Same island, different storm, big problem.

Hurricanes are nothing new on Hatteras Island, one of the slender barrier islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They’ve come and gone over the centuries, using the forces of wind and waves to shape and reshape Hatteras’ profile, ecology, and even position.

The island’s inhabitantsbirds, fish, plant life, andmore recentlyhumans find ways to adapt after each one so that they can continue clinging to this rugged, yet delicate sanctuary that is slowly but surely migrating westward.


So in many ways, Irene’s visit this past weekend was no different from the countless storms, named and unnamed, that came before, and will surely come again. She arrived, left her signature, then moved on.


This time, however, adapting will not be so easy.

blog post photo
Photo of one of the Highway 12 breaches on the Outer Banks. Photo courtesy N.C. Dept. of Transportation

Storm surges from the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Pamilico Sound to the west raked two major cuts across State Route 12, Hatteras Island’s sole surface link to the mainland. One, a 200- to 300-yard wide gap at the north end of the village of Rodanthe, is at the end of a section that the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) has repeatedly fortified with dunes and new pavement following over the past decade. 

(It’s also at the site where “Serendipity,” the house made famous in the movie Nights in Rodanthe, used to stand. The house was relocated to higher ground in Rodanthe a few years ago and turned into an inn.


The other breach, estimated to be 100 feet wide and 8 feet deep is located approximately halfway between Rodanthe and the Oregon Inlet Bridge. According to local history, this part of the island has seen inlets open and close since the mid-1600s. (Hence the name "Pea Island" for the northern section of Hatteras.)

The last inlet in this area closed in 1945, and wooden pilings from a 1930s-era bridge spanning the areaare still visible from Route 12.

Unlike the breach closer to Rodanthe that only cut into the island from one side, this one is a true inlet, reportedly approximately six feet deep and experiencing tidal fluctuations from both sides.

NCDOT is scrambling to collect location and engineering data to craft a solution to these and other overwash areas along Route 12. Though no  strategy, schedule, or cost have been announced, “two months” is the estimate that has gained traction across Facebook thanks to posts by residents who have somehow managed to connect to the outside world.

Addressing these breaches won’t be a simple matter of patching, paving, and returning to normal, however. Both are among several long-standing “hot spots” along Route 12most located in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refugethat have become increasingly vulnerable to storm-driven overwash, causing everything from inconveniences to multi-day traffic disruptions.

It is these areas that the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), acting on behalf of two environmental groups, claims in a federal lawsuit were not fully addressed when NCDOT chose to replace the aging Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet at the north end of Hatteras Island with a $215 million replacement structure rather than bypass the section completely with a 17.5-mile “long bridge” estimated to cost as much as $1.4 billion.

NCDOT counters that cost and urgency make replacing the Bonner Bridge as soon as possible a must, and that a long-term monitoring program will be sufficient to map out the best approach to dealing with the hot spots. Options under consideration dune replacement and using a series of bridges to elevate Route 12 over the areas so that residents and visitors can get to Hatteras Island’s villages and beaches while nature takes its course.

But nature, as Irene demonstrated, is on a different schedule.

NCDOT must quickly find a way to adapt so that Hatteras can be reconnected with the rest of North Carolina. Even without the SELC’s lawsuit, the short- and long-term engineering and ecological considerations will defy simple resolution. And then there’s the matter of finding money to pay for them.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic, the 11th named storm of the 2011 hurricane seasonKatia—is churning up winds that forecasters say could reach 120 mph, and moving slowly but steadily toward Hatteras Island.

UPDATE 9/1 2:00 pm
Speculation grows on repair strategies for Route 12.


UPDATE 9/2 1:00 pm
NCDOT short-term repair strategy calls for a temporary bridge at the largest breach, buying time for a more permanent solution. Other breaches will be filled in.


UPDATE 9/4 2:20 pm
A video from Mabey Bridge illustrating how the temporary inlet crossing will be built.