CAPE LOOKOUT — Hurricane Dorian in early September cut more than 50 new inlets through North Core Banks, and Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said Thursday it’s going to be a long time before the fragile banks return to anything like normal.
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” Mr. West said. “This week we’ve been getting high tides and swells from Hurricane Lorenzo offshore and that’s given us quite a bit of additional flow.
“Some of these new inlets are passable (by pedestrians and vehicles) out at their mouths, where they meet the ocean, but some are still very deep on the back (sound side) of the islands.”
One of the new inlets, near mile marker 9, is 9 feet deep at times – navigable – and Mr. West said boaters are using it to get to and from Core Sound and the ocean.
“We’re just going to take it week by week and keep looking at what’s going on,” Mr. West said.
“We’ve opened it all (the whole seashore) for private vessels, and we’re hoping to get some limited access for ferry service (from Morris Marina in Atlantic) for vehicles soon. But we’re urging anyone who comes over to be very cautious.”
He’s particularly concerned some boaters might pull up at one place at low tide, then move around on land and not be able to get back to their boats at high tide.
“Everyone should just be very careful and pay attention to what’s going on,” he said.
Although these kinds of inlet-cutting events are not unheard of – an unnamed hurricane in 1933 did much the same thing, Mr. West said – this a unique situation in the history of Cape Lookout since it became a part of the National Park Service and ferry services began bringing large numbers of visitors, many of whom are not as familiar with the banks as area residents.
“We get ocean over wash (from storms), but this wasn’t over wash,” Mr. West said. “There was such a huge volume of water moving down from Pamlico Sound that it just blew out the back of the islands in places. It was really unusual.”
Greg Rudolph, manager of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, agreed.
He said a friend who lives on Ocracoke Island called him Sept. 6 as Hurricane Dorian moved past and told him another friend had called from Rodanthe, farther north up the Outer Banks, to tell him Pamlico Sound was bone dry, a “mud flat,” with all the water pushed out by the hurricane.
From that call, Mr. Rudolph said Thursday, it was obvious to him that portions of Core Banks were going to take a major hit from Dorian, because the water was going to come back and head south and west when the wind shifted after the western eyewall of the storm, near the shore, moved on.
Still, Mr. Rudolph doubts any of the North Core Banks inlets, save maybe one or two, will be permanent.
They usually fill in pretty fast, he said.
“My advisor at East Carolina University when I was in school, (renowned coastal geologist Dr.) Stan Riggs, said they shouldn’t be called ‘inlets,’ they should be called ‘outlets,’” he said.
On a macro level, Mr. Rudolph said, this isn’t an unusual occurrence for low-lying barrier islands during a hurricane.
“It’s par for the course,” he said. “That water has to get out, and that’s what it does. It’s the way the system works. It finds a way.”
On a micro level, in Carteret County, Mr. Rudolph said, it is almost unprecedented. But, he added that’s what happens when so much water gets pushed from Pamlico Sound and Core Sound, essentially forming an inland sea, almost unique in the U.S. to North Carolina.
“It’s one thing when water gets pushed around in the small sounds we have in the southern part of the coast,” he said. “It’s another when it’s ‘Pamlico Ocean.’”
Meanwhile, Mr. West said he’s been very pleased by the progress made to repair infrastructure and structures within the seashore.
“We had a lot of help from all over the country,” he said.
Initial reports after Dorian indicated 38 historic structures at the seashore’s Portsmouth Village on South Core Banks, the former home of many Carteret County residents and their ancestors, sustained some kind of flood or wind-related damages.
Those have now been stabilized and cleaned out, Mr. West said, but will remain closed for the rest of 2019.
The National Park Service Incident Management Team demobilized last week. The team began its response to Hurricane Dorian Sept. 3, two days before the Category 1 storm made landfall around Cape Hatteras, and has planned for and worked on stabilization efforts at Cape Lookout since then.
According to an update Wednesday, it’s still risky to travel on North Core Banks.
If someone’s out there and gets hurt, “Emergency Response will be difficult, with long response times. Travel North Core beaches at your own risk!,” reads the website for the seashore.
The Long Point Cabin area remains closed to the public, and park staff and support services will not be available for the rest of the year. There is no bath house, and restrooms. Water, ice, fuel or any of the regular amenities available until further notice.
North Core, South Core, and Shackleford Banks are, however, open for day use and camping, according to the website, and South Core Banks is open to all visitors for beach driving and vehicle camping.
Water has been restored to South Core Banks and Shackleford Banks. All restrooms, water-fill stations and rinse-off showers on those islands are functional.
Additionally, according to the Cape Lookout website:
• Great Island Cabin Camp is open, with hours of operation from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.
• The Keepers Quarters Museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
• The Light Station Visitor Center is open those same hours.
• Due to the new inlets that have formed across the natural barrier island, many of which are only passable at low tide, there (are) only about 10 miles of accessible beach from an area called Chadwick Cut to the south of the ferry drop-off to Swash Inlet at Ramp 9.
The website warns visitors to check weather forecasts, ocean tide charts and prepare any equipment for isolated beach travel ahead of any trip. Visitors should also watch out for storm debris, prepare by bringing water and food and plan to pack out all trash.
Although the damage from Dorian occurred just after Labor Day, the end of peak tourism season along the North Carolina coast, Mr. West said he realizes it was an inopportune time for businesses in Down East Carteret County that depend on the seashore.
Fishermen and campers flood the area in the fall, usually through October and through mid-November, and the storm will cut some of that traffic.
He said he hopes NPS efforts to repair damage will draw visitors late in the fishing season.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.