By Leslie Siddeley
The first time I visited Ocracoke Island, a tropical storm had just blown through. I arrived late and made my way slowly through the island’s darkened streets to my rental cottage. When I stepped onto the porch the next morning, I saw that the road had a sizeable impromptu lake on top of it and was impassable on one end. In fact, there was standing water all over the island. As I contemplated the humidity and mosquitos this water would bring, I wondered if I had made a mistake visiting Ocracoke during hurricane season.
My brooding was interrupted when an islander rode by on a rusted cruiser bike. It was a young woman in her twenties with a mass of curly blond hair seriously deranged by the wind. Pedalling through the water in a cotton sun dress and an old pair of rubber waders, she waved at me and beamed with happiness as if I were a long-lost friend. And for some reason that is destined to remain obscure, the wicker basket on the front of the bicycle had a litter of kittens in it. I was hooked.
Ocracoke is part of the Outer Banks, a string of peninsulas and barrier islands that hug the eastern coast of North America from southeastern Virginia to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. The banks were formed when rising sea levels flooded low-lying coastal forests some 4000 years ago, creating an extensive system of coastal lagoons . The largest of these is Pamlico Sound, a shallow, brackish estuary that is 130 km long and 50 km across at its widest point.
The banks that enclose upper Pamlico Sound are bisected by two inlets, both cut by a single hurricane in 1846 . A bridge was built across Oregon Inlet, named for the first ship to pass through it after the storm . But Hatteras Inlet, which separates Cape Hatteras from Ocracoke Island, can only be crossed by boat even today. As a result, Ocracoke is less accessible, less developed, and considerably more eccentric than the rest of the Outer Banks.
Before the construction of North Carolina Highway 12 through the Outer Banks in the late 1950s, Ocracoke was even more remote than it is today. It was so isolated the locals spoke an odd dialect of archaic English into the 20th century, similar to the brogue spoken on two isolated islands in the Chesapeake Bay . You can still hear it, but you have to rise early to meet local fisherman before they cast off in search of Mahi-Mahi, Spanish Mackerel and Channel Bass, also known as Red Drum.
Although Ocracoke is more accessible now, it is still a significant investment of time to get there. I must first drive six hours from my home in suburban Washington to join Highway 12 near Kitty Hawk. Then it is a one-hour drive down the narrow spine of the Outer Banks to Hatteras Village, then another hour by ferry. I often reach the edge of Cape Hatteras at dusk and drive through the sunset, first copper, then crimson, and finally purple as the ferry steams toward Ocracoke, trailed by Cormorants and Brown Pelicans.
When driving on Hatteras, the debris of the banks’ latest battle with the sea is often visible. I’ve seen sand blown across the road, more standing water, and recently the heaps of rusted appliances and waterlogged wood left behind when Hurricane Matthew tore through the outer banks last year. It’s a melancholy and moving experience that underscores the vulnerability of this changeable boundary between land and sea.
We know that coastal landscapes shift over time, but the arc of this change is generally too long to observe in a human lifetime. The Outer Banks are an exception. They are under constant revision as hurricanes and brutal winter storms bury roads and cut new inlets from season to season.
In fact, there was great interest in a new island that appeared off Hatteras in April of this year . The island was 1.5 km long and was as wide as an (American) football fields in places. Covered with shells, whale bones and the wood of old shipwrecks, it quickly became a tourist attraction. But after Hurricane Maria cleared the Outer Banks in September, the young island had vanished .
Like this short-lived island, Ocracoke is long and narrow as barrier islands tend to be. It is wide enough in one spot however to support a village of several hundred homes and a year-round population of 950 souls . Most of the roads are paved and lined with modern houses, but the older roads in the interior of the village look like something from another century. They are unpaved and shaded by mature trees interspersed with fields of dense, knotty vines. The homes there are older and tend to be small due to the lack of tall timbers on the island. Some were framed with wood salvaged from shipwrecks. 
The village is trailed to the north by twenty-five kilometres of land so narrow it could easily be mistaken for a stray mark when viewed on a map. The side facing the Atlantic is sandy beach protected by high dunes. It is beautiful and rarely crowded, even on summer days. The surf can be powerful however and rip currents are common . Shark attacks are less common but generate enormous publicity when they occur . The side facing the sound is gentler, composed of vast fields of tall dune grass bordered by Scrub Pine and Red Cedar. The grass is moved continuously by the wind and filled with Red-winged Blackbirds. I could watch it all day.
Once you finally arrive on Ocracoke, there is little return on investment for anyone addicted to passive entertainment of the American sort. The beach on Ocracoke is all protected “National Seashore” so there are no amusements and no concessions, just the dunes and the hammering surf. The village has a small number of shops and restaurants, but there are no chain businesses on the island, no movie theaters, and no arcades.
Fishing is available, and of course that gorgeous beach. But the rest of the time, we are thrown back on old-fashioned pass-times like reading, listening to music, playing board games and even (God forbid) conversation. This solitude repels some people, but those bothered by the pace and clutter of modern life can develop a deep affection for the place, as I have. The off-season, when the islanders outnumber the tourists - is especially appealing, if a little forlorn at times.
