On the Outer Banks, there may be no escape from The Big One

In the last couple of decades, the problem of escape from natural hazards has come to the forefront of planning for emergency response as climate change alters the nature of hazards. Two examples of this are intensifying forest fires and increasingly severe coastal storms.

In 2018 the massive Camp Fire in California that virtually destroyed the town of Paradise produced a number of stories about escaping a rapidly moving wildfire. At least 85 people did not escape the flames and lost their lives. This in spite of the fact that the community had carefully laid plans to evacuate all 26,000 residents in case of a fire.

Hurricanes Floyd (1999), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005) and Harvey (2017) each produced jammed highways that became virtual parking lots which, if the hurricanes had crossed over them, would have resulted in significant death tolls. Escape from these storms was greatly hampered because only two lanes of four-lane interstate highways were open to escapees.

When the next big hurricane hits North Carolina head on, the Outer Banks barrier islands extending from Ocracoke to the Virginia line will be particularly dangerous to escape. Riding out The Big One in most cases is not a good option.

The road from the town of Hatteras to the first bridge to the mainland at Manteo, 60 miles to the north, is two narrow lanes with sandy shoulders, but the actual escape route will be the single right-hand lane heading north. Escape of much of the Outer Banks hurricane-season population along this road will be impossible. Even the few thousand year-round residents likely cannot escape on a single-lane road. There will be flat tires, fender benders, cars and overcrowded gas stations that run out of gas, and cars bogged down in the sandy shoulders.

In a big storm, overwash will push water and sand across low sections of the road, potentially blocking escape. On the escape route from Paradise, California, bulldozers were required to remove stalled cars that blocked escape.

With the expected intensification of storms, the likelihood of no escape from The Big One should be a recognized unpleasant fact of life along much of the Outer Banks, including the northern Banks (Corolla, Carova). Other barrier islands in North Carolina have much shorter escape roads and some, such as Bogue Banks, Topsail Island, and Wrightsville Beach, now have two escape bridges. Unfortunately, once the Outer Banks escapees make it across a bridge at Manteo or Southern Shores, their worries aren’t over. They must next traverse the low-lying, easily flooded 60-to-90-mile-wide Inner Banks before reaching safe high ground. And they will likely be doing so with thousands of other residents and tourists.

As sea level rises, The Big One will become even more damaging and dangerous. So what to do?

Storm forecasters could help by recognizing the unique escape problem on the Outer Bank barrier islands and order evacuation earlier. Because models produce wide variations in storm tracks, forecasters could also play it safer on the Outer Banks and project a longer shoreline storm-landing zone. Highway Patrol officials should be prepared to open both lanes of Hwy 12 heading north (or south from Corolla) to facilitate evacuation.

Another solution for Outer Bankers would be to leave early – to self-evacuate long before officials issue the evacuation order. The key is to plan well before storm season. Create “bug-out” evacuation emergency kits for both you and your pets, including food and water, medications, flashlights, batteries and first aid kits. Take your pets with you. Contact family or friends now to arrange a safe destination in the event of a storm. Research pet-friendly hotels on your escape route. Don’t get caught unprepared. Plan your escape route now. In fact, plan multiple routes. Depending on the direction of the storm, you may need to alter your plans

Applying a standard of extreme caution, I would advise my aging parents not to live on the Outer Banks. If they insisted on living on a North Carolina barrier island, I would advise choosing a short island to the south with a bridge. Ultimately perhaps, the best advice for aging parents is to live on the mainland.

Orrin H. Pilkey is a Duke University professor emeritus in Earth and Ocean Sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment. His book with co-author Keith Pilkey, “Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores,” will be published in September.