Shifting Sands: Carolina’s Outer Banks Face a Precarious Future

Rounding the nook close to the village of Rodanthe, there’s a stretch of freeway often known as the S-Curves due to its twisting loops and turns. It’s, by nearly any measure, probably the most susceptible sections of roadway in North Carolina, if not the nation. Years in the past, freeway officers erected an enormous dike right here with 2,200 sandbags — every bag was 15 ft lengthy, two ft tall, and 5 ft huge — after which buried the dike in much more sand in an effort to maintain the ocean at bay and the freeway, often known as NC 12, open.

It didn’t work, or not less than it didn’t work as hoped. The Atlantic Ocean continued to pummel the towering synthetic dune, crashing excessive, tearing aside sandbags, and flooding the freeway — closing the one entry on and off of the decrease Outer Banks for days and typically weeks.

Following every storm, the North Carolina Division of Transportation (DOT) despatched in bulldozers and graders to rebuild the sand dike and patch the street, solely to look at the following storm undo its work. “It’s just like the Siege of Troy,” mentioned native biologist Mike Bryant. “It simply goes on and on.”

Bryant managed the close by Pea Island Nationwide Wildlife Refuge — a sprawling, 13-mile-long sanctuary that pulls tundra swans, Canadian geese, and 400 different species of migrating birds for 20 years. He estimated that he spent 60 p.c of his time on NC 12, together with issuing permits to state and federal engineers to restore storm injury and severely eroding sand dunes. “It felt exhausting at occasions,” he mentioned.

U.S. coastal resorts from Cape Cod to Galveston face unprecedented challenges as shorelines slender and floodwaters inch nearer.

In a single sense, NC 12 stands as a metaphor for the hazards of constructing something on a extremely dynamic, constantly-shifting barrier island, particularly one which has misplaced a whole bunch of ft of shoreline in locations during the last century and now faces even-larger threats from sea stage rise and extra frequent and highly effective storms associated to local weather change. The dangers aren’t restricted to the Outer Banks, in fact. Nationally, U.S. coastal resorts from Cape Cod to Miami to Galveston face unprecedented and expensive challenges as their shorelines slender and floodwaters inch ever-closer to thousands and thousands of homes, condominiums, and resorts — over one trillion-dollars-worth of property in all.

Nonetheless, nowhere are the threats extra seen than alongside the famed Outer Banks of North Carolina, the place every summer season a flotilla of SUVs ship keen vacationers, swelling the inhabitants practically tenfold, to over 300,000, whereas additionally fueling a vacationer economic system that helps 1000’s of jobs and generates thousands and thousands in tax revenues for native governments.

Almost 4 many years in the past, the College of Virginia coastal geologist Robert Dolan, a long-time researcher of barrier islands, wrote that the Outer Banks are “one of many highest natural-hazard danger zones alongside your complete Japanese Seaboard of the USA.” He cited the Banks’ distinctive geography and dangerous publicity to storms, unstable currents, and percussive winds.

North Carolina's Outer Banks.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Yale Setting 360

Seen from an airplane, the practically 200-mile-long ribbon of islands resembles a toddler’s Etch-A-Sketch drawing, skewing north to south for miles, then instantly veering east to west close to Hatteras Village, earlier than turning as soon as extra in a southeasterly route. A number of the islands are low and slender, just a few ft above sea stage, and particularly susceptible to winter Nor’easters and hurricanes in summers. The nice and cozy waters of the Gulf Stream and colder Labrador Present collide simply miles offshore, creating harmful shoals and among the largest waves alongside the East Coast. Over many centuries, scores of inlets have opened and closed on the Outer Banks, whereas the barrier islands have slowly migrated landward as sand has washed throughout shorelines and flats on the oceanside and marshes have expanded alongside the bottom, in accordance with one federal research.

Regardless of these dangers, builders proceed so as to add billions of {dollars} of actual property, from Corolla within the north to Ocracoke Village within the south, making the Outer Banks the fastest-growing part of the North Carolina coast. Property values have additionally soared to at an all-time excessive. Dare County, which incorporates 1000’s of seaside houses, lately valued all of its property at practically $18 billion. Whereas the worth of ocean property in smaller Currituck County has ballooned to nearly $5 billion.

