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Unseasonable storm shook the East Coast

With the beginning of hurricane season this weekend, here's a look back at a major storm that took the east coast by surprise. The Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 affected many parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Later that year, historian and author David Stick provided The N&O with an account of the storm and a look back at how the state has dealt with effects of storms on the state's coastline.

Many of us living on the Outer Banks still find it hard to believe that the Ash Wednesday storm of this year was a nightmare we actually witnessed.

On March 6th, had we thought about storms at all, we would have felt secure. The expenditure of millions of dollars in money and hundreds of thousands of man hours in labor, over a period of a quarter of a century, had paid off in the construction of a high, wide and stabilized barrier dune along most of our coast.

But on the morning of March 7th many of us were awakened by hurricane intensity winds lashing from the northeast. Huge waves, fetching hundreds of miles across the stormy seas, were expending themselves against our shores in a final burst of thunderous anger.

Already the sudsy spindrift was banked against the beach grass in back of the dunes, and a person watching closely could see the first tentacles of foam-capped water sneaking through the sand valleys.

In a matter of minutes, for mile after mile along these Banks, the barrier dunes were breached. In many places, in the brief interval, the dunes simply disintegrated. Cottages, perched on the crest of those dunes, fell overboard. Others, facing the full fury of the breaking waves, were torn asunder.

Almost everywhere the flow of water over the beach was inundating roads and undermining low lying buildings, forming a vast new inland sea between the ocean and the sound. Within an hour much of the work of a quarter of a century was undone....

When the first Carolina proprietary settlements were attempted on Colington Island in 1664, the vessels supplying that plantation entered the sounds through Roanoke Inlet, which was located just north of the modern-day Roanoke Sound Bridge. During the early colonial period, as the settlement spread out along the shores and tributaries of Albemarle Sound, this Roanoke Inlet remained the main port of entry for the colony.

Early in the 18th century, however, the waters which had been coming down the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers to Albemarle Sound, and then through Roanoke Sound and out Roanoke Inlet to the ocean, gradually began to be diverted to the west of Roanoke Island. As this change took place Roanoke Inlet began to close, while the channels through Croatan Sound and Ocracoke Inlet increased in size.

Thus Roanoke Inlet disappeared and Ocracoke Inlet became the main port of entry during the late colonial period and the early years of statehood. But that was not to last either, for in 1846 a new inlet opened just 14 miles east of Ocracoke Inlet, and fifteen years later when the Civil War came to the Outer Banks this new Hatteras Inlet had become the most important on the coast.-- The News & Observer 7/29/62

In 1999, following Hurricane Dennis, writer James Eli Shiffer took a modern-day look at the shifting shape of the coast and its inlets.

Dennis wasn't the first storm to punch a hole through Hatteras Island between Buxton and Avon. The Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 drilled an inlet big enough that a temporary bridge was needed to connect the two parts of the island.

The bridge stayed for about two years, while residents dumped old cars and trash to try to fill it, said Stan Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University and barrier islands expert. Eventually the Army Corps of Engineers filled it with sand.

Still, the sea has washed over that skinny stretch of an already slender Hatteras Island at least twice since then. Its location at the island's elbow makes it a prime spot for the storm surge of Pamlico Sound to wash up and break through. "The water piles up in the corner, " Riggs said.

But whether the inlet remains depends on its size, he said.

"I bet it was just an overwash that happened to be a little bit deep. If that's the case, it will never stay there as an inlet. It will be gone in a second, as soon as wave action does its thing. To maintain an inlet, you have to have depth and current flow. It has to be a greater flow in and out of that thing than you have from wave energy."

Inlets play a vital role in the dynamic landscape of barrier islands. They create a flow of sand that helps islands migrate landward as the sea level rises. They also allow the ocean and rivers to mix, creating the brackish estuaries that are vital for fish spawning.

Inlets have also proven vital in North Carolina's history. The state's development in the 18th century depended on shipping through Ocracoke Inlet.

But inlets are fickle things. When Ocracoke Inlet shoaled up in the 19th century, the thriving village of Portsmouth became a ghost town.

Since Europeans started mapping North Carolina's coast, 26 named inlets have appeared on the Outer Banks north of Hatteras village, according to Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University coastal geologist. Now there's only one - Oregon Inlet, which was carved by a storm in 1846.

"They're like corks that pop every time there's a storm, " Pilkey said. -- The N&O 9/2/1999

The Washington Post reported on the 50th anniversary of the storm with tons of links to photos and videos from the other states affected. Check it out here.

Photos of Ash Wednesday storm damage along the North Carolina Outer Banks

Mail boat linked the Outer Banks to the rest of the world

In 1948, writer Charles S. Killebrew gave readers of The News & Observer this account of life in the state’s remote coastal towns.

Every morning of the year about 10 o’clock there can be seen chugging into the docks of Atlantic, N.C., an insignificant-looking little boat about 40 feet long, and painted white and orange. To anyone who doesn’t know, it appears to be just another of the fishing boats which ply the waters of the Core and Pamlico sounds, but to the people who live in that area, it means mail and freight from Ocracoke, situated on the Outer Banks and accessible only by boat or airplane.

The little craft, christened the Aleta, has been in use for well over 20 years.

The small craft is met each day by groups of persons who have gathered on the docks out of pure curiosity or because they might be expecting freight from the banks. Also perhaps they are expecting a friend because the mail boat also carries passengers.

The Aleta makes connections with commercial bus lines both on arrival and departure from the mainland, and its drivers are on hand to take care of the passengers’ baggage at the docks.

When the boat docks, a door in the side of the engine room opens, and Captain George F. O’Neal begins putting the baggage, mail and freight ashore. Captain O’Neal is a man of 58 years, small stature, and with a brogue so thick you can cut it with a knife. His hair is snow white, and his face is browned from the wind and sun.

The mail boat makes a round trip to the mainland each day with the first leg beginning from Silver Lake on Ocracoke Island at 6 o’clock in the morning, and the return trip starting as soon after 1 o’clock in the afternoon as the mail arrives. As soon as the mail is aboard, Captain O’Neal “gets her under way” and that is all you see of him until the boat docks at Ocracoke in Silver Lake, the natural boat basin on the island.

The engine room is on the same deck with the passengers’ cabin, but Captain O’Neal closes the door to the engine room and all that is heard from the room is the incessant roar of the powerful diesel engine which pushes the boat.

Captain O’Neal says that he has carried almost everything in the freight line. “Why, only last week,” he says, “I carried three sheep to Atlantic from Ocracoke. I just tied them to the rail on top of the passengers’ cabin and they didn’t bother anybody,” he continued.

The passengers’ cabin is small and seats 10 or 12 persons comfortably. O’Neal says that the only restriction on the number of passengers he can carry is that there must be a life vest for each person aboard. He said that on one trip he had 60 women aboard. “They were all over everything,” he grinned.

The mail route, one of the few left in the country today, is a star route and is secured by sealed bid for the government contract. The contract is for four years. O’Neal’s contract expires this year.

The Aleta makes two mail and passenger stops to and from the mainland. The first stop going towards Ocracoke is at Cedar Island, which boasts two post offices and a total of 280 inhabitants. The second stop is Portsmouth Island, on which 15 persons live. In each case the mailman brings the mail to the Aleta by skiff. If there are any passengers to embark, the postman brings them also.

According to O’Neal, the mail boat goes every day of the year, and he misses only two or three trips each year, these being because of storms.

He is very proud of the fact that he has never had to be towed in by the Coast Guard, and strange as it may seem, on several occasions he has towed in Coast Guard boats.

When asked if the two four-hour, 30-mile trips each day became monotonous, Captain O’Neal just smiled and showed a twinkle in his eye which seemed to say that no one becomes tired of the sea when they love it as much as he. – The N&O, 2/1/1948

[Photos courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center, Aycock Brown Collection]

US 64 drawbridge fix will force detour for OBX travelers

View Alligator River drawbridge detour in a larger map

If you’re planning a drive to the Outer Banks, you might want to get going soon – before they close the drawbridge into Dare County.4/2/13 update: The U.S. 64 bridge is now closed until April 14.

The U.S. 64 bridge across the Alligator River will be shut down for 12 days, starting Tuesday, April 2, for repairs to a cranky old drawbridge that pivots open for tugboats, fishing vessels and yachts traveling down the Intracoastal Waterway.

There are no quick alternate routes. Beachgoers should prepare for a longer slog that will add at least 30 miles to the journey.

The state Department of Transportation plans in a few years to rebuild the entire 2.8-mile bridge across the Alligator River as part of a $277 million project to widen 16 miles of U.S. 64. But engineers say they dare not wait that long to replace worn-out components that frequently cause trouble for the drawbridge section. ... [MORE]

McCrory declares state of emergency for NC 12 on Outer Banks

Rodanthe 3/9/13

Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Tuesday for N.C. 12 in Dare County, a move aimed at speeding up the state’s effort to shore up a fragile road frequently closed in recent weeks because of ocean overwash.

The state Department of Transportation is seeking permits for beach renourishment and dune construction at the S-Curves area near Rodanthe on Hatteras Island. DOT plans to use $20.8 million in federal emergency funds related to damage caused last fall by Hurricane Sandy.

Meanwhile, the department has long-range plans to elevate more than four miles of N.C. 12 on bridges high above the surf.

“The people there have real concerns about the road they depend on to get to work, school or medical appointments,” McCrory said. “They need a highway that is not forced to close every time a storm approaches.”

Rough seas close NC 12 several places between Kitty Hawk and Hatteras

Rodanthe 3/9/13

This looks like a beautiful weekend for a drive to the coast -- but maybe the wrong time to try the Outer Banks. NCDOT said that ocean overwash Saturday morning had closed NC 12, the Outer Banks highway, in several spots up and down the shoreline. (Saturday 1pm update: NCDOT says NC 12 has reopened, but more overwash and repeated closings are possible at high tide Saturday evening and over the next few days.)

The closings early Saturday were located at :

* at Kitty Hawk,

* just south of the tempory steel bridge on Pea Island, built across the new inlet created by Hurricane Irene in 2011,

* at the S-turns at Mirlo Beach, on the north end of Rodanthe, also the site of big breaches by Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012, and

* in Buxton. And there's more overwash in Hatteras today, so there could be additional road closures later.

Looks like a good place to keep up with this is NCDOT's Facebook page, which has several updates with photos taken Saturday. Also check out the NCDOT Highway 12 Twitter feed.

NCDOT halts ferry service across sand-clogged Hatteras Inlet

View NC 12 & NC Ferry Routes in a larger map

The state Department of Transportation Ferry Division says heavy shoaling in Hatteras Inlet has forced it to halt the hourly ferry runs between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

A fourth daily run will be added starting Saturday to the Pamlico Sound ferry route that links Ocracoke to Swan Quarter. On the Swan Quarter and the Ocracoke-Cedar Island routes, DOT will waive ferry tolls for Ocracoke residents and "vendors carrying necessary goods and commodities," the Ferry Division said.

Heavy loads of sand have made the inlet channel so shallow in recent weeks that ferry runs were suspended each day for a few hours around the low-tide mark (see 1/18/13 story). ... [MORE]

The memorial that wasn't

Reginald A. Fessenden, the radio pioneer known as the "father of voice radio," conducted some of his experiments on North Carolina's outer banks, earning a place along side the Wright Brothers as inventors claimed by the state.

Professor Fessenden is credited with the perfection of continuous wave telegraph. His messages in 1902 between Roanoke Island and Hatteras represented the longest two-way wireless telephone communication up to that time. Later, he successfully bridged the Atlantic with two-way radio communication, and made the first broadcast in radio history.

He is credited with over 500 patents, and these include many pioneer inventions. His successes were dimmed by litigations. For nearly 30 years his achievements were ignored, and not until 1928, until court after court had upheld his claim, did he reap some financial reward for his inventions.

In 1926, citizens of Dare county, seeking to further recognize their history, started a program to create a monument to the Wrights at Kill Devil Hills, and one to Fessenden on Roanoke Island. For lack of sufficient data on Fessenden, plans for his memorial was postponed.

... Fessenden moved to Bermuda and died in 1932. Mrs. Helen M. Fessenden published his biography in 1940. Once again the citizens of Dare County got in touch with the Fessenden family ... and asked the approval of the family that a national memorial to the inventor be in North Carolina.

Hardly had Mrs. Fessenden given her approval ... than she was stricken with a heart attack and died in April of this year. -- The News & Observer 8/16/1941

In 1941, the Fessenden National Memorial Association was organized, and that summer, a ceremony was held on Roanoke Island to dedicate its efforts. Writer Ben Dixon MacNeill captured the scene:

This island which has had a ringside seat at three and a half centuries of history-making moved a mighty epoch out from under the shadow of more noted epochs this afternoon, and so was begun the rendering of due honor to Reginald A. Fessenden who four decades ago sent from this island the first transmission of the human voice by wireless telephone.

George Gordon Battle, come home from New York back to the scenes where his childhood Summers were passed, described the epoch as "the last mighty link in the cycle of human communication that began when man first rode an animal or floated on a log." In eloquent peroration he challenged Americans to preserve and rededicate the ideals of the pioneer that brought these implements of civilization into being.

Very nearly forgotten by the world in the glamorous shadow of Kill Devil Hill, where men found wings, and within the shadow of the Lost Colony, where English civilization found rebirth, were worked out the first experiments that flowered into the miracle of radio. And to the island this afternoon came a goodly company of those who remembered to do honor at last to the man who began the miracle.

Those attending the program were Governor Broughton, who was making his first trip to the Outer Banks, the widow of Thomas Edison's son, "who happened to pass by the island on a vacation cruise while the Fessenden experiments were underway and remained here two years with her late husband," and others who helped with the experiments.

