Rental houses and condos were expected to fill up Saturday on two North Carolina islands where a bridge construction accident cut power for a week and threatened seasonal businesses' bottom lines.
The first day of the weekend is a typical starting point for weeklong rentals, and stores and restaurants were expecting brisk business. Both islands reopened to tourists Friday.
"We want everyone to know that we are open for business," said Tommy Hutcherson, the owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store.
The business, which is the island's only grocery store, had its own generator to keep the doors open but saw few customers during the past week.
"We're in the height of our summer season. We're just happy to see people back," Hutcherson said.
Maryland resident Colleen Sax planned to start her eight-hour drive to Hatteras Island on Saturday morning for a vacation with her husband, two adult daughters and extended family. She's relieved after nervously monitoring updates on the situation. An initial estimate that the problem would take weeks to fix was whittled each day until officials announced visitors could return Friday.
"That changed quickly. ... Then it was Friday. I was like: 'Wow!'" she said.
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The kitchen staff at the Back Porch Restaurant on Ocracoke Island was busy chopping vegetables and doing other prep work ahead of a Saturday reopening. Owner Daphne Bennink said generator power allowed them to save some high-priced meat and seafood, but they had to order all new fresh produce.
She said her staff also did a deep clean of the kitchen and tried to stay ready because of the uncertain timeframe for reopening.
"While we're used to having an evacuation, there's almost always a weather event that sort of gives us a tangible, visible timeline," she said. But because of the uncertainty about the outage, she said: "We've been perched, sort of ready."
Power was cut to the two islands early on the morning of July 27 when workers building a new bridge drove a steel casing into underground transmission lines. An estimated 50,000 tourists were ordered to leave during a make-or-break period for seasonal businesses, many of which close during the cold-weather months.
Dare County officials estimate that Hatteras Island businesses easily lost $2 million overall for each day of the outage, county spokeswoman Dorothy Hester said. She said the rough estimate is based on last year's tourism figures and could change.
Meanwhile, about 100 people attended a meeting Friday for business owners to begin tallying losses on Ocracoke, which is in Hyde County. County spokesman Donnie Shumate said one restaurant owner calculated that the power outage was likely to cost the business about 11 percent of its yearly revenue. Shumate said the county attorney will be leading negotiations to recoup business losses from the company that caused the accident, PCL Construction.
The company already faces at least four lawsuits by local business owners. Separately, those who had vacations cut short or canceled are working with property owners and travel insurance underwriters to try to recoup losses.
PCL Construction spokeswoman Stephanie McCay said in an email that the company has started a claims process to offer assistance to those affected by the outage.
Visitors with upcoming vacations spent the past week closely watching updates from Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative.
Jessie-Lee Nichols, of Annapolis, Maryland, said she stayed glued to social media, following utility and county officials.
"I was getting notifications and reading all of the transmission updates three and four times a day," she said.
Six adults and two children from her family are scheduled for a vacation on Ocracoke Island the second week of August. She said the adults, who paid for the vacation as a Christmas present to one another, were ecstatic to find out Thursday that power had been restored.
"I posted to Facebook that the vacation was back on and tagged everyone we were going with," she said. "I definitely texted my mom and my sister, and they were like: 'Fantastic!' and 'Yay!'"