Like many other kids who grew up in eastern North Carolina, I was fascinated by the mysteries of the Outer Banks. I loved Manteo and Roanoke Island with its story of The Lost Colony and Virginia Dare, the first child born in America (8/18/1587) to English parents. I dreamed of solving the strange mystery of their disappearance, with the only clue left behind: the word CROATAN carved on a tree.
Across the bridge from the mainland are the spiny islands known as The Outer Banks. Southward is Hatteras, where the cold waters of the Labrador Currents collide with the warm waters from the Caribbean… where shallow sandbars of Diamond Shoals trick sailors miles out into the ocean, one of the deadliest points along the Graveyard of the Atlantic. There are tales of pirate treasures beneath the sea and buried on the islands. Cape Hatteras is the elbow bend of the long, skinny island strip where the tallest, most recognizable lighthouse in America stands.
Hatteras and beyond were accessible only by ferry when I was a child. The Pamlico Sound separates it from the mainland by miles and the island itself is over 40 miles long. (Manhattan, by comparison, is less than 15.) The small fishing villages along the Outer Banks were so isolated that traces of the Old English brogue of 16th century ancestors are still recognizable among the older residents.
Sometimes after hurricanes, my mother would take us there to look for shells on the empty beaches. Everything changed in 1963, when the Herbert C. Bonner bridge was built. Developers descended like locusts. The island was soon pocked with clusters of vacation houses between the fishing villages, an irreverent sight to those who considered the stark wilderness a national treasure.
Since I am bridge-phobic, if there is such a term, I found the Bonner bridge terrifying, but fascinating. During a 1990 hurricane, a dredge broke loose and hit the bridge, knocking out a wide chunk of the span, and electricity and phone service to the island, too. Watch this old report to get an idea of the immensity of the bridge. It’s file footage from before the 1990 accident–look how small the cars are. The bridge survived Irene.
Here’s another video from 20 years later if you want to see what it looks like to ride across the bridge. Before you jump in, though, here are a few facts about the bridge. It was built to have a lifespan of 30 years– now in its 17th year of borrowed time.
In 2006, a bridge inspection report from NCDOT rated the condition of the bridge and, with one being the lowest and 100 the highest and best, the bridge was rated a 2. The state spent millions to raise that to a 4. NCDOT says that doesn’t mean that it’s unsound, but that it doesn’t meet current standards.
Traffic on an average day is 5,000 vehicles and includes school buses. During tourist season that number can easily double. Grass roots efforts of groups like Replacethebridgenow.com and Bridgemoms pushed hard and contracts have been awarded to begin construction on a new bridge in January. There will be a webcam to watch construction progress.
Although I watched hours of coverage on Hurricane Irene, I saw little about Hatteras, so I was surprised when I saw the video at the beginning of this post. The bridge survived, but the highway did not. The Hatteras residents are without power or phone service and have little water. Supplies are being delivered, but it’s a slow process since it must be done by ferry– two hours each way. The ferry service is also taking any people who wish to leave over to the mainland.
Their situation is similar to the needs of Vermont’s flooded areas, where supplies are being airlifted in. Both areas will have a long, slow recovery. So much devastation, nearly 900 miles apart.
I was surprised to hear the news pundits wondering if the hurricane was over-hyped. Lady Gaga is over-hyped. The Super Bowl is over-hyped. Although I think it’s a bit ridiculous to have reporters blowing around outside and wish they come inside so that we can understand what they’re saying, I want to know about hurricanes and tornadoes.
Nature is amazing. Dearly Beloved sent this photo of the calm sea the day after the hurricane.