Outer Banks banking on recovery

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WASHINGTON -- The familiar lighthouse is still standing after taking the best Hurricane Isabel could throw at it. And the same was true for the rest of Cape Hatteras and the 137 miles of coastline that comprise North Carolina's Outer Banks, where locals were busy cleaning up after the worse hurricane to hit the area in 70 years.

"There is a lot of damage," said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, although Roanoke Island and Duck escaped with relatively minimal damage.

Officials were expecting to reopen the northern beaches Sept. 25.

"We know we've lost some 236 rooms," McCormick said. Of that, at least 200 were in the Cape Hatteras area.

"There are a number of rooms, about 400, that are in question about whether or not they will be opened by the 17th," McCormick said, noting the region has some 3,196 rooms in all.

The 17th refers to December 17, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers historic first flight. That flight took place in the Outer Banks at Kitty Hawk. The area intends to stage a large celebration commemorating the first flight centennial.

"We are feeling pretty darn good that [the damaged hotels] will be open prior to that 100th anniversary celebration of flight," McCormick said. "We have some rooms that are out of commission today [because of water damage] but will be back in a couple of weeks."

About seven percent of the area's vacation rental homes, mostly in Cape Hatteras, were lost to Isabel, McCormick said.

But just as Isabel reclaimed some beach area, it also returned some treasures lost years ago to the sea. For instance, the churning surf and high winds resurrected an old shipwreck and deposited it on the beach in Hatteras.

"Storms are one of the characteristic that make us what we are," McCormick said. "This time we have more damage because we have more oceanfront development."

But McCormick promised the Outer Banks would be back, better than ever.

Tourism in the Outer Banks is "a $600 million industry," McCormick said. "Anybody that lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is directly touched by the tourism industry. So we quickly want to come back on line because this is our livelihood."

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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