Barrier islands: NC highway is a glimpse of the future

Damage along North Carolina Route 12 on Hatteras Island. (AP photo by Steve Helber)

I’ve been watching with interest the news about North Carolina’s Route 12 — the one along the Outer Banks that was breached in several places during Irene.

And not just because I’m headed that way for vacation later this fall.

It may become a high-profile debate about how much to invest in — or how much to change — infrastructure on barrier islands.

What happens in North Carolina could one day play out in New Jersey.

The highway runs just behind the dune line in most spots. It’s built on sand.

After the storm, two parts of the highway are now gone altogether, with two new inlets in their place. The only way to get south is by ferry, and an emergency route has been established.

State engineers hope to come up with a plan in about a week.

Not everyone wants to rebuild.

Orrin Pilkey, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology Earth & Ocean Sciences at Duke University, told North Carolina radio station WRAL that Route 12 must be moved to correspond to natural shifts in Hatteras Island. Otherwise, the cost of maintaining it will become too expensive.

“They must move it or lose it,” Pilkey said.

Some environmental groups want to see a 17-mile bridge built that would bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. But it would cost $1 billion, according to some estimates. Still, the groups say, that could be cheaper than regular repairs.

East Carolina University geology professor Stanley R. Riggs told the Associated Press he believes the state should put in a ferry system that would connect all of the state’s coastal communities.

Already, Ocracoke Island is accessible only by ferry, and it seems to survive — even thrive on the romance of it all.

“Islands are built by storms, maintained by storms and need storms to help them deal with rising sea level,” Riggs told the AP. “The way we are using those barrier islands will guarantee their collapse with time because we are not allowing any of the natural processes to take place.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue seems to want to rebuild, however.

“There are going to be those around the country saying ‘why are you investing in that road again?. “ she is quoted as saying. “Until we can find a better way to move people on and off there, they’re North Carolina citizens. They pay their taxes, and they've got to have a highway or road or bridge to travel on the same as the rest of us.”