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Families vent about trips lost to outage, suits filed

Vacationers turned away by an island power outage say they’ve gotten few answers about whether they’ll get back money they spent on canceled or interrupted trips.

And not surprisingly, the first lawsuits based on the outage caused by a construction accident have been filed.

The outage forced an estimated 50,000 visitors to leave Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, and others never made it to the popular vacation spots because of evacuation orders that are still in place. Utility officials are hoping to have power restored by the weekend, but that will be too late to salvage many vacations.

“I do hope that we’re refunded. We did not step one single foot onto the island,” said Tianna Lee, who was traveling from Connecticut on July 29 when she heard about the evacuation for Hatteras Island. She said she hasn’t gotten an answer about whether her family can recoup the $1,700 they spent to rent a beachfront condo for this week.

Scores of vacationers like her are now navigating the sometimes confusing process of seeking repayment for lost travel expenses. Some are filing claims with travel insurance companies, while others are seeking refunds from the property owners. Travel insurance plans vary, and many don’t cover man-made disasters.

Local business owners are upset, too, and filed at least three lawsuits against PCL Construction, the company that damaged the underground power lines on July 27 while working on a new bridge between islands. The lawsuits, which are seeking class-action status, argue the company’s workers failed to take proper precautions to ensure its work didn’t financially harm nearby businesses. One of the lawsuits includes a vacationer as a plaintiff.

Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative issued a statement saying that it expected to have power fully restored to the islands by this past weekend, a slight improvement over its previous estimate.

Workers were setting aside equipment that wasn’t in use when they caused a massive power outage, according to the state Department of Transportation. Spokesman Tim Hass said workers stuck the steel casing in a spot where they intended to leave it temporarily. The long, tube-like metal device is used to ensure the proper angle and depth for concrete pilings that support the bridge.

The damaged transmission cables were buried under more than 7 feet (2 meters) of sand where the accident happened, utility officials said.

A PCL Construction spokeswoman didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Kivi Leroux Miller filed a claim at the urging of her rental company, Ocracoke Island Realty, after her vacation was cut short.

“I’m trusting them because they’re the ones who sold us the insurance,” she said.

The travel insurance plans, marketed under the Trip Preserver brand, have a road closure provision that will likely apply, but the claims are evaluated individually, said Linda Fallon, senior vice president of Arch Insurance Group.

Customers of another rental company, Surf or Sound Realty, had the option before their visits of buying travel insurance that was underwritten by AIG. Surf or Sound issued a statement urging its customers to file claims; AIG said it’s evaluating Outer Banks claims on an individual basis and has begun paying some of them.

Andrew Vessey, who spent $2,700 on a Surf or Sound rental this week, said he’s filed a claim and is waiting to hear back. The Raleigh resident started a Facebook group for similarly situated renters to vent and compare notes, and it’s grown to more than 800 members. Despite frustrations, his family has “some hope with the travel insurance.”

Lee, the mother from Connecticut, said her family didn’t purchase travel insurance, but she’s still frustrated by a lack of communication from Surf or Sound.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever go back to the Outer Banks,” she said. “It kind of puts a salty taste in your mouth.”

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