I once told the owner of the local bookstore that I was planning to visit the island in December. She told me that she most likely wouldn’t open the store, but that I could drop by her house and pick up the key. “Just tell me what you took,” she said. This would be unimaginable in Washington, where everything is "on lock down" for fear of theft or terrorism, including our children.
Children run free on Ocracoke, sometimes shoeless, along with dogs and numerous feral felines known as “Ocracats”  The island has a wild horse population too. These “Banker Ponies” are most likely the descendants of Spanish mustangs dropped on the island when a ship ran aground there in the 16th century .
Shipwrecks off the Outer Banks were common of course due to the constantly shifting sands and frequent coastal storms, so many unnamed people rest beneath the sand and soil of Ocracoke. More than twenty ships ran aground on Ocracoke during a single storm in 1825 . Sailors washed ashore there during World War II as well. There is a lovingly maintained British military cemetery with just four graves, all from the HMT Bedfordshire, sunk by a German U-Boat in 1942 .
Even today, it is very easy to run aground off Ocracoke. The water is shallow and submerged sand bars are constantly on the move. Maritime maps are useless, out of date before you can use them. As a result, sport fishermen often use a specific kind of skiff . Flat bottomed and nearly unsinkable, they are designed to run aground gracefully. When the inevitable happens, you just jump onto the sand bar, push the boat off, and climb back in.
As you can imagine, Ocracoke is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, but islanders handle these with similar efficiency. A direct hit on the Outer Banks usually triggers a mandatory evacuation. Most islanders take the ferry to the mainland and stay in hotels or with friends. They drive any cars they are not taking to the highest point on the island or onto raised platforms constructed in their yards for this purpose. When the storm is over, they return and resume their lives.
Before modern weather forecasting, islanders did not know about a hurricane until it was upon them, so they rode out the storms as best they could. On an interior road paved with oyster shells and shaded by Live Oaks, islanders recorded the level of each storm’s flood line on a weathered plank outside a village store . And on an unpaved road facing Pamlico Sound, locals recorded their hurricane experiences on the interior walls of an island home, including the two back-to-back storms that slammed the Outer Banks in the legendary 1933 season . Of the second 1933 hurricane, an islander recorded:
Worst storm in memory of oldest
Wind estimate at Hatteras at 122 m.p.h. Barometer fell to 28.28.
lowest known locally.
Saturday A.M. Sept 16, tide flooded island.
Many people took refuge in light
Water stood 7 inches above floor in
this cottage. Porch torn off by wind
and tide and demolished. Roof over
cistern blown off. Fence swept away.
Surf against front of house reached
In the lake, “Eleanor M.” run down
by oil tanker, blown up on shore,
stove in and sunk. Salvaged later.
Capt. Ike’s freight boat beached a few yards
from post office. Too badly damaged to
salvage. Another schooner, the “Tucker,”
lodged in cedars near John Gaskins home.
Later broken up for fire-wood. 
Recording these events on the walls of a house may seem odd. But take it from someone who has been through several hurricanes; boredom is a factor. And of course terror. The house was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1986, but one panel was salvaged. The others are preserved in photographs .
The biggest threat to the Outer Banks though, including Ocracoke, is climate change . Tropical storms are not caused by climate change, but higher ocean temperatures will intensify them and rising sea levels will further expose this impossibly fragile environment to catastrophic flooding.
The Banks are not stable even without climate change. Since their creation, they have been moving inward . Wind and surf erode them on the ocean side, while inlets allow loose sand to flow in and deposit landward. This process would eventually reunite the Outer Banks with the American continent. New inlets are repaired now however, so the banks are getting narrower each year. Homes built for a view of the ocean now stand in the surf .
We may be able to save portions of the Outer Banks through massive civil engineering investments, but Ocracoke may be too small and remote to save, particularly as more expensive and developed areas require protection. As I write this article, the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico is largely without power, recently pummelled by two Category 5 hurricanes. And earlier this year, the fourth largest city in the U.S. went into the drink, flooded by a large, slow-moving storm like the one that separated Ocracoke from Hatteras in 1846.
I’d like to think that Ocracoke will not surrender to the waves, but will instead retreat into its remote past. In the 18th century, Ocracoke was not governed by any legal authority. This made it a favourite haunt of pirates, including Blackbeard. He was off Ocracoke when a bounty hunter finally caught up with him in 1718. This level of lawless independence did not last of course, but when a New York Times reporter visited Ocracoke in 1948, there were still no jails, no police, and no license plates on the island’s cars and trucks .
At a time many Americans share a deep sense of foreboding, this benign neglect by our government doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, a remote outpost clinging to the edge of the continent feels like the place to be. Perhaps the next time I ride the ferry to Ocracoke I’ll throw my wallet and cell phone into Pamlico Sound. Then I’ll settle onto the beach with a nice book of poetry and drift off to sleep. Wake me up when it’s over.
Raised in New England, Leslie Siddeley works as a writer and consultant in Washington DC. She has a deep interest in the fate of coastal communities, and the people who live and work by the sea. She has a special affection for islands, particularly small ones, for their fragile beauty, unique cultures, and more humane style of living. Leslie is trained as an economic historian and is currently working on a study of food scarcity in the Mid-Atlantic region during the War for American Independence. She is a frequent traveler to coastal Maine, the Outer Banks, Spain, and Scotland.
Photographs by Sydney Zemke, 2018
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