Engineers for the state Department of Transportation began scratching their heads Monday over how to mend the latest storm-related breaches to N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island, and a coastal geologist warned that Outer Banks residents could expect more damage to the fragile highway.
"This was a little storm," East Carolina University geology professor Stanley R. Riggs said. "If we get one or two more of these in September and October, you're going to have a whole bunch of holes in the Outer Banks out there."
Hurricane Irene on Saturday left a cluster of four gaps across N.C. 12 about five miles south of Oregon Inlet in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, where water sloshed back and forth Monday between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound.
Two more breaches were opened on the road farther south, just north of the village of Rodanthe, on a vulnerable stretch of road that DOT had fortified with big sandbags after it was damaged by a nor'easter in 2006.
The new gaps are near the sites of ancient inlets that have opened and closed in the Outer Banks over the past four centuries: New Inlet, which closed in 1945, and Chickinacommock Inlet, which closed around 1745. Riggs was the lead author of a paper published in 2009 that predicted that future storms would open fresh inlets in those same locations.
Irene appears to have caused worse damage to N.C. 12 than Hurricane Isabel did eight years ago, when it severed the road between Frisco and Hatteras near the southern end of the island. It took DOT two months and cost $5 million to make that repair and reopen the road.
"We really want to get Highway 12 open," Gov. Bev Perdue said at a press briefing in Raleigh. She said she was surprised to see how bad the damage was when she flew over Hatteras Island after Irene moved out of the state.
"It's wide, and it's deep," Perdue said. "We went through this after the last hurricane, and it took a couple of months to get the traffic moving."
Greer Beaty, DOT spokeswoman, said no estimates were available on how much money and time will be needed to repair and reopen N.C. 12. It's the mainland link for seven villages on the southern end of Hatteras Island, and for the village of Ocracoke, where tourists and residents rely primarily on the short ferry to Hatteras.
The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry is closed, partly because Irene dumped a few feet of sand on the N.C. 12 link from the ferry terminal on the east end of the island and the village on the west end. Both islands depend heavily on tourism, and the N.C. 12 rupture has dashed their hopes for the Labor Day holiday weekend.
DOT ferried repair crews and other first responders to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands Monday. There was no word on when island residents would be allowed to use the ferries to Ocracoke from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter, and an emergency ferry to Hatteras Island from Stumpy Point.
DOT employees described the N.C. 12 gaps as a "new inlet on Pea Island" when they posted photos of the damage online. Beaty said that was probably a mistake, and she had the photo captions changed to say "breach on Pea Island."
"I don't think we want to call that an inlet until we're sure we know what it is," Beaty said.
Riggs, the geology professor, said DOT's repeated efforts to stabilize the slender highway only make the island itself narrower and more fragile because they interfere with the Outer Banks' age-old tendency to migrate toward the west - retreating on the ocean side and growing on the sound side.
He said DOT was foolish to move ahead in July with plans to build a $216 million replacement for the 2.7-mile Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet at the northern end of Hatteras Island.
"That bridge should not be built because it will be a bridge to nowhere," Riggs said. "Somewhere between the next storm and the next decade or two, those islands are collapsing. It is foolish to build a quarter-billion-dollar bridge to an island that is disappearing. They cannot hold that road any more."
Carol Dawson, who owns the 58-room Cape Hatteras Motel in the Hatteras Island village of Buxton, faulted DOT for having failed in recent years to stabilize the island and protect the highway.
She said state and federal officials worry more about birds in the Pea Island refuge than about residents and businesses that rely on the highway.
"We all know birds are protected," Dawson said. "A million dollars of our tax dollars have been spent for those Yogi Bear rangers to count eight bird eggs, but they can't stabilize our beaches. We're taxpayers, and we deserve a passage to the mainland just like anyone else."
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