“It’s as if nobody cares,” says Danny Sofa, a Dare County Commissioner, actual property agent and typically tour information. “Lots of people have a lot cash they don’t care concerning the danger.”

Within the final decade alone, DOT has spent practically $80 million {dollars} to maintain hazard-prone NC 12 open for the year-round residents of the decrease Outer Banks. That features rebuilding the S-Curves three completely different occasions, however doesn’t embody the price of three new bridges wanted to traverse inlets opened by storms or to bypass the quickly eroding shoreline. Collectively, the bridges push the price of sustaining NC 12 to a couple of half-billion {dollars}.

Areas of the Outer Banks have retreated over 200 ft within the final 20 years and are at the moment shedding about 13 ft a yr.

Requested if there have been one other freeway as susceptible as NC 12, Colin Mellor, a DOT environmental specialist, shuffled round a bit earlier than answering: “No, emphatically, is the reply. NC 12 is a poster baby nationwide, if not worldwide,” he mentioned. “It’s a North Carolina route on a ribbon of sand that jumps out into the ocean.”


This spring, two trip houses within the Commerce Winds Seashores subdivision of Rodanthe crashed into the ocean throughout a storm. One bobbed like a cork within the rioting surf till a wave grabbed ahold of it and smashed it to items. That night movie of the collapse spiraled onto nationwide tv. In a weblog entry, native photographer Michael Halminski wrote that the expertise “jogged my memory of the Depraved Witch getting splashed with water and melting away.”

Cottages have been tumbling into the ocean for so long as people have been constructing alongside the Outer Banks. The distinction now could be that they look like falling in at a quicker charge, and scores of houses are actually in danger. Halminski estimates that he’s seen about 50 homes destroyed for the reason that Nineteen Seventies. Mike Bryant remembers whole rows of trip homes vanishing into the surf in a number of storms. In South Nags Head, on Seagull Drive, a half-dozen seaside homes squatted within the ocean for years till they have been finally bought by the city as a part of a 2015 lawsuit.

In every occasion, the offender was erosion, which seems to be worsening alongside massive stretches of the Outer Banks. Areas of Rodanthe have retreated over 200 ft within the final 20 years, and are at the moment shedding about 13 ft of seaside per yr, in accordance with estimates by the Nationwide Park Service, which manages the Cape Hatteras Nationwide Seashore. Michael Flynn, an NPS scientist, likened the erosion to a checkbook overdraft, with not sufficient sand to guard the homes. “Now, with sea stage rise, it appears to be getting worse,” he mentioned, “permitting lesser-intensity storm waves to run up the seaside.”

Dare County, which incorporates Rodanthe, lately tagged practically 20 seaside homes close to the Commerce Winds subdivision as unsuitable to be used due to issues starting from broken septic methods to wobbly pilings and damaged steps. However the county lacks the authorized authority to sentence the homes and doesn’t have a fund to purchase dangerous properties. Even when it did, it’s unlikely many homeowners would retreat, “which nobody desires to do,” mentioned Bobby Outten, the county supervisor.

That’s to not say, Dare County doesn’t observe a distinct sort of retreat. “It’s a Darwinian type of retreat,” says Danny Sofa. “Homes fall in separately.”


Barrier islands are at all times in movement, rising and shrinking, relying on sea stage, wind route, storm surge, and different elements. In that sense, erosion is a pure phenomenon and solely turns into an issue when people construct too near the water after which attempt to maintain a line that nature by no means meant to carry.

Pumping sand from dredges is barely a brief resolution, as highly effective storms can gouge a synthetic seaside in simply hours.

That is kind of the state of affairs of the Outer Banks and scores of different barrier islands up and down the East and Gulf coasts. A land increase that started right here within the Fifties has added 1000’s of second houses alongside the oceanfront and sounds, even because the shorelines and marshes are washing away. Property homeowners and politicians insist that there’s an excessive amount of cash at stake to stroll away now. Certainly, the windfall from the seashores has helped to remodel these North Carolina counties from poor and rural outposts into two of the state’s richest and fastest-growing areas, with property on the Outer Banks accounting for 60 p.c of the tax revenues of Dare and Currituck counties.

