The roar of ocean waves and cries of seabirds on Hatteras Island’s Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge have now been joined by dump truck back-up horns and two pile-drivers as the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation races both the calendar and the climate on State Route 12, which was breached in multiple locations during Hurricane Irene last month.

At the largest breacha 100-ft wide, 8-foot deep inlet between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound created by Irene’s dueling storm surgesNCDOT is installing a $2.6 million, 650-ft long Mabey Universal Bridge, which is being installed by Mabey Bridge & Shore, Inc., of Elkridge, Md. The new metal structure is being delivered in 30 truckloads for on-site assembly and placement atop 82 60-ft H-piles. More than 1,000 feet of sheet piling bulkhead is also being installed.

blog post photo

Mabey Bridge & Shore is installing a $2.6-million temporary bridge structure to overcome the largest breach on S.R. 12. (Photo courtesy North Carolina DOT.)

According to NCDOT, the two-lane bridge will be able to support normal car and truck loads and widths, albeit at reduced speeds. Though considered a temporary fix, the agency says the bridge has the strength and durability to last until it decides on a permanent repair strategy.

Elsewhere along the battered highway, more than 1,500 truckloads of sand have been used to backfill other breaches, including a 200- to 300-yard gash just north of the village of Rodanthe. Plans call for those breaches to be paved and augmented with sandbags, a strategy NCDOT has used to expedite repairs following major coastal storms. Sand is also being stockpiled for dune reconstruction.

The 24/7 activity at both sites was suspended due to high surf generated by Hurricane Katia moving northward, though well offshore. According to the Island Free Press, the temporary one-lane sand road at Rodanthe was restored in just four hours, allowing trucks from Barnhill Construction to resume transporting sand to the various work areas. (Check out the Island Free Press photo gallery of the construction work.)

Barring any other storms as the Atlantic hurricane season winds down, NCDOT hopes to reopen Route 12 in early to mid-October. This may enable the tourist-dependent villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo to salvage at least a few weeks of visitor traffic, though access by non-residents is still limited. Further south, the less-affected villages of Avon, Hatteras, Frisco, and Buxton have received the OK to begin welcoming tourists as of September 15. However, ferries remain the only surface access to the island.

Somehow amid its massive, multi-faceted effort to clean up from Hurricane Irene, NCDOT found time to respond to a lawsuit challenging its decision to move forward with the Bonner Bridge replacement project without developing a full strategy for Route 12’s more vulnerable areas within the wildlife refugea violation of the project’s mandate and NEPA regulations, according to plaintiffs represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

NCDOT counters that the law allows the state Secretary of Transportation to approve projects on a public wildlife refuge if:

"(1) there is no prudent and feasible altnerative to using that land; and (2) the program or project includes all possible planning to minimize harm" to the area resulting from the use.

The agency also insists that it thoroughly evaluated all alternatives and potential impacts before opting for a $215 million replacement of the existing Bonner Bridge, rather than a 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass the wildlife refuge entirely. That project’s potential high costbetween $942 million and $1.4 billionand its potential effects on NCDOT’s other construction and maintenance programs were among the reasons why the “long-bridge” option was rejected, according to the project’s environmental statement.

No timeline for the lawsuit’s next step has been announced. But along with the legal issues, one has to consider the math.  $1.4 billion is a lot of money, especially compared with $215 million. But repairing Irene’s damage is estimated to cost $10 million. How much more will NCDOT have to spend on patching and/or improving Route 12 over the expected 50-year life of the new Bonner Bridge, and what will the agency have to show for it by mid-century?

Meanwhile, NCDOT and local residents are keeping their fingers crossed that the Route 12 repairs will be completed on schedule, and the only visitors to the Outer Banks in the coming months will be tourists bringing dollars instead of storms bringing more high winds and waves.