Katrina-Like Storm Could Wipe Out N.C.’s Outer Banks, Experts Warn

June 5, 2007

For more than 200 years, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has guided sailors through the “graveyard of the Atlantic” — the shallow shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But not even the nation’s tallest lighthouse is safe from the merciless grind of the ocean’s waves.

The towering lighthouse has been relocated twice since it first arose in 1803, and will have to be moved again as the sands that make up the 130-mile string of barrier islands — which reach out into the ocean like few others in the world — slowly shift in the surf. It might take 100 years, but scientists say it’s a geologic inevitability.

And one they fear a direct strike from a major hurricane could duplicate overnight.

“If we had a Katrina-sized storm, 75 percent of these islands could be gone,” said Stan Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University who has studied the Outer Banks for four decades. “You can count on it cleaning the clock.”

Dozens of hurricanes have hit the Outer Banks since the English landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. Today, though only about 35,000 people live here permanently, each year some 5 million visit the islands that jut out into the Gulf Stream as if they were inviting Atlantic hurricanes to strike.

In the place where the Wright brothers first took to skies, they spend the summer in vacation and rental homes — some with a dozen bedrooms, private pools and elevators — that have a tax-assessed value of about $27 billion.

But Riggs and other scientists fear the right hurricane — an especially powerful storm packing a deep surge — could drown the islands with sea water, smash buildings with 25-foot waves and force map makers to redraw the state’s signature coastline.

Riggs said such a storm would break the chain of long, narrow islands into a perforated series of many smaller spots of sand. Instead of Pamlico Sound to the west, sailors would find Pamlico Bay. Where Alligator River now cuts into the mainland, the ocean will take over to create Alligator Sound.

Yet North Carolina’s Division of Emergency Management estimates that, even if a Category 5 hurricane turns toward the Outer Banks, several hundred defiant homeowners will try to ride the storm. Many will die as the violent weather destroys structures across the islands and carves several new inlets where land now stands up from the sea, said Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University.

And the islands won’t simply disappear. While much of the Outer Banks are untouched by man, protected as part of two national seashores and a national wildlife refuge, there is rampant development elsewhere. A storm that wipes out the islands could dump an untold amount of gas, chemicals and remnants of destroyed homes and buildings into the ocean.

“The environment is the sort of the unnoticed victim that barrier islands face in hurricanes,” Pilkey said.

The Outer Banks are as much a part of North Carolina’s identity as the Blue Ridge Mountains that rise along the state’s western edge. The islands are home to particularly unique ecology that features maritime forests, one of the world’s largest estuary systems and wild horses believed to be descended from the Spanish mounts that arrived with early European explorers.

Above sea level, the islands are essentially large sandbars that have migrated slowly to the west over large wetlands that include deposits of mud and peat. There are no solid coral reefs or large patches of rock to slow the islands’ changing landscape. Almost every nor’easter blows piles of sand and overwash onto properties and roadways, and Riggs estimates that some 1,250 acres of shoreline and wetlands erodes into the ocean each year.

Officials have spent millions trying to salvage homes with stilts and sandbags, and even by moving sand on their own. The costs can be staggering: a 50-year beach nourishment project to protect just 14 miles of beach in Nags Head and Kitty Hawk would cost $1.6 billion, according to an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate.

“These are just stopgap attempts,” said Jan Deblieu, the Cape Hatteras Coastkeeper for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a conservation group. “We won’t ever get the equation exactly right.”

Riggs has pulled thousands of cores from the islands and found that more than half are only about 500 years old, having formed not long before Virginia Dare became the first English child born in the Americas.

Some stretches are even younger — and manmade. When Hurricane Isabel rolled through the Outer Banks in 2003, the Category 2 hurricane’s 8-foot storm surge and violent waves washed out a stretch of Hatteras Island a third of a mile wide. Two months later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped enough sand into the newly formed inlet to rebuild that section of the island.

Even a minor hurricane would be devastating to some parts of the Outer Banks. In Nags Head, for example, the homes that once sat comfortably on the beach now sit in the foaming seas several times each year.

Neil Carignan, an independent contractor, said a Thanksgiving nor’easter destroyed the septic drain field, water line, electricity and driveway of a client whose property is now condemned. Though the home has sandbags piled underneath its stilts, Carnigan pointed 100 feet behind the home to a plowed mound of sand.

“The waves were coming all the way up here across the street,” Carnigan said. “The people across the street are about to have beachfront property because this home will probably fall in the ocean in the next Category 3 hurricane.”

In Rodanthe, a major weak point where scientists expect a storm would form a new inlet, Janet Bigney points out into Pamlico Sound — on the west side of the island — where an old well sits a couple hundred feet off shore.

“That’s an area where a house may have been,” said Bigney, who owns a campground there with her husband.

“We built our house strong, but once the water touches the sand and saturates it, it’s like quicksand — things start sinking and moving around,” Bigney said. “Whenever we find out there’s going to be a hurricane, we’re out of here.”

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