“The truth is we rely on tourism, and nobody desires to offer that up,” says Sofa. “So, what now we have to do is to learn to reside smarter and adapt to the adjustments.”
A method Dare County is adapting is by embracing a multimillion-dollar plan to replenish its eroding seashores with thousands and thousands of yards of sand pumped from dredges positioned offshore. The sand helps present some safety and retains the vacationers comfortable. However sand is barely a brief resolution, and highly effective Nor’easters and hurricanes can gouge a synthetic seaside in simply hours.

Flood damage on NC 12 in Rodanthe, North Carolina following Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

Flood injury on NC 12 in Rodanthe, North Carolina following Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Ted Richardson / Bloomberg through Getty Photos

All of which implies, as soon as you start to pump sand, you just about commit to maintain pumping, a lesson the city of Nags Head has discovered. This yr, the favored resort is embarking on its third spherical of seaside repairs since 2011, when it initially pumped practically 5 million cubic yards of sand onto its seashores at a price of $36 million. Hurricanes in 2018 and 2019 swept away a lot of that sand, and this month the city started pumping sand once more alongside 4.5 miles of shoreline at a price of practically $14 million. In the meantime, the Dare County villages of Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill, Satan Hills, Avon and Buxton additionally will probably be pumping sand by this fall.

One group that isn’t getting sand is Rodanthe. Which will appear counterintuitive, however there may be a proof. The group is getting a bridge as an alternative, constructed within the Pamlico Sound behind the barrier island and lengthening 2.4 miles to the southern finish of the Pea Island Nationwide Wildlife Refuge. Constructed at a price of $155 million (80 p.c federally funded), the Jug Deal with Bridge bypasses the extremely erosive S-Curves space of NC 12 and may eradicate DOT always having to rebuild the freeway. In truth, that stretch of street is slated to be torn up this fall, permitting the ocean to as soon as once more wash over the sand and marsh, restoring the world to its pure kind.

Final yr, Dare County created the NC 12 Activity Drive to review methods to guard its endangered freeway. The group consists of representatives from federal and state businesses and is updating stories completed by earlier research teams. “There have been a number of job forces referred to as no matter they have been referred to as and a number of stories over time,” mentioned county supervisor Bobby Outten. “Frankly, the problems and scorching spots haven’t modified all that a lot. What has occurred is that the danger stage or the menace stage has elevated some.”

“They’re attempting to protect a coastal economic system constructed on a pile of shifting sand,” says a geologist who studied the Outer Banks.

Within the early 2000s, one group unanimously advisable constructing a 17-mile-long bridge within the Pamlico Sound bypassing all of Pea Island and several other extra scorching spots alongside NC 12. However the plan collapsed after native politicians objected, saying the lengthy bridge would make it tougher for guests to make use of the islands. They advisable a brand new, shorter bridge over the unstable Oregon Inlet that opened in 2019 at a price of $250 million {dollars}. A 3rd bridge, constructed after a hurricane minimize an inlet by an particularly susceptible part of Pea Island, value thousands and thousands extra.

Outten mentioned the up-front expense of constructing one lengthy bridge to bypass a number of scorching spots could be prohibitive. It could be cheaper and quicker to unfold the price of a number of bridges over time, in impact creating an archipelago akin to the Florida Keys. “The concept is to troubleshoot options,” he mentioned, “then to go to DOT and our federal legislators in Washington and inform them we have to do one thing.”

Geologist Stanley Riggs, who for many years was primarily based at East Carolina College and has most likely studied the Outer Banks greater than every other researcher, mentioned even a collection of brief bridges will not be sufficient with rising sea ranges and extra highly effective storms in our overheated future. “I don’t see how this ends properly,” he mentioned. “They’re attempting to protect a coastal economic system that was constructed on a pile of shifting sand and in the long term has a excessive likelihood of failure.”

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