Once upon a time, Hatteras Island was truly remote. Tiny fishing villages, populated by hardy, self-sufficient people, dotted the coast, and the people lived in homes built well away from both the ocean and the sound. When they needed supplies, doctors, or mail, they traveled to Manteo by boat. If the weather was bad, they stayed put.
All that changed when the state of North Carolina built the celebrated Herbert C. Bonner bridge, connecting the southern end of Bodie Island with the northern end of Hatteras at Oregon Inlet. Hatteras Island went from a fishing economy to a tourist one in a nanosecond, and that improved the quality of life for most of the islanders. For one thing, people no longer died while waiting on the boat to Manteo. Ambulance service, something we take for granted, is a big deal on Hatteras. But something else happened, too. Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo, the three-village string that one encounters right after the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, suddenly became trendy. People built multi-million dollar homes on a strip of sand a quarter-mile wide, 17 watery miles east of the North Carolina mainland.
And NC 12 became a necessity, not a luxury.
If NC 12 is not the most fragile piece of highway on the east coast, it’s in the top five. We have seen it become impassable in mere thunderstorms. Hurricane Isabel, in 2003, blew open an inlet between Buxton and Frisco that was almost 2,000 feetwide and35 feetdeep. NCDOT filled that breach with sand and paved it again. In 2009, a November nor’easter took out the “S” curves in Mirlo Beach. NCDOT moved the road slightly and built it back.
Irene absolutely annihilated that same stretch of NC 12. Just up the road at the Pea Island Ranger Station, the storm created a new inlet from Pamlico Sound. When Irene went up the coast, it went west of the Outer Banks. All the water got shoved up the Alligator river, and the sound was practically dry. But when it passed, the piled-up water rushed back, sometimes so fast people couldn’t get out of the way. The new inlet opened up because the water overwashed backward toward the ocean. The amazing force of the overwash at the North Beach Campground actually swept trailers (but no people) out to sea. Obviously, Labor Day weekend isn’t going to be a big tourist deal in Rodanthe.
Understand this: I love Rodanthe and Mirlo Beach. Love them. We have spent many weeks there over the years. But they are built, and this cannot be stressed enough, on barrier islands. Overwash isn’t some aberration; it is the nature of barrier islands to overwash, and it’s not a bad thing, from a strictly natural perspective. Overwash replenishes the beaches, feeds the animals, and enriches both the ocean and the sound ecosystems. It’s only from the human perspective that it sucks.
Admittedly, that’s an important perspective. Hundreds of people have been whisked back in time, dependent again on emergency ferry service from Swan Quarter, a one-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away. It will be months before NC 12 reopens north of Rodanthe.
Tourists, if they come, will come through Swan Quarter or up through the Okracoke and Hatteras ferries. The local economy is now almost completely dependent on tourism, but it depends on those tourists having quick and easy access to Nags Head and the amenities there. People are not going to be happy with a long ferry ride to and from the middle of nowhere.
NCDOT will rebuild Highway 12, and some hurricane next year or next month will take it away again. Should they move the road to the back side of Pea Island and disrupt the marsh? Build a bridge from Oregon Inlet all the way down? Elevate the roadway? North Carolina could spend the GDP of a small nation just to provide tourist access to some former fishing villages. Even though I’m one of those tourists, and even though I love it, I’ve got to start wondering if it’s worth all that. Let the barrier islands be barrier islands. Maybe some places really are too remote to last, and maybe that’s how it should be.