Milestones:  Remembering hurricanes Emily and Isabel
August 2, 2013

Walking on Isabel Inlet and other tales of recovery


On Oct. 21, 2003, I walked on Isabel Inlet.

It was a month after I first saw the inlet that was cut between the villages of Frisco and Hatteras when Hurricane Isabel made landfall just south of the village and sent a storm surge and powerful waves, estimated at about 25 feet, across the island.

The progress that had been made filling the gap in the island was remarkable.  In a month’s time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency on the project, had a contract with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. of Oak Brook, Ill., to fill the inlet.  The huge cutter-suction dredge, the Illinois, was put in place off the southwestern tip of the island near the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel, and about six miles of piping was laid across the end of the island and up the beach through the village to the inlet.  On Friday, Oct. 17, a sand-and-water mixture, called slurry, began flowing from the ferry channel through the 30-inch pipes and spewing onto the beach near the inlet.

The 1,700 foot wide inlet was divided by two small sand islands into three channels.  By Tuesday when a small group of us toured the site, the first channel in the inlet was gone, filled with the wet slurry that had dried and was indistinguishable from the nearby beach sand.  Engineers and workers for the dredge company were busy with bulldozers and dump trucks, pushing the sand into place and clearing road debris from the second channel before it, too, was filled.

Engineers estimate that it will take up to a million cubic yards of sand to fill the inlet.  The dredge pumps the water-sand mixture at a rate of about 17 feet per second and was depositing 20,000 to 30,000 cubic yards a day in the area.  The inlet project, which includes restoring the dunes, was expected to be finished by mid-November at a cost of $6.2 million. 

After the dredging project is finished, the state Department of Transportation will begin rebuilding Highway 12 to restore access to Hatteras village at a cost of $657,000.  That is expected to take about two weeks, depending on the weather.

Islanders are hoping that by Thanksgiving, we will once again be able to drive to Hatteras village.


Officials have carefully avoided calling the cut in the island between Frisco and Hatteras an inlet.  In the beginning, it was referred to as a "low spot," though the day after the storm, dolphins were photographed swimming through the "low spot."  Since then, many agencies have called the gap a "breach."
Most islanders have called the "breach" an inlet from the beginning.  It has been dubbed Isabel Inlet.

The reason that many state and local officials prefer to avoid the "I" word is that inlet has a more permanent connotation and was more likely to cause problems with some agencies and environmental groups when a decision was made early on to fill it.

However, two coastal scientists doing research in the area recently think the breach is indeed an inlet.

Chris Freeman and David Bernstein, partners who own Geodynamics, a Morehead City geologic and oceanographic research company, surveyed the area from a specially equipped WaveRunner.  The $48,000 project was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide data to better understand coastal breaches.

Freeman said the survey showed that the first section of the breach that was filled averaged seven to 10 feet deep and had "quite a bit of tidal flow."  The second channel was about eight feet deep but was blocked from flowing by a section of peat.  The main part of the inlet, the section on the Frisco side, is an average of 18 feet deep with some sections as deep as 24 feet with 7 to 8 knots of current.

"From being out there for about two weeks, if you see water flowing out there every day at 7 to 8 knots," Freeman said, "it’s certainly a tidal inlet.  There’s no question in my mind."

Isabel Inlet has been a popular site for visitors.  Each day, hundreds of people have been trekking the mile or so from the Frisco Bathhouse, where Highway 12 is closed, out to the inlet.


Friends and relatives call to ask if we have gotten back to "normal" yet.
The answer is "yes," but it’s the "new normal."

For most of Hatteras Island, life resembles what was normal before Isabel. Visitors have returned to all of the island except Hatteras village.    Most shops and restaurants are open, and Cape Point is crowded with fall anglers.

In Hatteras village, folks are struggling to return to some semblance of normal.  Power and water are restored, and villagers have been allowed to bring back their vehicles on the ferry from Stumpy Point on the mainland.  However, they are still coping with the destruction to their homes and businesses.  Economically, almost all are suffering.  The cleanup of the debris from the storm is underway, but the village is still a mess, and looking at it and dealing with it everyday is depressing, even to those whose homes and businesses were not destroyed.

Transportation from the village, or "Little Hatteras" as it is currently known, to "Big Hatteras" is by boat — either private boats or passenger ferries that run on the hour from dawn to dark from Frisco Cove Marina to Oden’s Dock.  On a nice day, it’s a pleasant trip.  On a windy or stormy day, it can be most unpleasant and wet.

Many islanders make the trip every day.  They either live on Big Hatteras and work in Little Hatteras or vice versa.  Others make the trip on a less regular basis — mothers with babies in strollers who are visiting relatives or have medical appointments and villagers who come to Big Hatteras for business or to shop.  It’s not unusual to see Hatteras villagers loading groceries or other purchases on the ferries.  Also on the boats are insurance adjusters, federal, state, and local officials involved in the recovery, and suppliers who will help the village rebuild.

Access to and from Little Hatteras on the boats and ferries it limited to residents, workers, and others with legitimate business there and is tightly controlled.  However, the Hatteras village marinas are open for business and have permission to ferry charter customers to the village on boats from Frisco. 


Ocracoke Island is also struggling with the "new normal."

The village had soundside flooding but was largely undamaged.  However, problems with electrical power and transportation have caused economic problems and a sense of isolation on the island.  For several weeks after the hurricane, Ocracoke was getting power from a generator, which was large enough to provide electricity only to residents.  Once regular power was restored, visitors were allowed onto the island — but only from the mainland.

Ferries are running four times a day from Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, but the Hatteras Inlet ferry has not been running from Hatteras village since the storm.  Highway 12 on Hatteras was severed by a new inlet just east of Hatteras village. 

In addition, seven miles of Highway 12 on Ocracoke from the Pony Pens to the ferry docks was badly damaged and dunes were flattened.  A mile of the highway was destroyed, and the rest was covered in up to five feet of sand.  State DOT workers have cleared the sand and constructed a preliminary road bed that is passable, but the final asphalt layer cannot be installed until the highway to Hatteras village is repaired and the Hatteras Inlet ferry is running again, so that the asphalt can be transported before it cools down too much.

Visitors have been trickling back to Ocracoke but not in the usual numbers, according to David Styron, a member of the island’s emergency management team.  People who have rentals are coming, he said, as are fall fishermen, but, without the day visitors from the Hatteras side of the inlet, businesses are suffering.

Supply trucks, bringing gasoline and food, which used to come on the Hatteras Inlet ferry, now have to make the longer trip by ferries from the mainland.  There have been a few glitches, Styron said.  One weekend last month, shortly after visitors were allowed back on the island, the gas pumps ran dry.  However, he said food for the restaurants that are open and the grocery stores has not been a big problem.  Folks are making do, he says.

Some visitors have been frustrated trying to catch the ferries from the mainland.  Reservations are required, but Ocracoke residents have priority on the first and last ferries of the day, and some supply trucks, especially those with refrigerated items, also get priority and are bumping people waiting for the ferries. 

Residents who were used to taking the 40-minute ferry to Hatteras for shopping and such things as medical appointments, now must catch a 2 1/2-hour ferry to the mainland and drive around.

"All of our lives are altered," said Styron.  "Our lives are nowhere near normal, but, considering what happened in other places like Hatteras, we are doing all right."

(This article was first published in the November 2003 issue of The Island Breeze.)

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