Complicated road lies ahead for N.C. 12 repairs

By on August 29, 2011

The breach at Pea Island refuge. (NCDOT photo)

Hurricane Irene piled up historic levels of sound tide and left Hatteras Islanders with little communication and no electricity. But worse, eight years after Hurricane Isabel slashed an inlet between Frisco and Hatteras, the storm left the island severed.

This time N.C. 12, the island’s only highway, has been breached in more than one place, trapping about 2,300 residents who stayed behind. This time, far less private property and infrastructure were damaged by the surge of water, and the island’s villages did not suffer the devastation inflicted by Isabel.

But this time, the destruction of the road mostly lies within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, putting much of the control over restoration in the hands of the federal government.

Dennis Stewart, a refuge biologist, said the largest cut — appearing to be more than 100 feet wide and about 8 feet deep — is 3 miles south of the visitor center, in what used to be known as the “sandbag area” before the road was relocated, just north of the boat ramp at New Inlet.

“I call it ‘New-New Inlet,’ ” he said.

Irene cut another large breach on the south end of the refuge between the S-Curves and Mirlo Beach on the north end of Rodanthe. Much of the road is destroyed, he said, with the ocean claiming the south corner of the refuge and a chunk of the lot where Serendipity — the house made famous in the movie “Nights in Rodanthe” — stood before it was moved.

The S-Curves at Mirlo Beach, a chronic problem spot, finally gave in to Hurricane Irene. (NCDOT photo)

Water is flowing from sound to ocean, with one of the smaller “braids” going into an old drainage ditch that turns toward the sound and back into the refuge.

Part of the road by the north bird impoundment pond also lost “a couple hundred feet” on the sound dike, Stewart said. And according to a DOT press release, there is another breach on the south end of the island.

To repair the road, permits will almost certainly have to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the same U.S. Department of the Interior agency that had balked at state plans to maintain the highway as part of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement project.

Why do Hatteras Islanders stay put? »

After 20 years of bureaucratic gridlock, the North Carolina Department of Transportation finalized its plan in December to construct the new bridge. As feared — some say expected — environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on July 1 to stop the project. The transportation department has to respond by Sept. 6.

Part of the groups’ complaint centered on DOT’s decision to drop its earlier plan to build a 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island and vulnerable N.C 12. DOT said that option was not practical largely because of high up-front costs. But Fish and Wildlife managers had also favored the longer bridge, a fact not lost on state and county officials.

“I truly hope that the Department of the Interior will understand the critical issue that we have,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Warren Judge.

“I hope that we will not see a game of Russian roulette.”

But Stewart said that refuge officials are doing everything in their power to work with electric, telephone and road workers to assist in the recovery of services. Many power poles within the refuge and in Rodanthe were downed during the slow-moving storm, he said. Land-line and cellular phone service that serves the island’s 5,000 year-round residents was also lost.

“We’re all working together,” he said. “We’re all agreeing that we’re going to work in the most cooperative method we can to get power and transportation restored.”

See Coast Guard video of Hatteras Island damage »

Sidestepping the myriad issues around the bridge project, Stewart said that in general, road work in the refuge would require permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Division of Coastal Management. The refuge manager would have to authorize any permit for work that falls outside of DOT’s right of way.

Typically, if there is a declared state-of-emergency, he said, “there’s avenues to expedite the permitting process” for all state and federal agencies.

Stewart said that DOT engineers and hydrologists took a helicopter to the breached areas to access the damage. He said he expects that once the information is compiled, it will be discussed in a meeting with stakeholders, and DOT will develop its final plan to address road repair.

Emergency ferries have been deployed from ramps at Stumpy Point to Rodanthe to bring supplies, but for the time being, no provisions are being made for transporting residents.

“Nobody wants to deny them,” Stewart said,” but it’s going to take a while to get this in place.”

A breach at Mirlo took out a large swath of N.C. 12. (NCDOT photo)

Greer Beaty, a spokeswoman for DOT, said that the assessment — how deep, how wide, what repair is needed, the cost estimate and the timeline — needs to be completed before seeking permits.

“We can’t do much else until we have that,” she said. “We need to have a solid plan.”

Beaty said that although DOT is dealing with damage statewide, many resources have been put toward addressing the breaches on N.C. 12.

“We need to make sure that we’re doing it right,” she said, alluding to the pending lawsuit.

Even if refuge officials bend over backward to accommodate DOT, it doubtful that the state agency could match its stunningly fast repair job of what became known as “Isabel Inlet.”

When the hurricane made landfall the afternoon of Sept. 18, 2003, a 25-foot wall of waves and storm surge slammed into Hatteras Village, destroying businesses and homes and carving the 10-foot deep, 1,700-foot wide inlet east of Frisco. Miraculously, no one was killed.

It took about two months for the Corps to fill the inlet with 400,000 cubic yards of sand and for the DOT to rebuild the mile of lost highway. It was hailed as a remarkable feat that typically would have taken far longer.

But with the damaged roadway in an area that has been the subject of disagreement between environmental groups who say the road is a essentially a lost cause, and state and local officials, as well as many Outer Banks residents, who say it is critical for providing access, a quick remedy seems more remote.

In recent months, people aligned with the environmental groups’ position have been promoting the use of ferries, an idea instantly discarded by Outer Bankers who depend on the robust tourist trade to make a living, and the county, which depends on the tourist economy to thrive.

“We build bridges to replace a ferry . . . to provide more safety and better services, for economic development, ” said Judge, his voice sharp. “Their plan is that we go backwards. Please, please don’t tell me I have to go back 100 years.”

Judge said that ferry services couldn’t transport the same number of people in an entire day that a bridge carries in an hour. Hatteras Island is not only a popular vacation destination, he said, it is also home to 5,000 Dare County residents.

“This is an emergency,” he said. “The lifeline is cut in half.”


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