Sunday, December 8, 2013

Governor Jesse Helms


North Carolina includes a strip of barrier islands, the Outer Banks, which in some sections are so narrow as to allow both hurricanes and nor'easters to cut new channels through them. This has been the case since people recorded history, and a brief glance at the map history of the banks will reveal the opening and closing of many inlets through the years and decades. As recently as the 1860s there was a good sized town on Portsmouth Island, which received much of the shipping commerce from overseas, and included a large military hospital. In the late '50s or early '60s the last four residents of this town moved to the mainland, and the town became a ghost town, administered by the National Park Service. A similar story involves the town of Diamond City, a bit further south on the Banks near Cape Lookout.

The geology and evolution of the Outer Banks had been extensively studied by many scientists, including famously Dr. Orrin Pilkney, who wrote a major treatise on the geology of the Outer Banks quite some time ago:

Here's a picture of an inlet cut across Hatteras Island less than ten years ago (it's been repaired, but reveals a weak place on the island likely to be breached once again during a storm):

The fact that islands such as the Outer Banks are in constant if slow motion is not particularly new. Pilkney's book was published decades back. The Outer Banks have been inhabited for many centuries. As long as the inhabitants were hardy, resourceful folk who knew how to live on and with the water, the basic fact that their abode was in constant slow motion was not a particular problem. Libby and I lived for ten years on Ocracoke Island, the island below Hatteras in the Banks chain, and an island with no bridge to any other island or mainland. We came and went by state D.O.T. ferry. We rented a house built in the early 1800s in large part from salvaged wood cast up from ship wrecks. A termite guy told us that there were no termites, but evidence of departed ship worms. The house had been moved several times around the island, and owned by several different families over the course of its life. It was thought to be older than the Lighthouse, and after we moved its owner raised the house's foundation some six feet--a common renovation on the Banks.

While large sand dunes are a noticeable feature of the Banks, many of them are actually man-made structures created by engineers to protect the relatively recent establishment of paved roads--Highway 12--down the Banks. Native "Ocockers" remembered the days of no roads to the Hatteras Inlet ferry--one drove up the beach on the beach, or rode a horse. There was a famous local song still sung by oldtimers called the "Booze Yacht," about a shipwreck full of whiskey, and how the locals plundered it--such a wonderful piece of luck that it was then memorialized in song.

For people who went out to the Banks in the '60s and earlier, one very memorable feature of the adventure was the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were always fierce and hungry. I took a trip one day to Portsmouth Island, and found that still quite true there--the things would pierce through bluejeans. I'm sure quite a few would-be cottage builders were discouraged by the mosquitoes, as well as the occasional storms and the fact that until recent days most of the Banks was "dry," thus requiring a day-trip to the Nags Head liquor store.

No doubt starting in the post World War II era many developers eyed the Banks with great interest. In 1963 the Bonner Bridge was build across Oregon Inlet, which separates Hatteras from Nags Head. At the same time, spraying for mosquitoes commenced in earnest. I've heard many stories of children running gleefully behind the spray trucks on a summer's day. By the '90s, Avon, one of the little communities on Hatteras Island, sported a Food Lion. When we were living on Ocracoke, starting in 1995, the cheapest "house" we found for sale was a rotting trailer on one of the worst parcels of land on the island, low and swampy with questionable water and septic. It was for sale for about $100,000. This was why we rented.

As Dr. Pilkney and many others have noted, barrier sand islands are moving. Wind and water constantly move the sand. Up on Nags Head there is a famous natural sand dune named Jockey's Ridge. It is growing measurably smaller because much of the sand to the windward of the dune is now buried under asphalt, shopping centers, and beach houses. The Bonner Bridge is being washed out from below by the same natural processes, and just this month inspections discovered so much erosion of sand under some of the bridge supports that, in alarm, the DOT abruptly closed the bridge for safety reasons.

