Hatteras Divided

Islands: The Outer Banks After Isabel

Conversation with Mike Orbach of the the Duke University Marine Lab.

By Chris

Ever since
hurricane Isabel slammed North Carolina’s Outer Banks on September 19th,
the Cape Hatteras area has had to more than struggle to pick up the pieces.
In fact, it’s had to struggle to put its islands back together. Nowhere
is this more evident than at the new 2000 foot-wide, 25 foot deep inlet
that now divides Hatteras Village from its neighbors.

on who you talk to, the new cut is a “breach” that should be filled immediately
or a completely natural new inlet that’s going to come back during the
next big storm, and so, should just be left alone.

of your point of view, times and sands are rapidly shifting on the Outer
Banks. To find out more, we spoke with Mike Orbach, director of the Duke
University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. Orbach is hugely
familiar with the areas sand, currents, fisheries and development issues.
He spoke at length about the future of these narrow strips of sand, and
you may find some of his conclusions alarming. Where will the North Carolina
coast be in 25 years? Read on — and think long and hard before you invest
in beachfront, or soundside property.

Dixon: Mike, have you been out to the Outer Banks since Isabel hit?

Mike Orbach:
I’ve been out to some of the southern Outer Banks, I have not been up
to Hatteras. I have several students and colleagues who have and I have
seen some fairly detailed overflight photos of right after the storm and
the weeks after that.

What did those pictures tell you?

MO: Well
basically that what happened during the storm is the natural phenomenon
that happens on the Outer Banks: That there was a new inlet cut in a place
that had been cut through previously. That there was an overwash site–
several overwash sites actually, but one fairly major one close to this
new inlet to the south. And that’s the natural process of the Outer Banks.
In fact, most of the dunes along Hatteras Island and up to Oregon Inlet
are not natural dunes — they were actually pushed up there in the 1930’s
by the Civilian Conservation Corps to presage economic development.

CD: Isn’t
it true that they also even planted grass in places there hadn’t been
any previously to try and stabilize things even further?

MO: Absolutely. In a sense Hatteras Island is a fairly altered Outer Bank
— fairly altered by humans. Now that’s not true of the Core Banks or
Shackelford to the south or even Ocracoke. So clearly what happened during
this storm is what happens during natural processes of barrier island
migration and overwash.

Now on these overwash sites — to clarify — you actually had sites where
the ocean washed through from one side of the island to the other but
it just didn’t remain an open cut like the one on Hatteras Island?

MO: Yeah,
absolutely. There were probably a couple dozen of those up and down the
Outer Banks. Now again, that’s a natural phenomenon out there.

The larger inlet — where is that exactly?

MO: Just
north of Hatteras Village. You remember where the Hatteras Community Center
is? It’s right there.

And it hasn’t been filled in?

MO: No, It
has not. Last time I heard a measurement a week and a half ago, it was
1700 feet wide and 25 feet deep. So it’s a serious inlet. Now what’s interesting
about it is that the state ceased calling it an inlet and began calling
it a ‘breach’. So that there wouldn’t be the impression that it’s a natural
feature that now we’re altering, but rather an unnatural feature that
we have to fix. Which of course, is exactly backwards.

of Oct 24, the fill-in project had begun and is expected to be completed
in mid-November. Below is a photo of the dredging work from www.hamptonroads.com.

You would assert that this is a natural feature — just one that hasn’t
opened up in awhile?

Well, if you look at the natural history of the Outer Banks, inlets have
opened and closed with some frequency — depending on the geomorphology
and the wave climate and sea-level rise. There are interesting phenomenon
that people don’t understand out there. For example — most inlets that
break through the Outer Banks actually break through the sound side. What
happens is that water will overwash from the ocean into the sound thereby
filling up the sound — it gets blown to the western side, and then the
combination of that water essentially sloshing back and rainwater runoff
from inland will actually breach the bank from the sound. Now that does
not appear to be what happened in this case, but the larger point is that
inlets close and open along the Outer Banks as a natural feature. There
are few really constant inlets in the banks — especially as you get north
of Beaufort Inlet.

Some surfers were upset about this, but before this hurricane hit, there
was talk of extending the Oregon Inlet bridge so you didn’t have all the
overwash along Highway 12. Diverting the highway actually made some sense
to me, but there’s really good surf along that stretch and some were afraid
that they wouldn’t be able to get to the waves.


MO: The proposal
was actually not to extend the bridge, but to take it out and replace
it with a causeway similar to seven-mile bridge down in the Florida Keys.
It would go from Manteo behind the Outer Banks all the way down to about
Rodanthe. This is on the drawing boards — to really eliminate the bridge
and move Highway 12 down.

But you know,
the other major option that a lot people bring up, and this is actually
my personal favorite as well, is actually going back to the old ferry
system. Where you ferry people from somewhere on the north side of Oregon
Inlet — it could be Manteo — down to Hatteras Island.

I would imagine a lot of people on Hatteras Island would be raising hell
about that possibility because they like the convenience of being able
to jaunt back and forth so easily.

MO: Well,
it depends on how you set that system up. If in fact, you reconstructed
our approach to living on the Outer Banks, such that we were going to
truly move with the island and follow what our Coastal Resources Commission
has established as a retreat policy as opposed to shoreline armoring,
then in fact you’d not want to try to keep that bridge at Oregon Inlet
at a place it doesn’t want to stay. The immediate impacts of that would
probably be to reduce the tourist flow volume to Hatteras Island, and
many of the economic interests on Hatteras Island would not be in favor
of reducing the total flow of people.

There would
be some positive impacts too though. You would assume that property values
might rise because it would become more exclusive. The economy would change
and in some cases the particular businesses to get the tourist dollars
might change.

It seems like it might also just change the character of Hatteras Island
to make it more like Ocracoke.