North Carolina are no stranger to tropical storms; so, despite a mandatory hurricane evacuation declared for all visitors and residents of Dare County, many locals decided to stay.  They boarded up their windows to protect against the 85mph sustained winds and spray painted defiant messages into the plywood: “GO AWAY IRENE!”  But, Irene came.

On August 27th, Hurricane Irene, a category 1 storm that caused $3 billion in damage and cut electrical power to over 4 million homes in the Eastern United States, made landfall on Hatteras Island, part of 200 miles of barrier islands in Eastern North Carolina and a kiteboarding hotspot. While the Outer Banks from Corolla in the north to Ocracoke in the south suffered wind and flood damage, Irene’s trajectory made it particularly devastating for the the tri-villages of Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo on Hatteras Island.

Gas station in Avon, post Irene. Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk

The eye of the storm passed directly West of the island, sucking water from the Pamlico, Croatan and Albemarle Sounds westward.  As the eye moved past, bay water surged back to the east, crashed into Hatteras and sent a 4-foot wave across the landmass into the ocean, which carved a new inlet and washed out the critical highway NC 12 in five places.

My fellow instructors and I waited out the storm on the mainland.  We soon realized that going home would be hard to do.  The storm had left Hatteras Island isolated, inaccessible except by boat or aircraft.

We waited anxiously for news.  When could we return?  What did it look like down there?  We were refugees, crashing on couches and futons and floors.  Were we homeless now?  Were we unemployed?

Tuesday after the storm, kiteboarding instructor and all-around daredevil, Christian Cooper, decided to head south.  The coast guard had banned all but emergency personnel from boating to Rodanthe.  But, the wind was blowing.

Wind was Northeast at 15-20 knots––perfect for a downwinder in the ocean.  Coop the cook launched his kite, grabbed a surfboard and set out just north of Old Oregon Inlet.  Almost immediately, he came down hard on a piece of chop and split his board in two.  Determined, he swapped it out for a twin tip and charged downwind.

Two hours later, I got the call.  Taking his cell out of its Ziploc baggie, Coop scaled to the roof of an old beach house looking for service.  His report was the first eye-witness news I received.

“What do you see, Coop?”

“Oh God, Sara.”

He breathed heavily.

“I’m standing on this house… and it’s in the water.”

“What?”

“It is crazy down here.  Everything is destroyed.”

Coop was standing five miles north of Rodanthe, by the major breach that has been since dubbed the New New Inlet.  He described the debris, the flooding, the chaos and the isolation.

Manteo flooding post Irene. Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

Dane Mann and Ryan Wilson, both riders for Star Kites, were among the first to survey the damage sustained by Kitty Hawk Kites Kiteboarding Resort.  Dane asked me to imagine what the shop looked like before–the classroom on the corner, then the instructor locker room storing our teaching equipment, and finally the room with all the best toys, our kiteboarding demo center.

“Okay,” I said.

“Well…now it’s a sun deck.”Water from the Sound had pounded against the building, pummeling through walls, blowing out the hurricane doors and sucking all the gear out only to deposit kites, boards, harnesses and life vests all across the island.

Aerial view of the flooding. Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

One week after the hurricane had hit, I drove myself to Stumpy Point where the Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division had organized an emergency ferry making the 2.5 hour trip across the Sound to transport residents, emergency personnel and much-needed supplies to and from the island.  I spent the trip chatting with the ferry captain and his crew.  They were scheduled to cover the night shift for 10 consecutive days, running ferries from 6pm to 6am.  One crew member hadn’t even been able to survey damage to his own house as he had been working nonstop with hurricane relief where it was needed most.

As the sun set, the Coast Guardsmen distracted me with boat puns like Pier Pressure and Marlin Monroe.  I just kept imagining what I would find once we arrived.  “One of my all time favorites is NC 12, Highway to Swell,” said the captain.  I laughed and shook my head.  NC 12 might have had too much swell for its own good.  Well, you know what they say–ship happens.

I worried about the destruction, but my imagination romanticized the aftermath of the hurricane.  We would be stranded there on our little island paradise.  We would have access to empty beaches, miles and miles of slicks and breaks with some of the best winds in North America to fuel our exploration.  We were pioneers, survivors, and the luckiest kiters in the world.

I didn’t see much that first night; but, the next day quickly put an end to my daydreams.  Our kites had been ripped from their bags, shredded, tied in knots, riddled with wire, caution tape and seaweed.  Everything looked as though it had been chucked in a giant washing machine filled with gravel and shards of glass.  Boards were split, warped, and stripped of fins and footpads.

This was the classroom at Kitty Hawk. Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

On the first windy day back on Hatteras there was not a kite in the sky.  I scanned for those c-shaped sprinkles which customarily swoop and dance all down the coastline.  Not one.

Power came back, roommates returned, and a strange sense of normalcy resumed.  Yet, a month after the storm, progress on the 662-foot-long steel truss bridge being built to span New New Inlet kept getting delayed.  We were captives in our own home.

Men from the North Carolina Baptist convention took over preparing meals three times daily at the community center, which began immediately after the storm headed by the Salvation Army.  Residents gutted their homes and discarded damaged belongings until piles of trash lined both sides of NC 12.  Waste management trucks could not keep up.  Meanwhile, two weekends of unusually high precipitation re-flooded much of the saturated land leaving pools of standing water.  As if the overall scenery of wreckage and the stench of soggy trash weren’t enough, the mosquitos moved in.

I’ve lived in a Panamanian jungle and been to the Amazon rain forest and have never seen mosquitos like these.  These were hulking goliath insects that travelled in swarms.  A fierce breed that hunt with such thirst and tenacity, one must run like mad swatting with both arms only to find yourself safely indoors with just a few splatters of blood.

