The Island Free Press is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2022, and like the last decade and a half, 2022 is already off to a busy start.
There are some years where our future headlines are somewhat fuzzy and uncertain. It’s not clear whether a new project will come to fruition, (like beach nourishment or the Bonner Bridge replacement), or how a debated topic will play out in the months to come, (like the ORV beach access issues of the mid-2000s.)
But for 2022, the year ahead is a little more in focus. There’s always the risk of hurricanes and other unpredictable stories dominating the news cycle, but many of the big topics on the horizon are stories that we islanders have either seen before, or have seen coming.
2022 will be the year that the Jug Handle Bridge opens, the year that the Avon and Buxton beach nourishment projects begin, and the year that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse restoration will take the next steps. It will also be the year where many stories from 2021 continue for the foreseeable future, like the Coronavirus pandemic, which has reached new peaks on the Outer Banks in just the past several weeks.
If there is one lesson we have learned repeatedly since the Island Free Press began in 2007, it’s that we can never completely predict what the future will bring. (Remember when folks were being evacuated off the newly-formed Shelly Island in 2017 due to a WWII-era bomb washing ashore? Who on earth saw that headline coming at the beginning of the year?)
Even so, there are a few topics that we can reasonably expect to have a big role in our local headlines in the year ahead. So let’s take a closer look at the major stories that are just on the horizon, or in some cases, are already here.
Beach Nourishment Projects Begin
With a $25,870,000 bid awarded to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company in December of 2021, the Avon and Buxton beach nourishment projects are rolling forward towards their tentative start date of May 1, 2022.
The Avon beach nourishment project, (which has been in the works since 2019), will place over 1 million cubic yards of sand along the beaches of Avon from about 3,000 feet north of the Avon Pier at Due East Road, to the southern boundary of Avon at the National Park Service line. The project will initially widen the beach by approximately 100 feet, and will cover about 2.5 miles of shoreline.
Meanwhile, the Buxton beach nourishment maintenance project will tackle 2.9 miles of shoreline from the Haulover Day Use Area north of Buxton to the oceanfront groin at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, targeting the same area that was initially addressed in 2017.
Both projects are expected to take an estimated 90 days to complete, but remember from the first Buxton Beach Nourishment project in 2017/2018, that weather can play a huge factor. (In fact, the Buxton project was delayed by a few months due to a number of storms that impacted the area in 2017.)
The projects are scheduled for the summer months to reduce the likelihood of storms and inclement weather causing delays, but only time will tell if a hurricane or unexpected hurdle will cause problems in the months ahead.
The Coronavirus pandemic has continued to dominate headlines, as the first several weeks of 2022 had some of the highest numbers of weekly cases reported in Dare County since the pandemic began in early 2020.
Prior to the past month, the record for the most new COVID-19 cases reported in a single week in Dare County was 279, which occurred on September 7-14, 2021. But 2022 has shattered this record, with 799 new cases reported for the week of January 4-11 alone.
As the highly contagious Omicron virus continues to sweep through the Outer Banks, expect these numbers to remain high in the days and weeks to come. It’s not yet known whether 2022 will be the year where the pandemic finally subsides, but for the immediate future at least, the Coronavirus is not going away anytime soon.
Jug Handle Bridge Opening
One of the biggest and most anticipated stories of the year is on the horizon, as the Jug Handle Bridge is slated to open to the public in late February or March of 2022.
Representing the third and final bridge to be built in the years-long Bonner Bridge Replacement Project, the imminent opening of the bridge has also introduced some timely questions.
Will the Jug Handle Bridge be given a more prestigious moniker, like the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge on Pea Island, or the Marc Basnight Bridge across Oregon Inlet? Will there be a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening, as there was for the Capt. Richard Etheridge Bridge, or will there be a full-fledged Community Bridge Day? (A big celebration to mark the bridge’s opening is likely, as Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard announced that an event will be planned at his recent State of the County presentation, noting that “the grand opening will include an opportunity, just like the Marc Basnight Bridge, for our folks to cross the bridge to celebrate the completion.”
Expect answers to all of these questions in the not-so-distant future, as the completion date quickly approaches. Regardless of how the milestone opening is marked, by the summer of 2022, all Hatteras Island visitors will have a new Hatteras Island route to look forward to.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Restoration
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Restoration project is another story with lingering questions and imminent answers, as the next phase of the restoration work is scheduled to begin by the fall of 2022.
In September of 2021, the National Park Service (NPS) introduced several options for the project’s next steps, which include significant alterations to the lighthouse grounds, as well as the beacon at the top of the tower.
For the tower, the NPS is considering a replacement of the existing 1950s beacon with either the original 1854 Fresnel lens, (which is currently housed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras), or a custom-made replica. For the grounds surrounding the lighthouse, the options range from minimal improvements to major overhauls, such as the addition of a shade pavilion and adding multiple new pedestrian paths for visitors.
The final decision on what the upcoming work will entail has not yet been made, and islanders can expect the announcement of the preferred project option and a corresponding 30-day public review period sometime in early 2022.
