Dredge fill, bridges among N.C. 12 options

By on August 30, 2011

N.C. 12 at Mirlo Beach. (Don Bowers, Island Free Press)

Temporary military bridges, using dredges from Nags Head’s beach widening project or installing prefabricated spans are among the ideas under consideration for getting N.C. 12 reopened on Hatteras Island.

Two inlets and several smaller breaches were cut by Hurricane Irene over the weekend, isolating Hatteras Island and about 2,300 people who stayed behind.

State Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, said Tuesday that one approach would be to contract with Great Lakes Dock and Dredge to begin filling in the breaches.

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The company already has two dredges working off the Nags Head shoreline pumping sand for the town’s $36 million beach nourishment project. Great Lakes filled in the inlet formed north of Hatteras Village by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

“The fill alternative certainly is going to be a lot less expensive and a lot quicker,” he said after a press conference in Manteo with state and federal officials.

Under ideal circumstances, pumping in sand could take as little as a week to 10 days and laying asphalt another week to 10 days, he said.

White, a former member of the state Board of Transportation, said the Department of Transportation has emergency funds, but moving ahead with any repairs will involve several state and federal agencies.

Breach in Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A lot will depend on the position of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The biggest breach is in the middle of the refuge. The fish and wildlife service had been resistant to the Bonner Bridge replacement project, which calls for dealing with such problems spots on N.C. 12 after the new span is built.

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White said he could not speculate on how long permitting would take.

“But I can tell you that Fish and Wildlife is just not easy to deal with,” he said. “And we think if Fish and Wildlife were not in the picture, I’d be real optimistic that we could get something done in a shorter period of time.”

Dennis Stewart, a refuge biologist, offered assurances earlier this week that the Pea Island management was working with other agencies and utilities to restore infrastructure.

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Jim Trogdon, NCDOT chief operating officer, said in an interview that unlike the project to fill Isabel Inlet, permitting could be expedited because studies and a decision to build have already been made on the Bonner Bridge replacement.

“At that time, we did not have a record of decision or an EIS in place,” he said. “In this instance, we’ve actually got more support for maintaining and improving N.C. 12 than we did in 2003.”

Environmental groups have filed a legal challenge to that decision, and Monday, they cited the damage from Hurricane Irene as evidence that the state should reconsider the alternative for a longer, 17.5-mile bridge bypassing the refuge.

“The state’s present scheme to replace Bonner Bridge at its current location and ignore the repeated, inevitable breaching south of the bridge is irresponsible,” Derb Carter, the director of the Carolinas Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

“The state should put reliability and people’s safety first, build the safer, less-exposed ‘long bridge’ that bypasses the most rapidly eroding section of the island, and let the ocean take its inevitable course in the wildlife refuge.”

N.C. 12 is the only land access to Hatteras Island. Residents will be transported on ferries across an emergency route from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe or Hatteras Village after the response and recovery phase is completed, Trogdon said. The state will work closely with the county in establishing priority.

The division is now using four vessels that can carry 35 to 40 vehicles each. It’s a 2 ½ hour trip from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe, three hours to Hatteras. About 18,000 vehicles a day cross the Bonner Bridge.

Besides dredging and filling as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did after Isabel, options for repairing the road include short-term or long-term bridging .

The short-term spans, known as Mabey-Johnson bridges, are pre-fabricated steel truss structures used by the military and can be erected in a matter of days.
The analysis of the short-term options are being done as quickly as possible.

“We will have all those answers by Friday,” Trogdon said.

Secretary Napolitano pledged FEMA support. (Bob Muller)

White said that a long-term alternative would be to use bridges like those installed on Ocracoke Island. They are built first, then installed. But, he said, that takes five to six months.

Trogdon said that he sees the multiple breaches as two clusters, one site in Pea Island and one site at Mirlo Beach. The largest one in Pea Island appears to be roughly half the size of Isabel Inlet, which was 1,700 feet by the time it was filled.

The official DOT estimate of the Pea Island breach is 160 feet wide. The Mirlo breach is estimated at about 100 feet wide.

White joined other state and county officials at a press conference with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U.S. Sen Kay Hagan, D-N.C. and Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Perdue said more than 1,100 homes were destroyed statewide and significant agricultural damage was done. She offered an early estimate of damages based on observations of $70 million, not including agriculture.

“So this has become an expensive hurricane for North Carolina,” she said.

Dare is one of seven counties seeking priority designation for federal disaster relief. Funds would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which falls under homeland security.

Catherine Kozak contributed to this report.

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