Securing safe navigation in the channels of Hatteras Inlet is not a new issue.
Ever since a series of storms in the early 2010s reconfigured the channels in the inlet, (including 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy), the need for timely and effective dredging to keep the channels open has been constant and crucial.
The U.S. Coast Guard depends on the channels to respond to at-sea emergencies, the N.C. Ferry Division depends on the channels to provide transportation to and from Ocracoke Island, and dozens, (if not hundreds), of charter and commercial fishermen depend on the channels to work, and to live.
And when the channels become so shallow that they are impassable, it creates an issue that echoes throughout the islands. Local charter boat captains and their crews lose their charters or have to go to great lengths to keep their businesses above water, such as docking at Oregon Inlet or Ocracoke, which is more than 40 miles away.
Tourism suffers as visiting mariners look to other coastal North Carolina destinations to launch their boats for tournaments or just everyday recreation, while the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries are limited to only using smaller vessels that can handle the shallow waters, and have to cancel or reduce runs when the shoaling and windy weather combine to create hazardous conditions. Commercial fishing-related businesses close, as local fishermen are forced to move to areas that are less problematic, like Wanchese.
The ability of the U.S. Coast Guard to respond to emergencies is also deeply affected. In February 2022, when a plane crash occurred off the Cape Lookout National Seashore, Coast Guard Chief John Matuska of Station Hatteras Inlet told the Dare County Waterways Commission that the station’s ability to respond was extremely challenging.
“I probably had one of the worst nightmares of my career last night,” he said to the Commission at their Feb 14 meeting. “It’s pretty devastating to tell the Sector (North Carolina) ‘I can’t go . . . because I’ve got no way offshore with the 47’ [motor lifeboat.]”
These issues have been simmering and reverberating for years, and are a constant theme at the monthly Dare County Waterways Commission meetings, but now, we’ve reached a crisis point.
Steve “Creature” Coulter is the Chairman of the Dare County Waterways Commission, and the owner and operator of Sea Creature Sportfishing. Involved with the Commission for six years, Coulter and the Waterways Commissioners’ job is comparable to the ancient Greek story of being condemned to endlessly push a boulder up a hill, until it rolls back down again.
The lack of dredging and the numerous problems it has caused is not due to inactivity or inefficiency on the part of the Waterways Commission, by any means, but by a tangled web of red tape and inaction that extends well beyond the inlet’s borders.
Coulter regularly provides updates on the Hatteras Inlet channels and the efforts to secure dredging in emails to stakeholders, and his recent batch of emails are basically desperate pleas for help.
The following is an email that Coulter sent in March, which both details the recent history that led to the current crisis point, and which begs for assistance from state officials, national officials, and anyone who will listen to the voices connected with Hatteras Inlet.
(I am posting this email verbatim, because it details the problem better than I can.)
For context, there are a couple of background items to note. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) conducts dredging operations in the channels, and as it stands, they can only dredge from October through March. To dredge after March 31, special permission is needed, although a plan is in the works to realign the federal channel and possibly allow year-round dredging. (Much of mariners’ frustration in recent years has been directed at the fragmented regulatory status of the inlet’s passages – some federal, some state, some neither, some both. Realignment of the federal channel would help address these gaps.)
In addition, the original direct route that once connected Hatteras to Ocracoke is no longer usable, and likely won’t be in the future. This means that the current “Horseshoe Route,” which encompasses the troublesome South Ferry Channel and Sloop Channel, is more or less the only option for navigation available. (As Coulter explained in an earlier interview, “The long and the short of it is that the Army Corps of Engineers has not dredged past Barney Slough for almost 10 years now… Since the end of the island started washing away, they quit trying to [dredge there], the Coast Guard pulled the buoys going to the gorge, and that’s when we formed the horseshoe route.”)
Now on to the letter…
I have addressed this email to several people with the hopes someone can help us.
While there are many things going on in the country and world this day, there are also needs in small towns. The people of Hatteras Island are about to suffer great hardships because once again we can’t go to work.
For the past 10 years the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] has not maintained the Federal channel in its entirety.
While there is a plan to reroute the federal channel, this process is taking longer than anticipated. This delay is putting everyone who depends on this inlet for their income at risk. The process is complicated and confusing to everyone. While we have had a plan and [Memorandum of Agreement or MOA] in place for years, for one reason or another, it keeps getting sidetracked right when we need it.
This past January the MOA for South Ferry expired because it was being modified to include Sloop Channel. This modification was not communicated to the local community, [and we were not] given an opportunity to advise our needs concerning it. This caused a delay in maintenance dredging of South Ferry Channel which was badly needed. Since then, we have had an extremely low tide situation that has kept the maintenance from occurring. Our dredge window as it now exists is about to expire again. We are out of time!
Here is a timeline of the past few months for Hatteras Inlet. The existing South Ferry Channel was opened in late October and maintenance planned for December 28. This maintenance was stopped after two days because of weather. In the first week of January the MOA expired and the modified MOA did not get signed until February 14th. The next maintenance dredging was set for March 7th. This was scheduled for 14 days and ended in less than a day because water was too shallow for the dredge to operate. At that point the dredge left on March 11th because of weather coming in on 12th and advised that it was to return once the weather cleared. As of this email the dredge is still not working in Hatteras!
The USCG has said it is in a state of emergency. Their ability to respond to calls for assistance is all but cut off because of lack of depth in our channel…
While the National Park Service proactively developed a 20-year plan to assist with beach nourishment and dredging needs, as of this email this plan is not being utilized in the dredging the channel.
Fishing trips are being cancelled on a daily basis by angry and disappointed customers. Local boats are leaving for other ports because we can’t access the inlet due this shoaling in the channel. People are cancelling plans to visit this portion of NC in their own boats because access to the ocean is not possible at this time. Marinas have been upgrading costly fueling systems to stay current with State and Federal regulations only to be sidelined because boats can’t access the ocean. These marinas, in addition to island motels, restaurants, retail shops, convenience stores, and tackle shops, will all begin to suffer soon. These are local businesses, owned by hard working families, and dependent on our access to the ocean to survive…
If everyone involved would set down and discuss ways to proceed with a clear plan in place we can solve this issue together. If I can be of assistance, please let me know. Thank you for your attention and any help you can give us at this critical time.
Coulter says that he did get some response from this initial email, and he has been talking with local, state, and national representatives, as he has been for years.
But unfortunately, in the days after this first email was sent, more problems arose when an ongoing bucket and barge operation at the end of Sloop Channel, (which is being orchestrated by NCDOT to collect sand for N.C. Highway 12 on Ocracoke), exacerbated shoaling in the area, worsening conditions that were already poor.
The gears of government are turning slowly to get this issue fixed, as well as the greater issue of Hatteras Inlet navigation in general.
This is why Coulter’s latest email update, sent on March 25, is not a call for help from government officials, but a call for help from the public at large.
…There appears to be some movement on the State level to fix the problems caused by the bucket and barge operation at the end of Sloop Channel. Once that is done, it will be easier to address the shoaling at South Ferry. I don’t have any specifics yet, but when I get them, I will let you know.
The Waterways Commission has been in contact with our county, state, and federal representatives asking for help. I would urge everyone to email their State representatives and ask that NCDOT fix the problems in Sloop channel, ASAP… Tell them how you are impacted by this problem and ask for their help.
These are our officials, some of you need to contact others.
Senator Bob Steinburg’s contact information:
Office Phone: (919) 715-8293
Member’s Email: Bob.Steinburg@ncleg.gov
Representative Bobby Hanig’s contact information:
Main Phone: 919-733-5906
Member’s Email: Bobby.Hanig@ncleg.gov
There is a thread-bare silver lining to the Hatteras Inlet problem, which is that two long-term initiatives are in the works to provide relief for the foreseeable future.
The expected summertime arrival of Dare County’s own dredge, Miss Katie, as well as the approval of the Rollison Channel Realignment project, will likely make dredging easier in the future, assuming both projects are completed soon.
But in the meantime, everyone who depends on the inlet’s channels to work and live are watching the horizon daily, hoping that the USACE’s dredge Merritt, (or any dredge really), will suddenly appear. It has been a long wait to conduct effective dredging in 2022 so far, and as every day passes and the visitor season barrels closer, the wait just gets longer and longer.
“We’ve already lost between 75 and 100 [charter boat] trips this month, and next month this number will double or triple, and the number will at least quadruple the month after that,” said Coulter. “That affects our local restaurants, motels, shops – everybody.”
There is not much the public can do to alter the immediate future of dredging. So much depends on the USACE’s statewide schedule, (as well as the ability of the Merritt to conduct dredging operations in the channels.) The near future is also frustratingly dependent on the weather, and how upcoming wind and water patterns will affect the shoaling going forward. And getting the weather and the government to act favorably are two difficult, if not impossible, tasks – Just like pushing a boulder up a hill.
But there are high hopes that the long-term initiatives will come to fruition, and in the meantime, the public can arguably be most effective by being vocal.
Drawing attention to the crisis, and the literal lifeline it provides to so many Hatteras and Ocracoke Island residents, is the one thing that we can do, right now, to help change the shape of navigation and our future.