The state Department of Transportation might decide to build a temporary bridge over a stretch of N.C. 12 at Rodanthe that has been closed to traffic since it was ripped up by Hurricane Sandy a month ago – just like the steel bridge erected a year ago, in the wake of Hurricane Irene, to patch the same road a few miles away.
DOT engineers huddled with federal environmental officials at a Nags Head fishing pier Tuesday, hoping to work out a short-term fix.
They want to reopen N.C. 12 to traffic for the 4,500 year-round residents of Hatteras Island, and bolster the fragile road against the coming winter storm season.
And they hope to buy time until they can start work next year on a pair of major projects – with a combined price estimated at $226 million – intended to provide more long-term stability for the Outer Banks lifeline.
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“We’re considering a combination of temporary bridges and beach nourishment to stabilize the area and give us a little bit of time for the permanent solution,” said Victor Barbour, DOT technical services director. “We want to make that decision and move forward to restore access for the folks that live out in that area.”
The ‘S-curves’ challenge
Only four-wheel-drive vehicles have been allowed to travel along the broken path of N.C. 12, through pavement slabs and deep sand, since Hurricane Sandy rolled up the Outer Banks on Oct. 28.
DOT has repaired damage to the bridge that carries N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, and it has cleared tons of sand from a few miles of N.C. 12 on Pea Island.
But it will be harder to repair the so-called “S-curves” stretch of the highway just north of Mirlo Beach and Rodanthe.
The road has been overwashed and undermined by storms – with its protective dunes and sandbags washed away – several times in the past five years.
Sandy was followed by a series of nor’easters that worsened the damage.
“At every high tide, it was overwashing the road and going all the way across to the sound,” Barbour said. “Saturday or Sunday was the first time the high tide didn’t go across the road.”
Stanley R. Riggs, a coastal geologist at East Carolina University, has documented the steady retreat of the Outer Banks in the face of the advancing Atlantic.
Standing on the beach at the Rodanthe S-curves Tuesday, he said DOT has run out of room to rebuild the highway there.
The S-curves themselves mark the places where N.C. 12 has been rerouted in recent years.
“In the last 50 years, it’s been moved to the west at least three times here,” Riggs said. “There’s nothing left of the island. It’s all marsh on the back side.”
Long-term plans gelling
The state is trying to move ahead on major projects intended to provide more long-term stability for N.C. 12.
In March, DOT hopes to award a contract for the first of two projects that would elevate parts of N.C. 12 high above the ocean that regularly washes over the road.
The plan, at an estimated cost of $107 million, would lift a 2.3-mile section of the highway 25 feet above the present roadway, in an area on Pea Island between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe.
It would replace a 600-foot temporary steel bridge erected last fall over a breach opened in the island by Hurricane Irene.
A second contract, to be awarded in August, would do the same thing along the S-curves area north of Rodanthe.
The cost estimate of $119 million could change when DOT makes its choice between two alternatives: Elevate the road on its present location, or swing it toward the west, curving out over Pamlico Sound and back onto Hatteras Island, to rejoin the present highway in the middle of Rodanthe.
Legal fights stall repairs
Meanwhile, legal challenges have delayed a planned $216 million replacement for the deteriorating Bonner Bridge, which links Pea and Hatteras islands to the northern Outer Banks and the mainland beyond.
This month, lawyers for two environmental groups went to court to challenge the Coastal Resources Commission’s refusal to consider their arguments against a permit DOT needs to build the bridge.
Riggs said the idea of moving N.C. 12 over Pamlico Sound at Rodanthe would probably provide longer protection against the encroaching ocean. But he favors a long-term approach that could use an improved ferry system to connect the mainland with Hatteras Island.
“The road needs to leave the island here, and we need an alternative high-tech ferry system that can keep people in business down here,” Riggs said.
He shouted on his cell phone to make himself heard above the din of four-wheel-drive tow trucks hauling tourists’ cars up the ruined roadway. Repair crews were at work a few hundred yards away.
“If they keep throwing sand bags on it and repaving it, the next storm is going to do the same thing,” Riggs said. “They’re not going to solve it dumping a little sand here, because the island has moved west.”