AS ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms. And as sea levels continue to rise, the surges of these future storms will be higher and even more deadly. We can’t stop these powerful storms. But we can reduce the deaths and damage they cause.
Hurricane Sandy’s immense power, which destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, actually pushed the footprints of the barrier islands along the South Shore of Long Island and the Jersey Shore landward as the storm carried precious beach sand out to deep waters or swept it across the islands. This process of barrier-island migration toward the mainland has gone on for 10,000 years.
Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back the shorelines to where they were. The federal government encourages this: there will be billions available to replace roads, pipelines and other infrastructure and to clean up storm debris, provide security and emergency housing. Claims to the National Flood Insurance Program could reach $7 billion. And the Army Corps of Engineers will be ready to mobilize its sand-pumping dredges, dump trucks and bulldozers to rebuild beaches washed away time and again.
Last August, when Hurricane Irene sliced across the Outer Banks, it cut Highway 12, Hatteras Island’s lifeline, in two places. Engineers rushed to repair the damage, filling and repaving a washed-out stretch of roadway here and building a bridge over a newly formed inlet a few miles to the north.
The road reopened on Oct. 11, to the cheers of anglers, would-be vacationers and the innkeepers, restaurateurs and merchants whose livelihoods had taken a huge blow.
But the winds and waves that shape the coast were already gnawing at the new bridge. By January, engineers were reinforcing its southern approach with sandbags and rock trucked in from the mainland, in hopes of keeping the road open until a more permanent fix could be designed and built.
The Outer Banks are home to some of the nation’s most celebrated beach communities. The road that links them, also called N.C. 12, offers an extreme example of the difficulty of maintaining houses, condos, roads and other infrastructure in the face of a climate-driven rise in sea level.
By some estimates, at least 70 percent of the ocean coastline of the lower 48 states is threatened by erosion. But the outlook here is unusually gloomy. In 2009, a federal report on erosion in the Middle Atlantic states predicted that if the sea level rises two feet this century — an estimate that many experts call optimistic — “it is likely that some barrier islands in this region will cross a threshold” and begin to break up. The report, produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Survey and other agencies, said the Outer Banks were particularly threatened.
Already, Highway 12 floods repeatedly and is often cut by storms. Maintaining it “is totally a lost cause,” said Stanley R. Riggs, a coastal scientist at East Carolina University who is an author of a new book, “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast,” which describes in depressing detail the difficulties of keeping the road open. “It will bankrupt the state,” he said.
But people who live and work on the Outer Banks say abandoning the road would make life impossible.
“You would see people with nothing left,” said Eddie Williams, who was born and raised on Hatteras Island. He manages the Paint Box, a gift shop in the village of Hatteras. “It would be devastating,” he said.