up historic levels of sound tide and left Hatteras Islanders with
little communication and no electricity. But worse, eight years after
Hurricane Isabel slashed an inlet between Frisco and Hatteras, the
storm left the island severed.
This time N.C. 12, the island’s only highway, has been breached in more
than one place, trapping about 2,300 residents who hung on during the
storm. This time, far less private property and infrastructure were
damaged by the surge of water, and the island’s villages did not suffer
the devastation inflicted by Isabel.
But this time, the destruction of the road mostly lies within the Pea
Island National Wildlife Refuge, putting much of the control over
restoration in the hands of the federal government.
Dennis Stewart, a refuge biologist, said he largest cut --- appearing
to be more than 100 feet wide and about 8 feet deep --- is 3 miles
south of the visitor center, in what used to be known as the “sandbag
area” before the road was relocated, just north of the boat ramp at New
“I call it 'New-New Inlet,' ” he said.
Irene cut another large breach on the south end of the refuge between
the S-Curves and Mirlo Beach on the north end of Rodanthe.
of the road is destroyed, he said, with the ocean claiming the south
corner of the refuge and a chunk of the lot where Serendipity --- the
house made famous in the movie “Nights in Rodanthe” --- stood before it
Water is flowing from sound to ocean, with one of the smaller “braids”
going into an old drainage ditch that turns toward the sound and back
into the refuge.
Part of the road by the north bird impoundment pond also lost “a couple
hundred feet” on the sound dike, Stewart said. And according
DOT press release, there is another breach on the south end of the
To repair the road, permits will almost certainly have to be issued by
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the same U.S. Department of the
Interior agency that had balked at state plans to maintain the highway
as part of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement project.
After 20 years of bureaucratic gridlock, the North Carolina Department
of Transportation finalized its plan in December to construct the new
bridge. As feared --- some say expected --- environmental groups
represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on
July 1 to stop the project. The transportation department has
respond by Sept. 6.
Part of the groups’ complaint centered on DOT’s decision to drop its
earlier plan to build a 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island
and vulnerable N.C 12. DOT said that option was not practical largely
because of high up-front costs. But Fish and Wildlife managers had also
favored the longer bridge, a fact not lost on state and county
“I truly hope that the Department of the Interior will understand the
critical issue that we have,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners
Chairman Warren Judge.
“I hope that we will not see a game of Russian roulette.”
But Stewart said that refuge officials are doing everything in their
power to work with electric, telephone and road workers to assist in
the recovery of services. Many power poles within the refuge and in
Rodanthe were downed during the slow-moving storm, he said. Land-line
and cellular phone service that serves the island’s 5,000 year-round
residents was also lost.
“We’re all working together,” he said. “We’re all agreeing that we’re
going to work in the most cooperative method we can to get power and
Sidestepping the myriad issues around the bridge project,
said that in general, road work in the refuge would require permits
from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Division of Coastal
Management. The refuge manager would have to authorize any
for work that falls outside of DOT’s right of way.
Typically, if there is a declared state-of-emergency, he
“there’s avenues to expedite the permitting process” for all state and
Stewart said that DOT engineers and hydrologists took a helicopter to
the breached areas to access the damage. He said he expects that once
the information is compiled, it will be discussed in a meeting with
stakeholders, and DOT will develop its final plan to address road
Emergency ferries have been deployed from ramps at Stumpy Point to
Rodanthe to bring supplies, but for the time being, no
are being made for transporting residents.
“Nobody wants to deny them,” Stewart said,” but it’s going to take a
while to get this in place.”
Greer Beaty, a spokeswoman for DOT, said that the assessment --- how
deep, how wide, what repair is needed, the cost estimate and the
timeline --- needs to be completed before seeking permits.
“We can’t do much else until we have that,” she said. “We need to have
a solid plan.”
Beaty said that although DOT is dealing with damage statewide, many
resources have been put toward addressing the breaches on N.C. 12.
“We need to make sure that we’re doing it right,” she said, alluding to
the pending lawsuit.
Even if refuge officials bend over backward to accommodate DOT, it
doubtful that the state agency could match its stunningly fast repair
job of what became known as “Isabel Inlet.”
When the hurricane made landfall the afternoon of Sept. 18, 2003, a
25-foot wall of waves and storm surge slammed into Hatteras Village,
destroying businesses and homes and carving the 10-foot deep,
1,700-foot wide inlet east of Frisco. Miraculously, no one
It took about two months for the Corps to fill the inlet with 400,000
cubic yards of sand and for the DOT to rebuild the mile of lost
highway. It was hailed as a remarkable feat that typically would have
taken far longer.
But with the damaged roadway in an area that has been the subject of
disagreement between environmental groups who say the road is a
essentially a lost cause, and state and local officials, as well as
many Outer Banks residents, who say it is critical for providing
access, a quick remedy seems more remote.
In recent months, people aligned with the environmental groups’
position have been promoting the use of ferries, an idea instantly
discarded by Outer Bankers who depend on the robust tourist trade to
make a living, and the county, which depends on the tourist economy to
“We build bridges to replace a ferry . . . to provide more safety and
better services, for economic development, ” said Judge, his voice
sharp. “Their plan is that we go backwards. Please, please don’t tell
me I have to go back 100 years.”
Judge said that ferry services couldn’t transport the same number of
people in an entire day that a bridge carries in an hour. Hatteras
Island is not only a popular vacation destination, he said, it is also
home to 5,000 Dare County residents.
“This is an emergency,” he said. “The lifeline is cut in half.”