DURHAM — Hurricane Irene has clarified what was already obvious to many: A highway through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on an unstable barrier island across a bridge over the constantly shifting Oregon Inlet is not a reliable route for access to the villages on the Outer Banks.
Residents of the villages south of Oregon Inlet are learning from state Department of Transportation's mistakes the hard way. They have been stranded for more than a month, linked to the mainland by an outdated emergency ferry with very limited capacity.
The hurricane blew out new inlets in the Pea Island Refuge, destroying N.C. 12 in the exact places that East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs predicted. (Riggs is the author of just-published "The Battle For the North Carolina Coast," which discusses the management alternatives in detail.) The DOT is scrambling to fill those inlets and re-establish the highway - latest word is that the road will reopen soon - but in the longer term it is racing a relentless ocean that will repeatedly wash away its efforts.
For now, the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet remains unreachable from Hatteras Island and unusable. And with its proposed bridge replacement project, the DOT would tie Hatteras residents to this broken route another 100 years, even as new breaches and inlets sever N.C. 12 on a regular basis, probably at a rate of one or two times per decade.
Had DOT officials made a responsible choice years ago, those stranded on Hatteras Island would have been spared their current predicament. In 2003, all involved federal and state agencies agreed that building a longer replacement bridge and causeway, bypassing the refuge to make landfall at the wider, more stable part of Hatteras Island, was the best, most viable, and least environmentally damaging choice to replace the ailing Bonner Bridge. But politicians stepped in and derailed that project, as well as any genuine consideration of a new ferry system.
There can be no legitimate debate regarding certain facts.
First, Hurricane Irene is not the last storm that will hit the Outer Banks. Hurricanes, nor'easters, spring high tides and sea level rise will all continue to occur. This storm pattern is now routine, having happened in 2003, 2009, and 2011 and is likely to increase in frequency as the Earth warms. The question is, how many times do we have to get hit over the head before the DOT learns?
Second, the Pea Island stretch of the Outer Banks (the northern end of Hatteras Island) is thinner and particularly unstable (as are the stretches north of Buxton and east of Hatteras village) and these stretches of N.C. 12 will inevitably be breached again and again at predictable locations during storms.
Third, each time that these breaches occur, the DOT will spend millions of tax dollars on emergency repairs trying to re-connect Rodanthe and other villages to the mainland.
Fourth, the DOT's efforts to maintain N.C. 12 in place with a combination of dune building, sand relocation and emergency reconstruction are, in fact, making the island even thinner, lower in elevation and more unstable by halting the natural processes that would allow sand to be deposited on the Pamlico Sound side of the island and enable the island to slowly migrate in that direction. If the DOT does not change its methods soon, the island will continue to narrow to the point that it can no longer hold a highway at all, and the replacement Oregon Inlet bridge will become a "bridge from nowhere to nowhere" within its lifespan.
Clearly, a long bridge that connects to Rodanthe - or, better yet, a modern, high-speed, high-capacity ferry system - would not suffer the same drawbacks as the current proposed configuration of replacement Bonner Bridge and N.C. 12. Either of these alternative options to replacing the Oregon Inlet bridge would allow natural processes to resume. And even the DOT's own estimates show that a long bridge or system of ferries would ultimately cost taxpayers less than the current plan to replace the Bonner Bridge in its present location and then keep trying to hold off the ocean to maintain N.C. 12 in place.
Isn't it time for DOT officials to face the facts, take the long view and rethink their approach to the Outer Banks?
Orrin Pilkey is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of geology at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He is the author, with Rob Young, of "The Rising Sea."