- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2020

RODANTHE, N.C. (AP) - As hurricane season begins, N.C. 12 might be the most vulnerable road in the state.

And one of the most crucial to a local economy.

And one of the most expensive to maintain.

The two-lane road runs 148 miles along the Outer Banks from Corolla to a community called Sea Level, through some of North Carolina’s most valuable real estate and most visited landmarks and beaches.

Many stretches lie only a few yards away from the pounding surf where storm surge can break up and wash away the pavement. Winter blows also send the surf through the dunes, depositing feet of sand on the road.



“There are certainly no other roads like it,” said Jerry Jennings, first district engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

“N.C. 12 is in a class by itself.”

Over the past 10 years, the state has spent $72.6 million repairing N.C. 12 - including $30 million in 2012 to rebuild long sections after Hurricane Sandy.

The year before, the state spent $17.3 million to repair the road and build a temporary bridge after Hurricane Irene. The ocean busted through to the sound during that storm, taking out large sections of the highway and creating an inlet. A new bridge was later built over the inlet for an additional $14.3 million.

Nearly $11 million went toward fixing N.C. 12 in Ocracoke in the past decade. Most of the damage happened when Hurricane Dorian shredded the highway last fall, with repairs costing nearly $7 million. A recent winter storm flattened the dunes again and undermined the roadway.

Last year, after Dorian, the state placed sandbags along the Ocracoke shoreline for the first time, Jennings said. After more winter storms brought more damage, the state decided to lay 2,500 additional sandbags to protect nearly a mile of the road. Work on the project stopped for Memorial Day and will resume in the fall when the tourism season subsides, he said.

“Hopefully this will make it more stable than it has been,” he said.

Road graders spent days last month trying to clear the road of sand after the surf broke through the dunes north of Rodanthe and at the north end of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The graders repeat the work after every high tide when the ocean again overflows onto the pavement.

Several massive machines work in unison, scraping sand off the road and then riding up steep angles to rebuild the dunes.

“They are so good at it, it’s like watching a symphony,” said Danny Couch, a Dare County commissioner and Hatteras Island businessman.

The state is constructing another new bridge for $145 million around parts of Rodanthe where the road washes out frequently. Completion is expected next year.

Coastal geologist Stanley Riggs has been outspoken for decades against continuing to repair N.C. 12.

“The idea that we can stabilize that barrier island is not smart,” he said Thursday. “You have to let it move. You have to let it breathe.”

In the 1990s, he and a group of officials and scientists agreed it was best to build what he calls back-barrier causeways that would stretch over the sound like bridges past the weak spots in the sand barrier. They drilled holes in the sand and tested the support base on the bottom.

Riggs has also promoted ferries to get to higher and wider places where the communities are rather than constantly repairing the highway at vulnerable spots in between. The idea went nowhere.

“We can’t hold that road anymore,” he said. “You’re at a dead end as sea level rises and storms worsen.”

Despite the cost and trouble, the road will keep getting repaired for now, Jennings said.

“Our task is to keep that road safe and open,” he said. “Whatever it takes.”

N.C. 12 is vital to the regional and state economy. Dare County ranked fifth in the state in 2018 in tourism spending, with a record $1.2 billion, according to a report commissioned by Visit North Carolina.

Hatteras Island generates about a third of that, Couch said. Spending totals have set new records every year since 2009.

Last year, Cape Hatteras National Seashore saw 2.6 million recreational visits for the first time since 2003.

Repair costs on the beach highway are a fraction of its value, Couch said.

“It is an investment,” he said. “It is the cost of doing business.”

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