RALEIGH — After Hurricane Sandy hit more than a month ago, visitors and residents were stuck with two ways on and off Hatteras Island, and both involved hours-long ferry rides.
Then, the state Transportation Department opened the broken section of N.C. Highway 12, which leads to the mainland, to four-wheel drive traffic capable of driving over sand. And that's when homegrown entrepreneurship kicked in for three companies that now offer to take two-wheel-drive vehicles across that sandy section of road on trailers or tow trucks.
Being able to get off the island via N.C. 12 is a necessity for people who work on the island and live on the mainland, or vice versa, or have important appointments off Hatteras.
"The people love it," said Jarvis Williams, 48, of Buxton, who ran tow trucks on Ocracoke Island in 2008 when bridge repair meant people had to drive on the beach. "They really appreciate what I'm doing ... I like my community and my people, and I want to make sure the people get back and forth to doctor's appointment and such without a long ferry wait."
A nor'easter and generally foul weather followed Sandy, chewing N.C. 12 at an area known as the S-curves near Rodanthe. The storms flattened dunes, allowing waves to wash back and forth across the pavement as the Atlantic tried to claim the road as its own. Now that seas have calmed, DOT workers are pushing back, trying to take the road back for travel.
Williams, who also has the contract to remove vehicles that get stuck in the sand road, began towing people across the sand road Nov. 10. And for 19 days, he worked 20 hours a day, living in a camper in Rodanthe and towing people from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., the only hours the road is open. When the road closes each night, he makes one last run up each night to the Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet to make sure no one is stranded.
Over Thanksgiving, he and his employees pulled 86 cars on one day. That has slowed to about 20 day, said Williams, who got a few extra hours off Thursday when DOT closed the road.
"It's hard to get anywhere," said Tom Murphy, 77, of Rodanthe, a retired minister. "Typically, it's 30 minutes from the house to the first red light in Nags Head. That's 25 miles. Now it's a three-hour drive (including the ferry ride). And that makes using one of the other land ferries across the sand road a very attractive alternative."
The service works like this: Drivers of two-wheel-drive vehicles make an appointment for a tow. At the Bonner Bridge, they tell the deputy they have a tow truck waiting, then meet that driver before the sand road. When headed north off the island, they meet in a designated area south of the sand road for their tow.
On Wednesday, authorities changed where the tow trucks could meet customers. They now must each other on the mainland side of the bridge when the customer is heading south, turning a 10-minute job into a 50-minute one. The tow is $25 to get through the sand road, but it's $50 when the drivers have to pull a car another 12 miles or so over the bridge.
Jon Nance, DOT deputy chief engineer, said loading and unloading cars at the two-lane section of road, instead of in a parking lot at the bridge, is a safety problem because traffic can back up. DOT will consider letting drivers use a parking lot at the New River Inlet, just four miles from the sand road, once more repairs are complete.
Dare County and DOT want to help the tow truck drivers keep working, said county manager Bobby Outten.
"It's another way to give people access on and off the island," he said. "And it frees up ferry space so they don't have to run as often."
Williams and the other drivers work together when too many drivers need towing. Scott Caldwell, 47, jumped into the sand-road towing business the day after Thanksgiving, when so many people needed help.
"I have regulars," said Caldwell, who owns Island Convenience in Rodanthe with his wife. "And then with the business here, it's the hub of the town. We've got a sign up. And word of mouth goes a long way here."
Eric Stump, 38, who owns a car-rental and repair shop in Salvo called Island Cruisers, began towing cars when he realized customers were renting four-wheel-drive vehicles to get through the sand road.
Most of them are ecstatic," he said. "Just the fact that you could, in about 10 minutes, be able to go the distance that a ferry ride would take three hours."
Stump towed Murphy last week, and both Murphy and his wife have reservations next week.
"It really is a useful service," he said. "They charge a little bit. They don't do it for nothing. It may seem like a lot, but if you have to go somewhere, it's really not so bad."