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North Carolina’s coastal highway is disappearing – so I took a road trip | North Carolina

North Carolina’s coastal highway is disappearing – so I took a road trip | North Carolina

An excavator rests in the sand along Highway 12.

A few months ago, I decided I wanted to drive the entirety of Highway 12 – a slim highway that snakes along North Carolina’s barrier islands – before the climate crisis alters it further.

Though I spent much of my childhood on the southern part of North Carolina’s coast, these overdeveloped, humid islands have piqued my imagination for decades. I wanted to see what is left, and what is likely.

The Outer Banks, or precariousness of these islands can be seen on a map. The nearly 200-mile stretch of barrier islands runs the length of most of North Carolina’s coastline.

Around here, change is non-negotiable: the highway lies atop a series of barrier islands – dynamic mounds of sand designed by nature to shift. The Outer Banks, which are the most frequent hurricane targets north of Florida, are also the most frequently affected by Hurricanes.

I knew I had my own fears about the fact that the islands would not resemble the ones I knew as a child: small mini-golf courses, roadside produce stands, and occasional surf shops. These flecks of Americana remain, but the holiday homes are much more modern. They are more numerous and larger; the restaurants, surf shops, and hotels are grander and more corporate; and the churning water has carved up the coastline more.

An excavator rests in the sand along Highway 12.
An excavator rests on the sand of Highway 12.

I stopped by my sister’s house in Wilmington, North Carolina, in early November, where I planned to start my trip up Highway 12. Northern Buxton, Hatteras Village and Northern Rodanthe had just reported ocean overwash from a nor’easter, and the road was closed.

North Carolina’s Highway 12 runs 148 miles, a system of two-lane highways, ferries and bridges connecting islands and peninsulas. It’s a lifeline for the nearly 20 communities, 57,000 residents, small businesses and tourists – but high tides and storms gnaw constantly at the road.

Dr Stanley Riggs is a geologist and runs an Organisation devoted to sustainable practices along North Carolina’s coast, tells me there are “numerous portions of this highway with serious problems that require severe ongoing maintenance. Some segments need to be rebuilt multiple times per year. The yellow bulldozers can be used all year.

“Before the major economic development boom of the 20th century,” Riggs said, “these islands were allowed to respond naturally to storm dynamics … The barriers are both the ocean’s speed bumps and the land’s safety valves, and must be able to move in response to the storms’ energy.”

The barrier islands are now locked in place by the fixed structures of Highway 12 and ocean front development.

Nature’s strength and will is undeniable, despite human intentions. In recent years, Hurricanes Isabel and Irene cut Hatteras Island into half. Locals had to use emergency ferries for several weeks until the highway could be repaired. In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian ravaged 1,000ft of Highway 12 in Ocracoke. The road was reopened in December, months later.

A house off Highway 12 in Rodanthe stands precariously on the beach.
A precarious house on Rodanthe’s Highway 12 is perched on the shore.
Left: sand dunes tumbling into the road. Right: a tractor seen through sand dunes on the road.
Left: Sand dunes that tumble into the road. Right: A tractor seen through sand dunes.

“We must learn to live with storm dynamics,” Riggs says. “The beach will move, villages will flood, and storm surges will open new inlets to let storm surge water both into and out of the estuaries.” However, the government has allowed further development and built higher dune dykes to protect the highway and homes, which essentially traps storm surge during weather events, making flooding much worse over time.

“Before World War II,” Riggs explains, “all the old villages were built on the backside of the islands. Now the oceanfront is totally built out and has locked the system into a guaranteed natural disaster zone.”

Climate change and development are putting pressure on the islands. Up until the 1990s, about 15 miles of North Carolina’s ocean beaches required re-nourishment sand on an irregular basis in order to have what Riggs calls “a wide and healthy beach for a successful economic year”. Now, he estimates that there are over 100 miles of beaches that require re-nourishment every 2-4 years at a cost between $3m and $6m per mile.

Static landscapes remind you of who you were. Shifting landscapes remind you that we have changed or haven’t taken enough care of what is important to our lives.

TThe North Carolina department of Transportation informed me that Highway 12 would reopen sooner than expected the day before I left. However, drivers should be aware of standing salt water as well as evening high tides. I set out at 6am the next morning, knowing that I had at most a 10-hour driving trip ahead of me and two ferry rides to catch.

I first drove to Beaufort on an inlet. It was here that I spent most of my childhood summers. Although once quiet and historic, developers love the charm and association of the town with Blackbeard. I drove through town past the docks where I first fell in love maritime culture. The ferry to Ocracoke was waiting for me at Cedar Island.

The more I got closer to the ferry terminal, however, the slower the development became. I drove past a monument to a seafood processing family, a solitary shrimp boat, houses haphazardly raised on stilts – some looking like a Hail Mary DIY-job. Signs advertising church services rose out of the salt marsh.

A police car passes by along the moving coastline on Highway 12.
A police car passes along Highway 12’s moving coastline.

I drove my car to the hulking ferry, cormorants flying low above the water near the boat.

A ferry worker asked me what my job was. I explained that I was an environment journalist. He showed me a picture of an abandoned island in the rising seas and pulled me into the ferry. “I believe in climate change,” he told me, quietly, as if he was afraid someone might overhear him. “But I’m an ugly American. I don’t like to be told what to do. AskI’d be happy to recycle or wear a mask. Then I’ll do just about Anything for you.”

