OUTER BANKS, N.C. -- There is no place on Earth like it -- a sliver of sand separating the ocean from the Pamlico Sound. It is where the Wright Brothers took flight, and countless ships have sank. Wild mustangs graze, and seafood is just a cast away. The Outer Banks draw local families, as well as vacationers from all over world, for its world class beaches, historic lighthouses and relaxed way of life. Remote and hard to get to, they offer a chance to feel away from it all.
Many want that chance.
The North Carolina Department of Commerce tells NBC Charlotte the Outer Banks generate nearly a billion dollars a year in tourism. That money is vital to the state’s economy, creating thousands of jobs for Carolina families. Dare County is behind only Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford Counties in tourism.
Hurricanes have reshaped our coastlines for centuries, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks have seen more than their fair share of these monster storms. The lifeline to those communities runs along Highway 12, a two lane road that stretches across the easternmost point of our state. It has been rebuilt numerous times, and se we wonder when will the next hurricane make landfall on that fragile infrastructure. But just like forecasting models are complex, so are the issues that surround rebuilding a road on sand. Does it make dollars and ‘sense’ for our state to keep rebuilding? Is the Charlotte tax payer getting his money's worth, or are we throwing money into the ocean?
“Highway 12 is an incredibly important link to the people that live of the Outer Banks of NC,” says Terry Gibson, chief engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “It’s the only way to get there.”
Gibson is the man tasked with keeping Highway 12 going. He’s committed to providing access for everyone. “We have people that live out there, and access is very important to us,” he says. “It’s our job to connect people and places so that’s what we do we put the road back together so that these people can have the same services as other people across the state.”
After Hurricane Sandy, a temporary bridge was put in place near Rodanthe. The longterm solution is to build an elevated bridge 15 to 20 feet in the air, allowing overwash to pass underneath.
The Bonner Bridge will also need to be replaced. Opened in the 1960s, the bridge looks good for its age on top. But it’s what you can’t see underneath: the fast-moving saltwater currents gnawing on the pillars, and shifting sands that have the state building a similar bridge in its place.
“The Outer banks are a little pile of sand,” says Dr. Stan Riggs, a marine and coastal geology professor at East Carolina University. “The shoreline changes constantly. The only constant is change. The islands can’t build elevation, can’t build width if we’re eroding on the front side, then we got to build it on the backside. If sea level’s rising we’ve got to raise elevation as we do it. And if we don’t do that, those barrier islands have a death sentence.”
Riggs isn’t against tourism of the Outer Banks. He believes, however, that tourism should be built around those natural resources to preserve them. He believes there have to be alternative ways to move people to and from these living, changing islands. To him, the islands aren’t weak, but the manmade structures built upon them are. “We’ve approached their development as if they’re permanent feature like the Appalachian Mountains,” he says.
From the state’s point of view, the costs of rebuilding 12 are minimal compared with the benefit of having a highway. Ferries are expensive to operate, and can take 40 cars at a time. The highway handles 10,000 vehicles a day.
“The road is still the most economical approach when we do our analysis,” says Gibson. “It really is the least expensive way for us to continue to provide access for those people in that part of our state.”
NCDOT also says it isn’t fair just to look at Highway 12 alone. Gibson points out the rock slide repairs on I-40 several winters ago dwarf the cost of any repairs to 12 in one season. The NCDOT believes each part of the state is unique and their mission is to connect people anywhere they live.
“It is such a unique feature this state has,” says Gibson. “So personally I love the Outer Banks, but I must tell you, as part of my work life, it is a challenge to keep NC12 open, and keep it safe, but it is such an important link to the people who live there.”
“The bottom line is that ocean has the last word,” says Riggs. “I don’t care what the politicians say or what they think. They can engineer out there. It’s ephemeral.”
Ephemeral means lasting a short time or transitory. This man-verses-nature struggle will go on as long as the ocean holds its seductive draw and natural wonder to all who hear her call.