Memories of Hurricane Irene on the Outer Banks a decade later

Hurricane Irene cut an inlet through Pea Island on the evening of August 27, 2021. The breach that has filled back in naturally is now spanned by the Capt. William Etheridge Bridge. [photo courtesy NASA]

Exactly ten years ago today, Hurricane Irene left an indelible mark on all of the Outer Banks and a good portion of northeastern North Carolina.

It started for us in our studios at the Nags Head Professional Center with some heavy rain and strong winds on Friday evening as the leading edge of the storm started interacting with the coast.

Then the reports of soundside storm surge flooding, along with tornadoes that flattened four homes near Columbia, started coming in through the night as we covered it on Beach 104, Big 94.5 WCMS, 99.1 The Sound and what is now Z 92.3.

The worst of the flooding reports was coming to us from the mainland areas such as Tyrrell, Hyde, Beaufort and Pamlico counties.

The next morning, as the center of Irene made its landfall near Cape Lookout at 7:30 a.m., the wind and rain had dramatically decreased along much of the Outer Banks. We were on the east side, usually the worst place to be.

But it wasn’t that bad on the north beach as Irene dropped from category 3 to category 1 as it neared the coast Thursday.

But where was the water on the soundside?

Everywhere you looked from Buxton to Kitty Hawk, the water was just gone. For hundreds of yards, the bottom was exposed and you could just walk out almost without getting your feet wet.

The view of Kitty Hawk Bay from the Avalon boat ramp in Kill Devil Hills the morning of August 27, 2011. [@SamWalkerOBX/Twitter]
[embedded content]

Unfortunately, it was all stacked up in Columbia, Plymouth, Swan Quarter, Belhaven, Oriental, Windsor and others. The sounds were flooding those places with severity that had not been seen in multiple lifetimes.

Then what was left of Irene’s eye was taking a direct path up the sounds. That’s the nightmare we all talk about when it comes to tropical cyclones and the Outer Banks.

And that’s when the water started coming back.

While we noticed that we all of a sudden weren’t getting any reports from our friends down on Hatteras Island at the time, we were getting them from the studios we had at the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park. We were getting them from downtown Manteo.

The Nags Head Causeway. Colington. Bay Drive. Duck. Point Harbor. Grandy. Moyock. Elizabeth City. Hertford.

The water was coming back, and it was coming back mad. Really mad. The nightmare of a hurricane running up the sound was now reality.

The sounds started rising into homes and businesses from Roanoke Island to the border. Southwest winds from the back side were also pushing waves on top of that rising water. Tearing up everything in their path.

[embedded content]

Eventually those waves stopped, but the water didn’t stop rising for several days in places like Tulls Bay and South Mills and so many others up north.

But we still weren’t hearing anything from Hatteras Island as nightfall came.

It was like everything below Nags Head had fallen into a black hole for those of us who had been on the radio trying to provide information to our neighbors across the region on the radio and around the world on the internet.

Then the word started trickling in. And it wasn’t a nightmare. It was real.

Coast Guard footage of Hatteras Island from Aug. 28, 2011:

[embedded content]

Estimates are the soundside storm surge and waves on top reached 12 to 15 feet in some spots, mainly in Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, but Avon was hit hard too.

The Island Free Press documented the experience in a way only those who lived through it in the days, weeks, months and years ahead could best share:

Irene cut two distinct inlets along Pea Island, created multiple dune breaches, and resulted in unprecedented soundside flooding to homes and structures in Avon and the Tri-villages. Power was tenuous for more than a week, evacuated residents weren’t able to come home for about 10 days, and N.C. Highway 12 was closed from August 27 until October 10, meaning that residents had to utilize the two-hour-long emergency ferry from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point to exit the island for seven weeks.

In the days and weeks that followed, the island was clouded in both a frustrated and shell-shocked atmosphere. Towering piles of flooded home parts lined the sides of N.C. Highway 12, and both evacuated residents and the folks who stayed vented their exasperation on how the county, state, and federal response went wrong.

There are still small indicators of Irene’s destruction floating around Hatteras Island, such as faded signs advertising cash for salvaged materials, or waterline marks on derelict homes that were abandoned after repairs were deemed impossible. But there are much larger changes too, which are far more prominent, and which have altered the Outer Banks for the long term, and generally, for the better.

Seven people were killed in North Carolina as the result of Irene. Amazingly, none of those deaths were on the Outer Banks or the counties just inland.

Damage in Dare County totaled more than $53 million. Total damage across North Carolina was estimated at $686 million, and Irene ranked as the costliest category one storm in history to hit the United States at the time.

Maybe one of the few positives to come from Irene was that we no longer focus on the storm’s numeric category when we inform our readers and listeners about potential impacts.

That’s only based on its top sustained wind speed near the center. It doesn’t come close to rating what the sheer magnitude of impacts a hurricane can cause, as Irene proved in multiple ways.

Hurricane Irene now stands as one of the benchmark storms that will be talked about by generations ahead, with the same reverence as its predecessors such as Hazel, Ash Wednesday, and Isabel. And has since been joined on an ever-growing list by Matthew, Michael and Dorian.

It’s been ten years, but the memories of Irene remain on our sandbar. Just as fresh as if it were yesterday.

This story originally appeared on OBXToday.com. Read More local stories here.