His tone reminded of the difficult political moment. The Outer Banks residents vote conservatively and often see environmental policy as liberal overreach.

Map of North Carolina’s Highway 12 on the Outer Banks

The boat docked slowly at Ocracoke. The town’s recent population hovers near 700, declining roughly 25% in the last decade – though nearly 10,000 tourists inhabit the island during the peak summer season. The Croatoan people are the Hatterask Indians who once hunted here and fished before colonial intrusion. Blackbeard was a fan of the treacherous Shoals and was killed on the island in 1718. Sport fishing and kiteboarding are now popular island pastimes.

I stopped at one of the few restaurants that was open for lunch. Country music was playing through a speaker. No one was wearing masks. I decided to eat a granola bar instead and drove Highway 12 through bits of maritime forest – salt-pruned oaks and low cedars – and high dunes. I pulled over, and walked to the beach which was mostly deserted. A few people fished in the pickup trucks’ open beds.

As I moved towards my final ferry from Ocracoke, Hatteras, sand blew along the road. I was 20 cars from the cutoff when a long line formed to board. The people in line accepted their fate, turned off their cars, and walked along the road socializing. The time slowed down; I saw an old dachshund sticking its head out from the moonroof in front of me.

I made the next ferry – the W Stanford White. As it pulled away from dock, my car shaken. A faint moon hovered over the sea and a spit covered in pelicans, cormorants.

As I drove slowly through Hatteras, the sun was setting. Standing water was visible in front new construction. I could see water on both sides of the road at times.

Left: a ragged American and Confederate flag flowing on a fence. Right: a Trump cut-out with a sign that says ‘keep America safe’.
Left: A Confederate and American flag flowing over a fence. Right: a Trump cut-out with a sign that says ‘keep America safe’.
A buoy flashes red over the water to guide a ferry that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
A buoy flashes in the water to direct a ferry between Hatteras, Ocracoke and Highway 12.

I stopped for gas and dinner at the bait shop. “A lot of places are closed,” I said as I paid for a beer.

“The workers need rest,” the woman said. She looked tired. It had been a long one for her.

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As the sun set, I found the section of Highway 12 that I wanted to see the most. My headlights illuminated bright yellow signs that warned of “high water”. Moonlight fell upon the bulldozers left parked in dunes.

Rodanthe’s stretch of highway felt thin, as if the black waters on either side might close in. High tide was coming and pools of water sprayed upwards with oncoming traffic. I could see the darkened shape of the bridge being built along the road.

In 2017, after a decade of costly work on the so-called S-Curve section of the highway in Rodanthe – including a $3m emergency repair after Irene, and a $20m beach nourishment project in 2012 – North Carolina’s department of transportation commissioned$145m project to fund 2.4 miles of Highway 12 Some areas of the S-Curve’s oceanfront were losing 11-12ft annually, and forecasts predicted similar outcomes.

Passengers exit their cars on a ferry ride that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Passengers board a ferry that connects two sections of Highway 12 between Hatteras, Ocracoke.

As with many projects that affect culturally and environmentally sensitive areas, legal action was necessary. A group private landowners contestedBonner Bridge, claiming it was rushed to please environmentalists, who wanted birds to nest in protected areas. The Trump administration called it an example of “excessive environmental planning”.

The Southern Environmental Law Center leads conservation groups suedTo ensure that the bridge project was progressed in a climate and wildlife-smart fashion, we ultimately returned 19 acres to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. AreaFor migrating and endangered birds like the American Oystercatcher or Least Tern.

The bridge will open in the fall, ahead schedule.

I drove through Nags Head before turning into town. I was awestruck by the sunset and the wild glow of Wings Surf Shop. The Outer Banks are a place where both the natural and artificial coexist. It’s like watching a heron fly over a miniature course of golf.

I enjoyed the off-season silence of the drive, locals wishing one another happy birthday with business signs, and retired couple making a slow visit at a small postoffice. Beneath every tourist economy is a town’s old self – what’s left of its traditions and elders, its hospitality workers, the people who are left to pick up the pieces after a hurricane, or care for each other in the winter of a pandemic.

A driveway of sand in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, leads to a beach house next to Highway 12.
A driveway of sand runs from Kitty Hawk in North Carolina to a beach home next to Highway 12.

As I pulled into my tiny cottage under a live oak in Kitty Hawk, I thought about all the layers of change and loss that were present on these islands, especially during times of compound disasters when both a pandemic or a changing climate can impact small communities.

“An economic-system based on unlimited development on mobile piles of sand doesn’t have a very bright future as we know it,” Riggs tells me. “At the present rate of change, North Carolina’s coastal system is looking at a possible one meter rise in sea level by 2100.” This increase is already well underway.

“We’ve built ourselves into a situation we can’t engineer our way out of,” he says with a sadness in his voice.

I was a young actor in a play about Lost Colony, an English settlement on Roanoke island that was doomed. (Almost every kid who grew-up in eastern North Carolina did). We marveled at the idea of an entire village disappearing.

I am slowly understanding. The Outer Banks have seen waves of Indigenous inhabitants, violent colonization, fishing villages, tourism and intense development – all a struggle for power and resources in a mercurial natural environment.

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