PEA ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, N.C. (AP) — A year after Hurricane Irene, the only road linking most of North Carolina's fragile barrier islands doesn't look much worse than it did before the storm hit.
Regular Outer Banks vacationers traveling Highway 12 may notice only a prefab steel bridge one-eighth of a mile long within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the northern end of Hatteras Island. Workers needed six weeks after Irene's landfall in August 2011 to span a breach blown when the storm poked holes from Pamlico Sound to the Atlantic Ocean and cut the road in two.
Otherwise, Department of Transportation local engineer Jerry Jennings said, "the roadway itself is basically just like it was."
But big changes could be coming for N.C. Highway 12 before the next big storm arrives. Officials could alter access and aesthetics in the 5,000-acre federal refuge for birds and protected wildlife and Rodanthe, the first village reached by motorists driving south through the refuge. Others worry they could harm the environment.
Tired of repairing the road after overwash from each hurricane, the state wants to elevate about 5 miles of N.C. 12 onto pilings at some locations upward of 25 and 30 feet — reaching the heights of some dunes currently protecting the road from the ocean.
"It's not like we can build the same road in the same place and have a different result," said DOT spokeswoman Greer Beaty said.
Two bridges would replace the temporary bridge at the Pea Island breach and a stretch north of Rodanthe where workers repaired a breach with blacktop road. The post-Irene repairs here cost about $12 million. One of the bridge options at Rodanthe would actually send N.C. 12 west into the Pamlico Sound before re-entering the refuge.
The upgrades are in addition to the impending construction of the parallel replacement for the aging Bonner Bridge that takes N.C. 12 drivers over Oregon Inlet at the foot of the refuge to places like Nags Head and Kitty Hawk.
The projects are again pitting demands of safety and transportation needs with environmental protections and long-term ecological threats on North Carolina's coast. A state-sponsored science panel has warned sea levels could rise by more than 3 feet by 2100.
The proposed Rodanthe and Pea Island bridges could hamper access to parts of the refuge because motorists wouldn't be able to simply turn off portions of the road anymore to their favorite surfing or bird-sighting location. Some Rodanthe businesses sit in the path of one bridge option into the water that would also blemish magnificent sunsets on the Pamlico Sound.
"There's no question that this would take away the pleasure of what we're enjoying," said retiree Don Babin. He and wife Paula moved to the Mirlo Beach community at Rodanthe's northern end five years ago partly for the ability to see from his house sound and ocean separated by just hundreds of feet. A route would run through portions of Mirlo Beach. "I really, really feel that we are privileged to be here."
Environmental groups who've sued to try to prevent the Bonner Bridge replacement say the bridges being discussed are Band-Aids on lands being slowly eroded by the ocean. It would be cheaper over time, they say, to build one large span that bypasses the narrowest sections of the refuge rather than having to keep fixing N.C. 12.
Alternatives "would provide a more secure transportation route for the people of Hatteras Island and cost less in the long run for North Carolina citizens and cost less environmental damage for its citizens," said Julie Youngman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The biggest change to N.C. 12 would have come whether or not Irene had scraped the Outer Banks. The federal government in late 2010 signed off on the $216 million replacement for the aging Bonner Bridge, which opened in 1963. Construction may begin in early 2013 final permits are approved.
The current bridge and N.C. 12, which was paved in the 1950s, helped build the tourist economies of Hatteras Island's villages. While about 55,000 people live on the Outer Banks, those numbers reach 250,000 during the summer.
N.C. 12 and the bridge is "our lifeline. It's everything," said Beth Midgett, a Hatteras Island resident who led a local lobbying effort for the Bonner Bridge replacement. "It's the heart of our community."
The storm sped up DOT's timeline to retool N.C. 12 in the refuge and near the village of Rodanthe. The Pea Island bridge contract could be let by year's end. DOT is still deciding on the Rodanthe bridge route.
Youngman's clients, the Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Refuge Association, said DOT hasn't given alternatives to the three proposed bridges serious consideration.
One would replace the bridges with one 17-mile bridge bypassing Oregon Inlet and the refuge by jetting out into the sound and entering near Rodanthe. A fleet of high-speed ferries between the mainland and the island also should be considered, Youngman wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, urging it to deny a permit.
Mike Bryant, manager of Pea Island and five other federal refuges in eastern North Carolina, said transportation patterns are always changing on the island. An abandoned wooden bridge within the refuge is a reminder of a previous inlet now gone.
"This is a very dynamic environment, with the entire Atlantic Ocean lying up against a thin ribbon of sand," Bryant said.
Midgett said her ultimate goal is for her children and grandchildren to have a reliable way off the island.
"We have become a test case for climate change and its effect on the coast," she said, "but for us, it's a public safety issue."
Information on proposed N.C. 12 bridge construction: http://www.ncdot.gov/projects/bonnerbridgerepairs/