Love-hate relationship with road just life on N.C. coast

N.C. Dept. of Transportation helicopter pilots Ray Edwards (left) and Terry Carlyle stand on the edge of a washed out N.C. Highway 12 about eight miles south of the Bonner Bridge in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge of the Outer Banks, N.C., on Monday.

RALEIGH -- There is probably no other road like it in America.

North Carolina Highway 12, a thin strip of asphalt on top of sand, bends into the Atlantic Ocean, connecting most of the Outer Banks with the mainland. It floods easily and washes away during hurricanes, leaving some to question whether it is worth pouring millions of dollars of repairs into such a vulnerable road. Some have suggested building a long bridge instead.

Irene took several big bites out of the highway, including one chunk that was nearly 160-feet long.

"It's a love-hate relationship, really," Kurt Kessler, who lives on Hatteras Island, said on a Facebook chat because he didn't have either cell phone or landline service after Irene hit almost a week ago. "12 is our main artery and we want to protect it. But again, we hate that we rely so heavily on it. This is one of those times you hate the fragile nature of Highway 12, but what are you going to do, you know? It comes with the territory."

Without Highway 12, the only way to get to Hatteras and most of the other nearby barrier islands would be by boat. The island is still not open to tourists, though the governor has said transportation officials would come up with a short-term solution for access by next week. The 140 mile-long road winds its way past unspoiled seashore as well as through villages packed with surf shops and hotels, and the black-and-white striped Hatteras Lighthouse.

Hurricane Irene carved out several breaches in all, including two gaps that are new free-flowing inlets more than 120 feet.

About 55,000 people live in the Outer Banks, which stretches south from the Virginia state line to Ocracoke Island.

It's hard to say how many tourists visit each year. But in the summer, tourism officials say there are 250,000 visitors in any given week.

The state transportation agency believes it's too late for a long bridge. Instead, they've decided to replace the short Bonner Bridge, which had a projected lifespan of 30 years when it was built in 1962, and continue to repair Highway 12 as needed.

Gov. Beverly Perdue agreed.

"There are going to be those around the country saying 'why are you investing in that road again?' Until we can find a better way to move people on and off there, they're North Carolina citizens. They pay their taxes, and they've got to have a highway or road or bridge to travel on the same as the rest of us," she said.