March 13, 2018

Kinnakeet Home: Nor’easter Winds

March came in like a lion on Hatteras Island in the form of a nor’easter that hit on us the front side with soundside flooding that wasn’t too bad, but on the back side with ocean overwash that was wickedly cruel to our shoreline.  

I made a trip off island the day after Highway 12 opened back up.  We had all been viewing spectacular drone footage on Facebook and so wondered if this was it – the one that would get us down and not let us back up.  My husband and I made a trip off island the day after Highway 12 reopened.  There was some water and sand, but the NCDOT’s tireless efforts to clear the roads had worked.  After viewing the footage from the air, this seemed something of a miracle. 

This made me think of winter storms and hurricanes and how these events shape and change our lives.  I decided to write about a past nor’easter, in particular, the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962.  During the summer of 1999, I interviewed some locals about their experience living in Avon during that storm.

Gibb Gray remembered looking at his barometer the wintry evening that the storm began affecting the island.  The night was still, but his barometer reading was very low.  The wind began that night which kicked off the infamous Ash Wednesday storm.  The next day Gray was at his family store in Avon.  Charles Williams, Sr. came in and said that an inlet had cut through between Avon and Buxton.  So Gray, along with his brothers Harry and Williams, got in an old shad boat and went down the shoreside to see what had happened.

Gray said, “It was a weird looking sight as we met the green ocean water halfway between Avon and the inlet.  A lot of debris had washed through the inlet, and we saw ocean waves actually breaking in the sound.”  Gray said the beach was littered with live conchs that had been scoured form the ocean bottom by the powerful surf.

The Ash Wednesday storm that occurred March 7-9, 1962, was one of the most severe in North Carolina history, according to “North Carolina Hurricane History” by Jay Barnes.  It affected more than 500 miles of Mid-Atlantic coast.  The storm lasted 60 hours along the N.C. coast. 

Nor’easters are extra tropical cyclones with many of the same characteristics of hurricanes.  Strong counterclockwise winds rotate around an area of low pressure spreading over thousands of square miles.  They lack a central warm air mass and a well-defined eye, and occur during the winter months.

This was not the first or last time an inlet had been cut north of Buxton.  There was an inlet there on John White’s 1580’s map, according to the Outer Banks History Center.  Many inlet zones on Hatteras Island have opened and closed over the years. 

The inlet that was cut by this storm was three miles north of Buxton.  It was, according to Virginian Pilot newspaper reports of that time, 600 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

A difference of opinion developed between the fishermen and business owners of Avon and Buxton.  The commercial fishermen wanted to see the inlet remain and a permanent bridge built.  Business owners wanted the inlet closed, and the road reestablished because they thought that would be a more secure way of keeping the road open.

Fishermen wanted the inlet left open because as the strong ocean tide washed through it brought fish into the sound.  This inlet also provided a way for them to the ocean instead of going all the way to Hatteras Inlet.

The day after the inlet had been cut, ferry service began from Avon to Hatteras.  On Good Friday that same year, a bridge had been established and opened, rushed into place for the 1962 tourist season.  At the same time, the Atkinson Dredging Company had its dredge in place hard at work filling the inlet with sand.

In November of 1962, gale winds blew, the inlet was widened another 200 feet, and the bridge was knocked over.  The Virginian Pilot reported on February 2, 1963, that 75 feet were all that remained to close the inlet by dredging.  The article stated that it would take 4- 6 weeks to build a new road once the inlet had been closed.  The inlet was completely closed by the spring of 1963 and a highway again established.

That part of Highway 12 has been washed over by subsequent storms, but never damaged as badly as during the Ash Wednesday storm.  An area closer to the village of Buxton than the old inlet area is now threatened by sea tide and a beach nourishment project was just finished in that area. 

Living on Hatteras Island ties us closely to the tides and winds.  The spring and summer months are before us, with their prevailing southerly winds and beautiful days by the sea.  Fall approaches each year promising a break from heat and humidity, but tempered by the fact that our island juts way out into the sea, seemingly daring a hurricane to take us on.  We have many mild days in the wintertime.  It’s not unusual to be able to take a walk along the beach barefoot in January and even February.

But then there is March, which often lives up to its reputation as coming in like a lion.  As I sit writing today, a much milder nor’easter’s winds are blowing, and a cold rain is falling.    We are hoping this year that March quickly changes its temperament and goes out like a lamb.

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