Letter to the Editor: Hatteras Inlet

Houston, we have a problem!

That short statement that was first uttered by astronaut John Swigert Jr. brought the Apollo 13 moon landing to an abrupt halt, and caused the hundreds of brilliant minds in mission control and NASA support agencies to start brainstorming to come up with a time sensitive solution to get the crew of the Apollo 13 back home again. Time was indeed of the essence.

Hatteras and Ocracoke Island are currently facing a problem that is also time sensitive and the need for a quick solution is compounded almost on a weekly basis. In the seventies the Hatteras spit was approximately a mile further than it is at the present time and the area known as the mud flats was nearly a mile wide. Three quarters of that are gone. After Hurricane Isabel the widening of the inlet started to increase, but it wasn`t that noticeable on a weekly or even monthly basis because there was still a good deal of land mass from the inlet to the old coast guard light tower, which is also where the cable crossing is. That is where the power cable supported by Tideland EMC goes underground through the Pamlico Sound to supply backup power for Ocracoke Island.

Since Hurricane Irene and Sandy, and most recently Hurricane Arthur, the Inlet is widening at a tremendous rate. The erosion on the end of the spit can be seen on a weekly basis now because of the ever- increasing expanse of the inlet. I would estimate that within 180 days the erosion of the spit could possibly be up to the cable crossing area. This area is only a few hundred yards from the inlet now. This is a big deal for the residents and businesses of Ocracoke Island. Their power plant could probably provide sufficient power for the island during the off season, but would not be sufficient during tourist season if the cable were to be compromised. 

There are two things that need to be done in Hatteras Inlet and it would literally take a state of emergency to be declared by Governor Pat McCrory and an act of congress to make it happen. There needs to be a safe, sufficient ferry channel between Hatteras and Ocracoke. And the spit needs to be reconstructed to close the massive expanse that the inlet has become, to a more manageable solution.  

A great opportunity was missed after Hurricane Isabel when Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co with their thirty inch dredge pumped nearly a million cubic yards of material into the 2,000 ft wide, 15 ft deep, seven tenths of a mile breach outside of Hatteras village in just a few weeks. They could have been digging a ferry channel at the same time. There is a similar opportunity that could be taken advantage of today. The state has requested that the ferry route be widened to 250 feet, and it would take a company like Great Lakes to do the job, but I would suggest that the ferry route not just be widened, but also changed. To get away from the millions and millions of dollars it is costing the state, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the lost revenue of Ocracoke businesses…get away from the inlet! A new ferry route running from marker 20 straight to the backside of the old dredge island and then tying into the area between buoy`s 2 & 3 outside of Ocracoke south dock would stay open for decades. Forty years ago the ferry route ran right through the middle of dredge island.

Digging a four mile long, 250 ft wide channel with an estimated 8 feet of sand to be removed to create a water depth of 13 feet would generate over 1.5 million cubic yards of material, which would be just about what it would take to rebuild the Hatteras spit and close the inlet up to it`s prior, more manageable size. The environmental impact would be minimal, and the ecosystem supported by the Hatteras spit would actually be greatly improved. That`s where the Governor and congress have to get involved.

Wherever the new ferry channel is dug, the material has to go somewhere. I can`t think of a better place or a more urgent need. What I am suggesting concerning the spit “is” the end game. Whether it's done now or later, it will have to be done. Ten years from now there will be nothing left of the point at all. Then Hatteras village will be facing this problem right at their back door. Time is of the essence! 

Malcolm W. Peele

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