Two iconic Outer Banks lighthouse sites face floods as sands erode around them

The keeper’s quarters alongside the Bode Island Lighthouse is vulnerable to flooding due to island erosion.
The keeper’s quarters alongside the Bode Island Lighthouse is vulnerable to flooding due to island erosion. News & Observer file

Two of North Carolina’s most iconic Outer Banks lighthouse sites — Ocracoke and Bodie — are now vulnerable to flooding and the National Park Service says steps must be taken if their adjoining buildings are to survive.

That prediction comes as the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina finishes a study to determine which Outer Banks sites face the greatest danger from a treacherous mix of erosion, rising sea levels and storm surge.

The erosion study will be released in the fall. However, park officials say they don’t need the study to know the century-old lightkeeper homes beside the Bodie and Ocracoke lighthouses are in trouble.

“If we don’t do anything, the flooding will damage the historic value of those structures and management could become unsustainable,” Cape Hatteras Superintendent David Hallac said in an interview with the Charlotte Observer.

Flood waters will surround the two adjacent lighthouses as well — possibly for days at a time — but their concrete-and-brick foundations are sturdy enough to withstand it, Hallac says.

He believes the best solution will be to raise the two lightkeeper homes above their current foundations. But an engineering study is needed to determine the best approach, including how high is high enough, he said.

The Ocracoke Lighthouse site, built in 1823, and the Bodie site, dating to 1872, are among the most popular historic sites in the park.

Raising the two lighthouse-keeper homes would not be the first time the National Park Service has been forced to contend with the ocean threatening its historic sites.

In 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved 2,900 feet, after experts determined it would either fall into the ocean or become an island unto itself due to beach erosion.

Ocracoke lighthouse on Ocracoke Island. Patrick Schneider Charlotte Observer file

The Bodie and Ocracoke lighthouse complexes are on the opposite side of the Outer Banks, facing the Pamlico Sound, and are in less in danger of being hit by ocean waves, he says.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which attracted 2.5 million visitors last year, faces a multitude of threats as sea level continues to rise.

A National Park Service study released in May expects the ocean to rise as much as 2.5 feet along the Outer Banks in the next 80 years. The study predicted “large areas of inundation” for Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores by 2100.

Hallac says the park’s erosion study will include a list of the most vulnerable spots and come up with a management plan.

He expects that list will range key roadways like N.C. 12 to important sea turtle and seabird nesting sites.

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Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs