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North Carolina’s coastal highway is disappearing – so I took a road trip | North Carolina

A few months ago, I decided I wanted to drive the entirety of Highway 12 – a slim highway that snakes along North Carolina’s barrier islands – before the climate crisis alters it further.

Though I spent much of my childhood on the southern part of North Carolina’s coast, these overdeveloped, humid islands have piqued my imagination for decades. I wanted to witness what remains, and what is likely to disappear.

You can see the precarity of those islands (also known as the Outer Banks) on a map. The nearly 200-mile stretch of barrier islands runs the length of most of North Carolina’s coastline.

Around here, change is non-negotiable: the highway lies atop a series of barrier islands – dynamic mounds of sand designed by nature to shift. Plus, the Outer Banks are the most regular hurricane target north of Florida.

I knew I had to brace myself for the fact that the islands would no longer resemble what I knew as a child: roadside produce stands, small miniature golf courses, the occasional surf shop. Those flecks of Americana are still there, but the holiday homes are larger and more numerous; the restaurants and surf shops are grander and more corporate; the churning sea has carved up the coastline a little more.

An excavator rests in the sand along Highway 12.

I stopped by my sister’s house in Wilmington, North Carolina, in early November, where I planned to start my trip up Highway 12. Northern Buxton, Hatteras Village and Northern Rodanthe had just reported ocean overwash from a nor’easter, and the road was closed.

North Carolina’s Highway 12 runs 148 miles, a system of two-lane highways, ferries and bridges connecting islands and peninsulas. It’s a lifeline for the nearly 20 communities, 57,000 residents, small businesses and tourists – but high tides and storms gnaw constantly at the road.

Dr Stanley Riggs, a geologist who runs an organization devoted to sustainable practices along North Carolina’s coast, tells me there are “numerous portions of this highway with serious problems that require severe ongoing maintenance. Some segments require total rebuilding multiple times a year. The yellow bulldozers work all year long now.

“Before the major economic development boom of the 20th century,” Riggs said, “these islands were allowed to respond naturally to storm dynamics … The barriers are both the ocean’s speed bumps and the land’s safety valves, and must be able to move in response to the storms’ energy.”

However, the fixed structures of ocean front development and Highway 12 now lock the barrier islands in place.

Nature’s strength and will is undeniable, despite human intentions. In recent years, Hurricanes Irene and Isabel carved Hatteras Island in half, causing locals to use emergency ferries for weeks until the highway was restored. In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian destroyed 1,000ft of Highway 12 in Ocracoke. The road reopened months later, in early December.

A house off Highway 12 in Rodanthe stands precariously on the beach.
A house off Highway 12 in Rodanthe stands precariously on the beach.
Left: sand dunes tumbling into the road. Right: a tractor seen through sand dunes on the road.
Left: sand dunes tumbling into the road. Right: a tractor seen through sand dunes on the road.

“We must learn to live with storm dynamics,” Riggs says. “The beach will move, villages will flood, and storm surges will open new inlets to let storm surge water both into and out of the estuaries.” However, the government has allowed further development and built higher dune dykes to protect the highway and homes, which essentially traps storm surge during weather events, making flooding much worse over time.

“Before World War II,” Riggs explains, “all the old villages were built on the backside of the islands. Now the oceanfront is totally built out and has locked the system into a guaranteed natural disaster zone.”

Development and climate change are straining the islands. Up until the 1990s, about 15 miles of North Carolina’s ocean beaches required re-nourishment sand on an irregular basis in order to have what Riggs calls “a wide and healthy beach for a successful economic year”. Now he says there are over a 100 miles of beaches that need re-nourishment every couple of years, at the cost of $3m to $6m a mile.

Static landscapes remind us of who we were; shifting landscapes remind us that we have changed, or perhaps that we have not cared for what matters to us enough.


The day before my trip, the North Carolina department of transportation indicated that Highway 12 would reopen earlier than expected, but drivers would need to beware of standing salt water and evening high tides. I set out the next morning at 6am, knowing I had at least a 10-hour driving day ahead of me, and two ferries to catch.

First I drove to Beaufort, a small town located on an inlet, where I spent much of my childhood summers. Once quiet and historic, the town is now beloved by developers for its charm and association with the pirate Blackbeard. I drove through the heart of town and past the docks, where I first fell in love with maritime culture. Then, I turned toward Cedar Island to catch the ferry to Ocracoke.

The closer I got to the ferry terminal, the more development slowed. I drove past a monument to a seafood processing family, a solitary shrimp boat, houses haphazardly raised on stilts – some looking like a Hail Mary DIY-job. Signs advertising church services rose from the salt marsh.

A police car passes by along the moving coastline on Highway 12.
A police car passes by along the moving coastline on Highway 12.

I drove my car on to the hulking ferry, cormorants shooting low over the water next to the boat.

A ferry employee asked me what I was doing. I shared that I was an environmental journalist. He pulled me inside the ferry to show me a picture of an island that had disappeared under the rising seas. “I believe in climate change,” he told me, quietly, as if he was afraid someone might overhear him. “But I’m an ugly American. I don’t like to be told what to do. Ask me nicely to wear a mask or recycle. Then I’ll do just about anything for you.”

