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Storm Breach Sows Division in Cape Hatteras

Hurricane Isabel carved an inlet though the only route to the mainland. Environmentalists and officials are at odds over a project to fill it.

September 28, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

HATTERAS, N.C. — Just above this tiny village, on North Carolina's wind-swept barrier islands, the pounding waves of Hurricane Isabel opened a channel that has become a test of the human will to live by the beach, that most ephemeral of habitats.

The 1,700-foot-wide channel has severed Highway 12, the only road that links the town of 1,550 year-round residents to the rest of the Outer Banks and the mainland. Hatteras, which has a new shipwreck museum, had been hoping for a bigger share of the area's rich tourist economy before Isabel.

Calling the channel a "breach," local, state and federal authorities have launched a $2.7-million dredging project to quickly plug it. But environmentalists, calling the channel an "inlet," are saying it may deserve a permanent place on the map, even a name.

Implicit in the environmentalist stance is the message that people who live by the beach may have to relinquish some certainties and conveniences of modern life. In the West, there are similar debates about whether taxpayers should bail out those who build on Pacific bluffs or on land prone to wildfires when disaster strikes.

"Hurricanes have become an urban renewal project," said Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist at Duke University.

In North Carolina, officials came up with an emergency plan to rebuild Highway 12 by pumping up to 1 million cubic yards of sand dredged from nearby shoals to close the channel, then laying new blacktop. The federal government agreed to pay for the dredging, and the gear is already on its way. Permits for the dredging are on a fast track, and the project is slated to be finished in 30 days.

Environmentalists say authorities should consider alternatives such as ferry service to the village, or a bridge, a costlier and more time-consuming option than dredging.

"We are totally supportive of quickly getting a transportation route to the island," said Jane Preyer of Environmental Defense in Raleigh, the state capital. "But there has been absolutely no examination of alternatives to filling the inlet."

The channel's opening to the sea could help flush and refresh the waters of Pamlico Sound, which lies between the islands and the mainland, environmentalists say.

"You could have some real benefits for the fishing industry and the health of the sound, that at least should be looked at," Preyer said.

So far, North Carolina officials have not been persuaded. The residents of Hatteras "don't have helicopters and sailboats," said Rolf Blizzard, an aide to state Sen. Marc Basnight, a Democrat who represents the area. "You've got to provide access, and you've got to put back the access that was there."

Nature preserve and vacation paradise coexist in tension on the Outer Banks.

The area is designated a national seashore, and large stretches are run by the National Park Service. But splendid vacation homes -- called "rental machines" by the locals -- keep going up along the coast, bringing traffic and demands for services, as well as creating jobs.

Environmental groups have called for a moratorium on new construction along the coast in the wake of Isabel.

Hatteras village, with 111 buildings destroyed or declared uninhabitable, was hammered by the hurricane like no other nearby community. Although phone service and power have been restored, and plenty of drinking water and food is available, many residents are feeling isolated and vulnerable.

"It's scary," said Debbie Hodge, 51, a Hatteras native who lost her home in the hurricane. The road was "our only way out, our lifeline. It would be easier for us if they filled it in and put a new road down."

Hodge wonders what would happen if she developed complications from her diabetes. "The way it is now, I'd have to get flown out if I had a health problem," she said.

Without the highway, children in Hatteras have no easy way of getting to school in a village farther north. And their parents can't hop in cars and drive to work in the bigger towns.

"Clearly, we don't need another inlet," said John Robert Hooper, a Dare County commissioner who represents Hatteras. "I've read some of those environmental narratives and I can shoot them full of holes."

Right now, it is the town that has been punched full of holes. Mounds of scrap are all that's left of some houses. The roof of one home juts out from the waters of the sound, more than a quarter-mile from where it originally stood. Household appliances ruined by flooding line the streets.

Though weary and exasperated, residents say they have seen the village come together.

The Rev. Charles Moseley, pastor of Hatteras United Methodist Church, said he told his congregation that he would never again stress the differences that distinguish his own denomination, but rather promote unity among all churches. "From now on we're just the Christian people on Hatteras," he said.

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