Assuming that all upcoming steps stick to the schedule, a decision on the specifics of the next phase of the restoration will be made clear by the spring, followed by contractor bidding and a more concrete timeframe for the ensuing work.
Ocracoke Lighthouse Restoration?
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse isn’t the only Outer Banks tower that will generate headlines in 2022, as the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse restoration is another project that’s on the verge of moving forward.
In May of 2021, the uncertain future of the Ocracoke Lighthouse was outlined in a public meeting, where broad ideas for its preservation were initially outlined. The site where the lighthouse sits has been subjected to severe flooding during a number of recent storms, including Hurricanes Matthew, Florence, and Dorian, which all occurred within the past few years.
Given this recent history, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore anticipates that at some time in the future, the area where the 1823 lighthouse is stationed will be overtaken by sea level rise, and actions may need to be taken to preserve the historic structures at the site, (which includes the Double Keepers’ Quarters, carpenter’s shop, store house, cisterns, privy, oil house, and generator house.)
The initial options which were outlined months ago range from leaving the structures where they are and simply conducting repairs, to moving the lighthouse and all its essential outbuildings to a new site. The two top contenders for a new locale as of 2021 are northwest of the NPS Ocracoke Campground, and in Ocracoke village near the NPS boat ramp parking area. Both sites offer naturally higher elevation, and likely won’t be impacted by significant flooding in the next 30 years.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse project is in its very early stages, so we won’t see a big lighthouse move in 2022, like we did in the summer of 1999 with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Regardless, this story will likely heat up in the months ahead, as flooding continues to be a threat, and the debate starts to accelerate on the best future options for preserving an essential piece of Ocracoke’s past.
A Continued Boom in Visitation?
Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands saw record-shattering visitation in 2021, with more than 3 million visitors recorded at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for the first time in history – (a milestone that was reached at the end of November, before the full-year visitation tallies were released.)
Early occupancy rates and reservations suggest that 2022 is shaping up to be just as busy as 2021, but only time will tell if these trends continue to hold.
If the pandemic subsides, bringing stability to international travel and air travel, will tourism to the Outer Banks subsequently decrease? Or will first-timers who discovered our isolated shorelines during the pandemic continue to return year after year, as so many of us have done after our first visit to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands? There’s also the constant possibility that a storm could throw a big and life-altering wrench into an otherwise successful visitor season, like in 2003 (Isabel), 2011 (Irene), or 2019 (Dorian).
By the end of the year, we’ll know if our booming popularity is just a pandemic-era anomaly or a permanent change, but for now, expect that the islands will continue to be busy, with record-high visitation that has already extended into the New Year, and has created a busier-than-normal winter landscape.
Long-term Housing and Staffing
If you go deep into our archives and look at our top stories of 2007, you’ll find three common themes: The need for a new Bonner Bridge replacement, the need for a less restrictive ORV management plan, and the need for more long-term housing.
After 15 years, we have a new bridge, and a better ORV plan than its predecessor, but long-term housing is still a hot topic that has grown more problematic with time.
This issue really came into focus in 2021, which had record visitation coupled with an island-wide staff shortage. Many businesses were forced to reduce their hours of operation last year due to a lack of employees, and with little changing on the job market and housing front, this issue will likely continue into 2022 as well.
The good news is that there are several projects in the works that aim to create new long-term accommodations on Hatteras Island, (including two prospective new multi-unit developments in Avon and Buxton, which are both in the initial planning stages.)
Hopefully, the creation of long-term housing will be a trend in the future, but for now, there is not an immediate solution for the busy, understaffed summer ahead.
What else is next? Who knows?
On November 30, 2006, (a year before the Island Free Press was born), Buxton beachgoers who were out for a casual stroll stumbled upon one of the most rewarding shipwrecks of our time. A passing ship had somehow lost several of its cargo containers, which resulted in hundreds of pristine and unopened bags of Doritos lining the beach for literal miles.
In the spring of 2017, Buxton beach fans were once again surprised to find a new sandbar forming off of Cape Point, which eventually grew to more than a mile in length, and became famous for its abundance of shell piles. The newly-formed “Shelly Island” attracted media outlets from all over world, before it quietly disappeared in the fall of 2017 after a series of storms and long-forgotten hurricanes, like Maria. But during the summer months of its existence, it spawned an untold number of weird stories that focused on Shelly Island’s abundance of shells, its thriving shark population, and its occasional reveal of a WWII-era unexploded ordnance.
Will 2022 have its own “Chipwrecked” or “Shelly Island” headline? Will there be a story so big, or distinctive, or just plain weird that we’ll once again garner a little international attention? Who knows?
At the beginning of any year, you can have a solid grasp on the stories to expect, but you can’t account for the unpredictable. There could be a major hurricane or other disaster in our future, to be certain, but there could also be waves of Doritos washing ashore, just waiting to be discovered on an imminent beach stroll. So here’s hoping that no matter what 2022 brings, our chips will come in.