Hatteras Island is Re-Connected — But for How Long?

Before moving onshore as a tropical storm to flood wide areas in Vermont, New York, and New Jersey, August’s Hurricane Irene struck the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds clocked as high as 85 mph (see National Weather Service radar image, below). While less severe than feared, Irene’s 8-foot storm surge was strong enough to cut five breaches in the slender barrier island’s only road, stranding 2,500 residents, the StarNews reported on August 28 (“Hurricane Irene opens new inlets on Hatteras Island,” by Associated Press). Crews working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation worked overtime to build a new, temporary bridge spanning the largest breach and filled the other breaches with sand. On Monday, October 10, cars once again had road access to Hatteras and to islands further out the chain, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported (“New bridge puts Hatteras Island on road to normalcy,” by Deirdre Fernandes and Kristin Davis). “For the first time since Hurricane Irene cut across a narrow stretch like a buzz saw on Aug. 27, vehicles bearing plates from North Carolina to New Jersey eased over the narrow, 662-foot engineering feat spanning a 200-foot channel just north of Rodanthe.” But Irene’s impact, and the cost of repairs, throws fresh doubt on the viability of road transportation to the fragile barrier island communities. The Department of Transportation is working to create a long-term plan to address the area’s needs, the Outer Banks Voice reported on October 19 (“Bridges could be long-term solution for N.C. 12,” by Rob Morris). But the Los Angeles Times reported on October 8 that some critics have harsh words for the whole effort to keep Hatteras and the rest of the slender archipelago linked by road to the mainland at all (“Ready to stick a fork in Hatteras Island road,” by David Zucchino). “Some environmentalists and geologists are calling the effort a colossal waste of time and money,” reported the Times. “It's pure folly, they say, to keep repairing a vulnerable, exposed highway on the shifting sands of a rapidly eroding barrier island,” said East Carolina University geologist Dorothea V. Ames. "The state is just filling those holes in the road with money.” Despite the criticism, the Times reports, “The state is pushing ahead with pre-Irene plans to build a 2.8-mile, $216-million bridge that ties into the most badly damaged sections of Highway 12. It would replace the 2.7-mile Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, built in 1962, which lost its crucial link to Highway 12 when Irene severed the highway five miles south. Yet the bridge is rendered useless whenever storms rupture Highway 12, which has happened many times since it was built in 1954.” Ames and three university colleagues have written a book about North Carolina’s coastal preservation dilemma, The Battle for North Carolina's Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis. In it, they argue: “The effort to preserve the coastal economy status quo in the long run has a high probability of failure for the simple reason that it is virtually impossible to maintain a fixed road on a constantly shifting pile of sand. About 18,000 years ago our coastline was 15 to 60 miles to the east and 410 feet below its current location. Its migration westward will continue in the future as sea level rises. What will we do in response to this inevitable fact? We understand that there are good reasons to go forward with construction of the proposed bridge-road system, including maintaining the economy and safety of the villages on the Outer Banks, for the benefit of both inhabitants and tourists, but at some point we will need to embrace alternative strategies.”