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Main highway on the Outer Banks is being threatened by storms and erosion. A new task force is working to protect it.
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Main highway on the Outer Banks is being threatened by storms and erosion. A new task force is working to protect it.

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Ji Williams, of Jarvis Towing Company, braves the stormy conditions to assist a stranded driver on Highway 12 on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Hurricane Teddy passed by well off shore but the affects were felt up and down the Outer Banks closing roads to Hatteras Island for a few days.

Ji Williams, of Jarvis Towing Company, braves the stormy conditions to assist a stranded driver on Highway 12 on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Hurricane Teddy passed by well off shore but the affects were felt up and down the Outer Banks closing roads to Hatteras Island for a few days.

A powerful coastal storm that battered the Outer Banks of North Carolina caused extensive damage along the coast. Feet of sand covering cars, pools and important infrastructure like Highway 12 that remains closed since Saturday.

A recently formed task force hopes to save the main highway on the Outer Banks from the ravages of storms, erosion and sea level rise.

Federal, state and local agencies have formed the N.C. 12 task force, which will focus on protecting seven vulnerable spots along 67 miles of the narrow highway that runs from Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Village and continues after a ferry ride to Ocracoke.

The highway constantly floods with ocean water that leaves behind deposits of sand or breaks up the pavement. Even heavy rains and high tides can inundate the road. Thousands of tourists can be stranded and emergency crews can’t get around.

Despite challenges and costs, the road must be saved, said Bobby Outten, Dare County manager and chairman of a subcommittee with the task force.

The highway connects nine towns and villages and gives access to the beaches, including those along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Outer Banks tourism generates $1.2 billion a year. Visitors to the seashore totaled 2.6 million last year, one of the biggest years on record.

Efforts to shore up the highway have been tried before with mixed success, by building bridges, moving the road westward, widening beaches and building bigger dunes. An Outer Banks task force worked on solving similar flooding problems two decades ago.

“N.C. 12 is in greater peril than it was before,” Outten said. “We have to address those issues now and not when a storm hits.”

The state highway department and others have spent $72 million in the last 10 years restoring parts of N.C. 12, not counting bridge-building costs.

The groups plans over the next few months to prioritize the most vulnerable places, come up with the best solution to fix them and try to fund the projects.

“You can’t ask anybody for money if you don’t have a plan,” Outten said.

Including the effects of sea level rise could help land state and federal grants, he said. The group will seek different sources of money such as grants rather than only state highway funding.

“Sea level rise must be taken into account, absolutely,” said Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.

N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island gets a low rating for state funding because it’s a sparsely populated area with heavy traffic only in the summer, said Stirling Baker, division 1 engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Bridges have proven to be the best long-term solution, but are more expensive than widening beaches and rebuilding dunes.

A 2.4-mile long bridge in Rodanthe is costing $145 million to resolve problems with a frequently flooded stretch of N.C. 12 known as the ‘S curves.’ The bridge is set for completion by early next year and resolves one of the seven hot spots.

Another bridge, about a half-mile long, north of Rodanthe fixed an area where Hurricane Irene created a new inlet after storm surge cut through N.C 12 in 2011. It cost $14.3 million.

The remaining chronically bad spots are:

  • Just south of Oregon Inlet
  • Across from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge visitor center
  • At Avon
  • At the north end of Buxton
  • Between Frisco and Hatteras Village
  • At the north end of Ocracoke Island

The highway at the north end of Ocracoke may be the most vulnerable. Storm surge often breaks through the dunes, washing away the ground below below the road and buckling the pavement and disrupting ferry service from Hatteras Island. Erosion also threatens the ferry docks themselves,

“It’s very fragile there,” Hallac said.

Jeff Hampton, 757-446-2090, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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