His tone reminded me of the fraught political moment. The Outer Banks locals vote conservatively, and often view environmental policy as liberal overreach.

Map of North Carolina’s Highway 12 along the Outer Banks

The boat docked slowly at Ocracoke. The town’s recent population hovers near 700, declining roughly 25% in the last decade – though nearly 10,000 tourists inhabit the island during the peak summer season. The Hatterask Indians, known as Croatoan people, once hunted and fished here prior to colonial intrusion. Blackbeard favored the treacherous shoals and was killed near the island in 1718. Now island pastimes include sport fishing and kiteboarding.

I stopped at one of the only open restaurants for lunch. Country music blared from a speaker. No one was wearing a mask. I decided to eat a granola bar instead and drove Highway 12 through bits of maritime forest – salt-pruned oaks and low cedars – and high dunes. I pulled over and walked out onto the mostly deserted beach. A few people fished from the open beds of pickup trucks.

Sand blew across the road as I moved toward my final ferry, from Ocracoke to Hatteras. A long line formed to board; I was 20 cars back from the cutoff. Those of us in line accepted our fate, turned off our cars, stretched on the road and socialized. Time slowed; I watched an old dachshund stick its head out of the moonroof in the car in front of me.

I made the next ferry – the W Stanford White. My car shook as it pulled away from the dock. A faint moon hung over the sea and a spit of land covered in pelicans and cormorants.

The sun was beginning to set as I drove slowly through Hatteras. Standing water pooled in front of new construction. At some points, I could see water on either side of the road.

Left: a ragged American and Confederate flag flowing on a fence. Right: a Trump cut-out with a sign that says ‘keep America safe’.
Left: a ragged American and Confederate flag flowing on a fence. Right: a Trump cut-out with a sign that says ‘keep America safe’.
A buoy flashes red over the water to guide a ferry that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
A buoy flashes red over the water to guide a ferry that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.

I stopped for gas and dinner at a bait shop. “A lot of places are closed,” I said as I paid for a beer.

“The workers need rest,” the woman said. She looked tired. I sensed it had been a long year for her, too.

As the sun went down I came to the part of Highway 12 I most wanted to see. My headlights illuminated bright yellow signs that warned of “high water”. Moonlight fell upon the bulldozers parked in the dunes.

The strip of highway that moves through Rodanthe felt impossibly slim, as if the black water on either side of the road might close in. High tide was coming, and pools of water on the road sprayed upward with oncoming traffic. I could see the dark shape of the new bridge being built alongside the road.

In 2017, after a decade of costly work on the so-called S-Curve section of the highway in Rodanthe – including a $3m emergency repair after Irene, and a $20m beach nourishment project in 2012 – North Carolina’s department of transportation commissioned a $145m project to raise 2.4 miles of Highway 12. Certain portions of the oceanfront along the S-Curve were losing 11-12ft a year, and forecasts predicted similar scenarios along the corridor.

Passengers exit their cars on a ferry ride that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Passengers exit their cars on a ferry ride that connects two parts of Highway 12 between Hatteras and Ocracoke.

As with many projects in environmentally and culturally sensitive areas, legal action followed. A group of private landowners contested the Bonner Bridge, saying it was rushed to appease environmentalists, who wanted to protect sensitive nesting areas for birds. The Trump administration called it an example of “excessive environmental planning”.

Conservation groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued to ensure the bridge project moved forward in a climate and wildlife-smart way, ultimately returning 19 acres to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a critical area for migrating and threatened birds like the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern.

The bridge is opening this fall, ahead of schedule.

I drove through Nags Head and turned into town, marveling at the golden sunset and the wild, artificial glow of a Wings Surf Shop. In the Outer Banks, the natural coexists with the artificial, like the grace of a heron as it flies over a miniature golf course.

Still, I appreciated the off-season quiet of the drive, locals wishing each other happy birthday on business signs, retired couples making a slow visit to a small post office. Beneath every tourist economy is a town’s old self – what’s left of its traditions and elders, its hospitality workers, the people who are left to pick up the pieces after a hurricane, or care for each other in the winter of a pandemic.

A driveway of sand in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, leads to a beach house next to Highway 12.
A driveway of sand in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, leads to a beach house next to Highway 12.

As I pulled into my lodging for the night, a tiny cottage underneath a live oak on the outskirts of Kitty Hawk, I thought about the layers of change and loss on islands like these, especially in a time of compound disasters, where both a pandemic and a changing climate press down on small communities.

“An economic-system based on unlimited development on mobile piles of sand doesn’t have a very bright future as we know it,” Riggs tells me. “At the present rate of change, North Carolina’s coastal system is looking at a possible one meter rise in sea level by 2100.” This increase is already well underway.

“We’ve built ourselves into a situation we can’t engineer our way out of,” he says with a sadness in his voice.

When I was younger, I played a part in a play about the Lost Colony, the doomed English settlement on Roanoke Island (every kid who grew up in eastern North Carolina probably did.) At the time, we marveled at how an entire village could just disappear.

These days, I am beginning to understand. The Outer Banks have seen waves of Indigenous inhabitants, violent colonization, fishing villages, tourism and intense development – all a struggle for power and resources in a mercurial natural environment.

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