RALEIGH — Nearly a month after Hurricane Sandy brushed it, the Outer Banks was still digging out and the mess has some on the barrier islands hoping that this is the time for officials to get serious about rebuilding the beaches.
The storm flattened protective dunes along segments of 70-mile-long Hatteras Island. A pair of nor'easters that followed kept waves lapping between the stilts that hold up homes. About a dozen were condemned and uninhabitable.
The only road on or off the island was impassible during the hours of high tide as the ocean rolled over the beach onto N.C. 12 a few hundred yards away. The surf left a mirror image of itself in asphalt in one section of roadway, freezing the blacktop in a series of peaks and troughs.
Thanks to an emergency ferry route, the island's 4,500 year-round residents have been supplied with food, medications and rebuilding equipment since Sandy blew through the last weekend in October. But spots on the ships are limited, forcing island residents to fear that leaving for medical appointments could mean an hours-long wait returning home. Tourists waited in lines for hours to board ferries ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
"It's changed life for everybody that lives there," said Susan Flythe, general manager of Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, which delivers power to all of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
The shutdowns and work-arounds come a year after Hurricane Irene sliced a new channel through the island, connecting the Atlantic to the sound on the island's western side. The inlet shut off road access for six weeks until crews completed a steel bridge one-eighth of a mile long.
With calm conditions returning late last week after the second nor'easter — each packing winds of 30 mph or more for nearly a week — the state Department of Transportation is sizing up repair options. They include a temporary bridge over the wavy roadway or a 2.5-mile bridge hovering over the Pamlico Sound.
It also includes the contentious possibility of deploying dredges to claw up offshore sand and pump it onto the gaps in protective sand dunes, DOT technical services director Victor Barbour said Monday. DOT knows locals fear that without the protective barriers, damage to the highway and other property could multiply through the winter.
"We're going to do all we can to get the (traffic) access as quickly as possible back," Barbour said. "It's been a bad season so far and we're entering probably the peak of the nor'easter season, so we're going to do all we can."
Environmentalists often oppose so-called beach renourishment. They argue it's a multi-million-dollar Band-Aid against nature's will and that the projects kill sea creatures unlucky to be near the dredge intakes. They also say poorly planned projects can leave behind packed-down sand that prevents protected sea turtles from digging nests.
Refilling the gaps on the fastest eroding part of the state's shoreline also would take a huge amount of sand that may stay only a few months, said East Carolina University research professor Stanley Riggs, who studies the state's coastal geology.
"If there's a bad place to put a road, it's where Highway 12 is right now," Riggs said. "Even if they fix that little piece they're talking about right now, there's another 20 miles down the banks that are just as vulnerable as this spot."
Many island residents are just as adamant that replacing lost beachfront can't be avoided any longer.
"Every storm that comes now seems to cause more damage than we had before. I know some people attribute that to global warming," said Tim Morgan, a pharmacist who co-owns two independent drug stores. He lives on a Buxton street where the two homes closest to the ocean were condemned after Sandy.
"But we also don't do anything to maintain the distance from the road to the breaking waves. We don't do anything to pump that sand back in there," he said.
To a taxpayer who would balk at again fixing a fragile road in perpetual need of repair, then paying more to beef up the beach, Morgan replies: "Unless they're going to move everyone off this island, it will cost him less in the long run to maintain the beach than to maintain the road."
Local officials are already working on developing an estimate for plugging holes in the natural dune dyke, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said.
Sandy did little property damage along a 10-mile stretch of rebuilt beach in Nags Head, just north of Hatteras Island, completed for $37 million, he said. The county is paying the project's cost from occupancy taxes collected from millions of tourists a year. A Hatteras Island project would likely cost more, but larger barriers would come from securing permission from state coastal regulators and the federal government, which runs a wildlife refuge and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore along most of the island, Outten said.
"We've got to do something," Outten said. "We do need to fix it and we do need to have some sort of a permanent-access solution so that we're not dealing with this every summer" when hurricanes threaten and tourist visits peak.