Beside these there were many old timers on the island, or they rate as old timers now. They knew the Fessendens and the Edisons and Marconi when they were all here. ...

It was the sheriff's idea that came into flower this afternoon with the celebration and dedication. It has been tugging away at him for years and years ever since the Wright Memorial reared its glorious head above the crest of Kill Devil. -- The News & Observer 8/25/1941

But the enthusiasm for the proposed memorial was not shared throughout the state. The News & Observer's Under the Dome column raised some questions about the plan:

While private contributors are being asked to sink $100,000 into a memorial to the late Reginald A. Fessenden on Roanoke Island, where officials yesterday whooped it up for the famous inventor, there are a lot of questions arising in the minds of persons farther from the scene.

In the first place, some are asking why Roanoke Island, where the inventor brushed up a system he already had devised elsewhere, should be the spot for a high-priced memorial to a Canadian whose activities took him all over the country. Some would like to know who now owns the equipment which was sold at auction after Fessenden left Roanoke in a huff following a quarrel with the U. S. Weather Bureau. They also would like to know how much of that $100,000 those owners would ask for that equipment to be placed on display in a memorial. -- The News & Observer 8/25/1941

As it turned out, the Fessenden memorial never quite got off the ground. According to the Outer Banks History Center, maintained by the State Archives of North Carolina, the Association, led by the Dare County sheriff Victor Meekins, had plans well underway by 1963, but when Meekins died in 1964, the group became inactive. Despite an attempt by Meekin's son to resurrect the group, the land set aside for the memorial was transferred to the Roanoke Island Historical Association in 1980.

Above, Reginald Fessenden, seated, and his staff (inlcuding Mike "The Wireless Cat") at Brant Rock, MA station. Top, Fessenden's wireless station on Cape Hatteras. Photos courtesy of the NC State Archives.

It's getting harder to get on and off Hatteras Island

Sandy-destroyed sandbags no longer protect NC 12 at Mirlo Beach and RodantheNCDOT has announced weight and other limits for 4-wheel-drive vehicles that will be allowed to drive north from Rodanthe through Pea Island to the mainland, and it has reduced the emergency ferry schedule that provides the other mainland connection for Hatteras Island. [5pm update: The 4WD access will be closed Thursday from 9am to 4pm.]

Meanwhile, NCDOT engineers are trying to figure out how they will repair and reopen the regular link, N.C. 12, that was overwashed and undermined by Hurricane Sandy a month ago. (See today's story with reader comments.) One option being considered is a temporary steel bridge just north of Rodanthe, like one erected last fall after Hurricane Irene, farther north on Pea Island.

One way to keep up with these developments is to check out a new NCDOT blog called Rebuilding NC12 (  ... [MORE]

NC 12 on Hatteras Island won't reopen before Thanksgiving

S-Curves NC12 looking south toward RodantheRough weather has delayed repairs to storm-damaged N.C. 12, and the state Department of Transportation says the road will not be reopened before Thanksgiving for traffic to Hatteras Island.

“Unfortunately NCDOT crews have been at the mercy of the weather, and we are not where we want to be in terms of reopening N.C. 12,” said Jerry Jennings, who oversees DOT operations in Dare and 13 other northeastern counties.  “With recent weather conditions and another forecasted Nor’easter on the way, we will be unable to fully reopen N.C. 12 by Thanksgiving, but are working with the Ferry Division to accommodate the demands of holiday travelers.”

DOT has allowed four-wheel-drive vehicles to travel during daylight hours along the damaged roadway -- through sand, standing water and broken pavement -- on Pea Island and the northern end of Hatteras Island. But storm overwash closed that access several times this week. More stormy weather is in the forecast, and DOT said four-wheel-drive access might be limited to low-tide times.

Emergency ferry service continues between Stumpy Point on the mainland and Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, and DOT has expanded the schedule for its regular ferry from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke. New Dare County webcams show how many vehicles are waiting to board the ferries at Stumpy Point and Rodanthe.

With dunes out of the way, surf's up on N.C. 12

Rodanthe 8am Nov 14

DOT engineer Pablo Hernandez shot this photo, and others, around 8am today  to show why the N.C. 12 corridor on Pea Island is again closed for the 4WD vehicles that had begun driving through here last weekend. (Time stamp that says it was shot 5:44pm yesterday is in error, Hernandez says.)

On Oct. 28, Hurricane Sandy wiped out the tall, man-made dune and sandbags that NCDOT rebuilds every year or two in an effort to protect this most vulnerable stretch of the Outer Banks highway, just north of Rodanthe.

With this week's rough seas, there's nothing between the Atlantic and the asphalt. And in the background, the northernmost dozen or so Mirlo Beach houses are in the surf, too.

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