Shoring Up N. Carolina Islands: A Losing Battle?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 10, 2003

When Hurricane Isabel roared onto the Outer Banks of North Carolina two months ago, stilted homes bowed to their knees, power lines snapped, sand piled over roadways, and residents in the hamlet of Hatteras sat isolated from the rest of the world.

Storm waters locked up in the estuarine side of the islands desperate for escape punched a new inlet between Hatteras and Frisco, washing sand, vegetation, and U.S. Highway 12 out to sea.

Coastal geologists say that the formation of such inlets is part of the natural process of the ever-evolving barrier island ecosystem. The new gash, named Isabel Inlet, wowed them only with its size—about 2,000 feet (600 meters) wide, consisting of three distinct channels, and 15 feet (5 meters) deep.

"Barrier islands have to have storms to survive," said Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, known for his advocacy to allow barrier islands to evolve naturally.

According to Pilkey and several of his colleagues in the scientific community, humans are killing barrier islands such as the Outer Banks by attempting to stop nature from running its course.

At a cost of at least U.S. $7 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Carolina Department of Transportation are busy pumping sand back into Isabel Inlet and plan to have it filled and U.S. Highway 12 back in operation by the end of November.

"You had a good-sized area totally cut off from the rest of the world, no access at all, a pretty critical condition," said Steve Varnedoe, chief engineer of operations with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh.

Varnedoe said the decision to fill the inlet came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency which had orders from the Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to restore access to Hatteras quickly. Longer-term alternatives such as construction of a bridge or a ferry system were shelved.

Stanley Riggs, a coastal geologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, believes the Outer Banks are ripe for many more inlets to form, but the federal government has little patience to listen to his evidence.

"We were told by the government officials after the storm they did not need any geological input," he said. "All decisions were being made in Raleigh and Washington."

Such an attitude, say coastal scientists, will ultimately cause large portions of the Outer Banks to totally collapse.

Shifting Sands

Continued on Next Page >>


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