Hatteras Island — Since the early 1990s, taxpayers have spent more than $30 million repairing a vulnerable stretch of N.C. Highway 12 after storms battered the Outer Banks, according to the state Department of Transportation. Some areas have been fixed multiple times, with help from federal and state tax dollars.
By some measures, N.C. 12 is one of the most expensive and vulnerable roads in the state. Critics say the state is wasting money in a relentless battle between nature and man. But supporters say the more than 100-mile stretch of road that runs from Corolla to Ocracoke is a vital link and must be saved.
“It is a continuous battle, and I think the ocean is stronger than we are,” said East Carolina University geologist Dorothea Ames. “Highway 12 can no longer exist in some areas that are too narrow, because there is nowhere else to move it.”
History shows, Ames says, that many of the popular beach towns won’t be around forever. The Outer Banks' barrier islands earned their name by shielding the coastal mainland from the ocean’s surging waves and storms, according to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
The question is, how much money and effort should the state pour into rebuilding a highway that storms will eventually destroy again.
Years before Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, Ames and her fellow researchers raised a red flag. They created a map in 2008 showing areas they felt were most in danger. Three years later, that prediction cut a path through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Engineers put a temporary bridge over that new inlet, which was just part of the $12 million spent to repair Irene's road damage.
Taxpayers spent about $2.4 million after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, more than $500,000 following the 2006 Thanksgiving nor’easter and up to $10 million this year after Hurricane Sandy. Federal tax money covers up to 80 percent of repairs when a natural disaster is declared.
Since 2001, taxpayers have spent more than $100 million on N.C. 12, including maintenance, construction, bridge repair and storm-related costs.
David Mallinson, who is part of the research team with Ames, predicts the price tag to keep the road together over the next century could top $1 billion. “There’s no doubt we’re throwing money in the ocean,” Mallinson said. “We just can't keep doing this forever."
Business and tourism officials say saving N.C. 12 is a necessity.
“It makes no sense that we're having that conversation,” said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten, who says tourists spent more than $877 million in his county last year. Dare County covers 800 square miles, including 391 square miles of land and 409 square miles of water.
Outten argues the money spent on N.C. 12 is a drop in the bucket compared with the economic impact the Outer Banks brings to North Carolina. “To say, ‘Let it wither away,’ … again, I say it would be an economic calamity and makes no fiscal sense at all,” Outten said.
To those who believe inland taxpayers subsidize futile beach road building, Outten says that’s nonsense. “They don't subsidize us. We subsidize the state. We send out more than we get back,” he said.
Natalie Kavanagh's family makes a living off the allure of the Outer Banks. The family’s supply store, Frisco Rod and Gun, and grocery store reel in the fishermen and beachgoers alike.
“Without the road and the bridge, we would be a ghost town,” Kavanagh said. “This is a place people love. They love this place like a person. They want to be here.”
Locals contend turning to a more comprehensive ferry system couldn't keep up. In the height of the summer, an estimated 10,000 vehicles travel south on N.C. 12 each day. A ferry can hold 40 cars. “There's no way to build enough ferries and dock space,” Outten said.
Mike Mulchi, an annual visitor from Wake Forest, says he thinks it's time to do more than slap more pavement on the shifting sand.
“Why not put this money toward something that's going to be permanent, something that will allow the ocean to come and go?” he said. “I just say we do what we've got to do to keep our history and our heritage right here.”
Federal and state environmental restrictions drastically limited efforts to reinforce the road. There are strict guidelines, particularly in and around the wildlife refuge, that prevent hardened structures and beach re-nourishment.
Meanwhile, the state DOT has identified six hot spots along N.C. 12 that are most at-risk, from Pea Island down to Ocracoke, and hopes to rise above the water with bridges.
State engineers recommend building bridges to replace a temporary span in the wildlife refuge and another at a trouble spot near Rodanthe, for a combined cost of $213 million. Those plans remain on hold, though, until an environmental court battle over the $215 million Bonner Bridge replacement can be resolved.
“We can't just engineer our way out of this. We can't just build a big dike,” Mallinson said.
Researchers say allowing new inlets to form will strengthen the Outer Banks with natural over wash. “We need the barrier islands to do their thing and let storms impact them,” Ames said.
The highway doesn't have history on its side. Since the 1950s, the water has chased back the road in the Buxton area, moving the shoreline several times, and shows no signs of stopping.
“The island isn't going to wake up one morning and be gone. As things change, we'll adapt and do what we have to do,” Outten said.