A year ago, Hatteras Island residents were coping with the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene. Though only a Category 1 storm, it carved two new inlets through highway N.C. 12 north of Rodanthe and cut off access to the mainland for seven weeks during tourist season.
It was a dramatic reminder of the need for a safe, sustainable transportation route to and from Hatteras Island.
A year later, the North Carolina Department of Transportation is still ignoring the likelihood of another disaster with the next major storm, leaving residents and visitors vulnerable again. The state DOT is doggedly pursuing a shortsighted construction plan that will force residents and visitors to depend on the same unreliable highway through the same narrow, exposed stretch of a shifting barrier island and will commit taxpayers to paying for its continual maintenance for the next 50 years. It is pressuring its sister agencies to issue the various permits it needs for that ill-conceived project when it ought to be focusing on finding a long-term solution for Hatteras Island.
One lesson from Irene is that new inlets will keep forming during big storms, carrying sand to the back side of North Carolinas barrier islands as they erode on the ocean side and generally causing the islands to migrate westward. A warming climate and rising sea levels will only augment these effects.
The DOT identified hot spots along the north end of Hatteras Island where it expects new inlets and breaches to form. The DOTs plan, however, ties N.C. 12 to this rapidly eroding section of island for the foreseeable future.
Specifically, the DOT wants to build a series of miles-long permanent bridges to span Oregon Inlet as well as the new inlets created by Irene; more inlets and bridges to span them will follow after future storms. The agency has acknowledged that, because the island is moving west, those bridges could soon be located on the beach, then in the surf zone, and finally offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, all within a few decades certainly an engineering feat, but at what cost and in whose interest?
Treasured swimming and fishing areas would become perpetual construction zones, and the hurricane evacuation route from the southern Outer Banks would travel over open ocean.
How can we avoid this mess? A high-speed ferry system is an innovative option that could create permanent jobs for struggling mainland communities and a tourist draw for the Outer Banks. While Hatteras Island was cut off for many weeks after Irene, Ocracoke Island was open within days, thanks to its resilient ferry service.
Another way to avoid the Hatteras Island hot spots is a bridge connecting Rodanthe to Bodie Island through the sheltered Pamlico Sound. The state DOTs own studies support the conclusion that such a bridge would be safer than a road on the island. However, despite its initial support, the DOT rejected a Pamlico Sound bridge under political pressure in 2003.
The agency then claimed it was better able to afford building a series of shorter bridges along N.C. 12 over a period of years than the single Pamlico Sound bridge. After Irene, though, the DOT is planning to build approximately 10 miles of those shorter bridges all at once.
If the DOT can afford that, it ought to take a second look at funding and building a single, safer Pamlico Sound bridge with lower maintenance costs. Why not invest in a long-term solution rather than a shortsighted blunder that could ultimately result in a higher price tag for taxpayers and a vulnerable string of bridges in the ocean?
This year, several federal agencies began to balk at the DOTs plan by refusing to concur with its patchwork bridging plans and directing it to develop better cost estimates for a Pamlico Sound bridge to allow a fair comparison of costs and benefits. Those agencies are on the right track.
Recent data suggests that a Pamlico Sound bridge could cost less than the DOTs latest (but six-year-old) estimates, and possibly no more than the current plan. Surely the DOT could find any extra funds it needs by re-evaluating the need for several very large but unjustified proposed projects.
Ultimately, Irene demonstrated that Mother Nature will not let N.C. 12 remain on the northern portion of Hatteras Island. Compared to miles of bridges in the Atlantic Ocean and inevitable accompanying road shutdowns and costly maintenance other options such as a Pamlico Sound bridge and ferries are far wiser and safer choices. North Carolinas DOT should abandon its current ill-conceived plan and focus on a workable, long-term, and safe solution for Hatteras Island.
Julie Youngman is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.