My little island paradise had become a swamp, resembling something I might have read in a novel.

When Good Winds Restaurant and Bar decided to reopen (one of the first local eateries to do so),  Kitty Hawk Kites sales manager, Nick Barrett and I stopped by to chat and drink a dollar PBR.  It was a full moon and windy.  Windy!

I turned to Nick and said, “Night kite?”

“Night kite!”

Nick Barrett, Ryan Wilson and I gathered what gear we had and began to rig by moonlight.  We were desirous but still doubtful about our first session since the hurricane.

I rigged my 10m Cabirinha Switchblade, the 2010 with the wildcard color scheme.  Riding a black kite at night, I was really going to be “stealth.”  Ryan only had his 15m teaching lines and a skim board.  But, it didn’t matter.  We were going kiting.

I agreed to be the first to launch and waded out into the black water trying not to think about bull sharks or the debris carried in by the storm.  Ten minutes later the three of us were out on the water, cruising and deliriously happy.

We were reckless and alive and kiting!  We were pushing our boundaries, feeling limitless as the night pressed in around us.  It’s a full moon.  Anything can happen.  Off in distance, we saw lights from the ferry boat making its midnight sojourn.  And, we were off.

We tore into the night, holding the same edge until our legs were shaking, more than a mile out to sea to intercept the ferry.

We came into view, marauders of the night that crept out from the darkness to encircle the ferry, play in its wake, and plead with the passengers who pointed and stared, “notice us!  love us!  need us!”

As quickly as we arrived, we departed, back to the shop to pack up and shout over each other, all exclaiming “sick,” “stoked,” “best session ever,” and “most fun of my life!”

Charles "Action" Jackson was an avid buggyer and kiter. Photo courtesy Chris Schulz/HQ Kites

The next weekend, a nor-easter demanded that we kite oceanside.  The waves were overhead and blown out.  Currents were strong.  Several of us called it quits and headed home.  Later that evening, we received a phone call that Charles Jackson, a friend, colleague and veteran kiter had gone missing while kiting alone at Cape Point, down near where the islands hook around to the west like an elbow.

The coast guard searched until 1am, recovering his kite and board.  The aerial and watercraft searches resumed at daybreak the next morning.

That first day he was missing was one of those perfect kiting days.  The ocean had quieted, the sun was out, and the breeze should have been like Pop Rocks to our souls.

We couldn’t do it.  We felt sick and confused.  Charles, nicknamed AJ for “Action Jackson” was an experienced kiteboarder and buggier.  We had all been pressing our luck lately, taking undue risks to distract ourselves from the destruction, from the early end to our season, from everything.  A local rumor claimed that exposure to the chemicals used to treat for mosquitos caused individuals to exhibit uncharacteristically rash behavior.  Secretly blaming bug spray, we hoped Charles would somehow come out of this one unscathed. On September 22nd, Cape Lookout National Seashore staff members recovered Charles Jackson’s body on Portsmouth Island just south of Ocracoke.

The kiteboarding community is tight knit group.  And, the family we have here at Kitty Hawk Kites is no exception.  Not only did Charles witness my own progression in kiteboarding, but over the past year he offered advice and assistance to my mother who frequents the Outer Banks trying to master the sport.

Action Jackson survived Irene, living above the shop and documenting the storm with his GoPro.  He was there at the forefront of initial efforts to rebuild.  Charles was an integral part of our story, a great lover of the sport, and an honorable man.  He will be missed.

While it is a slow process, Hatteras is rebuilding.  New plans for the kiteboarding school are in the works; and, it will be better than ever.  The Community Center makes sure food, laundry and shower services are available to all residents.   Volunteers are helping families and businesses clean, tear out insulation, drywall, and make their homes livable once again.  The Really Really Free Store where everything really is free, is open daily providing locals with useful items like sun screen, insect repellant and clothing.

The island is being treated for mosquitos, mounds of trash are disappearing, and spirits are lifting.  Good ol’ Graham with his grin and dreads even announced the return of the outrageously tasty Cali-style burrito to Big Waves Market and Deli.

Yes, Hatteras experienced enormous loss–months of revenue, roomfuls of gear, and a dear friend.  But, we are still here.

On October 10th, highway NC 12 reopened to Hatteras Island.  Within seven weeks of Irene’s visit, crews filled three breaches with sand and a Maryland based company, Mabey Bridge & Shore Inc., finished assembling the new two-lane 650-foot temporary bridge.  The bridge is expected to remain in place for two years while the NC Department of Transportation continues to search for a permanent solution.

In the past three weeks, tourists and residents alike all crept across the new bridge at 25mph, bringing a sense of normalcy with them.

Conversations in the community further evidence the recent rebound, shifting from talk of damage and rebuilding to expressions of gratitude toward those individuals and organizations who so dutifully jumped into action following the disaster.

Hatteras Island firefighters led by Volunteer Chief Mike Daugherty played a critical role in emergency relief post-hurricane.  The Salvation Army provided supplies and manpower.  Local restaurants like Top Dog and Mojo’s provided meals for Salvation Army volunteers; and, Food Lion even donated two refrigerated trucks to the relief effort.  Camaraderie, elbow grease, and volunteer support delivered the Hatteras you will see today–open businesses, vacationers, competition fishermen, and, of course, kiteboarders.

Scanning the Pamlico Sound, visitors will see the slow oscillations of kites across the horizon.

The autumn winds are blowing, the sun is shining, and this kiteboarding paradise made its comeback.

With kites in the sky and people doing what they love, the wind is our friend once more.

Sara enjoying a session pre-Irene. Photo courtesy Sara Grove

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