Our new Republican Governor, Pat McCrory, rushed down to "inspect" the Bonner Bridge this past week. He announced afterwards that the closure was the "fault" of an environment group, the Southern Environment Law Center, who was suing the state concerning the design of the bridge to replace the aging and failing Bonner span. McCrory invoked "leftist elitism" in his press conference, a theme oddly present in right wing rhetoric almost instantly:

I don't care to quote Reverend Creech, but feel free to read what he has to say. One might wonder, however, how the price tag for the favored environmentally sound bridge stacks up against repeated repairs of a bridge placed in the Oregon Inlet and subject to the same tidal erosion that is destroying the Bonner Bridge. Not to mention, of course, the pretty much constant costs involved in keeping open a highway capable of servicing hundreds of thousands of two-wheel-drive family vehicles when such a highway runs down a narrow, low strip of sand placed in the middle of a rising Atlantic Ocean--a strip so narrow that (as I can personally attest), one can see both the breakers and the sound at the same time.

With our fresh new Republican government here in NC, factual truth is being replaced with political rhetoric. The facts haven't changed. And underneath all the Limbovian style gibberish about "left-leaning intellectual elites at Chapel Hill," the Banks just keep moving. It is said that the Republicans always represent money, and little else. It used to be that on issues as close to home as the Outer Banks, there was quite a bit of common ground. Nobody wanted off shore drilling, for example. But underneath the immediate issue of the Bonner Bridge, this new administration dreams of oil and gas monies ripe for the picking just off the Banks. Why not, then, use a fresh problem for the new tenants of the Banks--people who mostly imagined living on a spit of sand in the middle of the ocean could be more or less the same as living in Ohio or Connecticut--to build support for off shore drilling, via discrediting the environmentalists who continue to see the facts about the Outer Banks aright.

Here's a link to the Southern Environment Law Center's position on the proposed new bridge:

Here's the letter they sent to Governor McCrory after he blamed the SELC for the bridge closure!

Kinda reminds me of how the House Republicans blamed the Democrats for the Federal Government shutdown a couple of months back.


The State DOT head is one Tony Tata. He was, before being appointed by Governor McCrory to this position, fired by the Wake County School Board:

According to members on the board who voted to fire him:

...Democratic members said that Tata had been a polarizing force as the board worked to bridge its partisan divide.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” an emotional Christine Kushner, one of three new Democratic board members that Tata had feuded with, said after the vote. “I truly believe we have reached an internal breaking point.”

Fellow Democratic board member Susan Evans said Tata ultimately failed to get the board, administration and his office working smoothly together.

“It wasn’t in specific areas,” Evans said. “It was concerns about the total collaborative relationship.”

Tata's appointment by McCrory was viewed in part as a response to the Wake School Board situation, which was divided on Party lines. Tata's response to the Bonner Bridge closure was in keeping with his reputation, as he remarked that the Southern Environmental Law group were "latte drinking elites." But one has to wonder about using the term "elites" in a context involving million dollar beach houses.


Update 2:

General Tata and Mr. Carter were given the opportunity to talk live to each other about the Bonner Bridge closing yesterday on WUNC-FM's "State of Things" radio program:

Give a listen. Strikes me that Mr. Carter has been focused on the problem of the bridge and the erosion of Hatteras for about two decades, whereas General Tata, on the job for about 11 months after his dismissal from the Raleigh School Board, is leaping to an immediate problem, and is refusing to look at the larger picture and, in fact, is using the difficulties which folks on Hatteras are facing at the moment as a way to force the outcome he and the McCrory Administration happen to want. He most particularly ignores the fact that the northern ten miles or so of Hatteras, above the village of Rodanthe, have been washing out with frequency, which is another way of closing the Bonner Bridge even if strictly speaking there's nothing wrong, per se, with the bridge itself. Give a listen to the conversation. Mr. Stacio and UNC-FM deserve a big Huzzah! for putting this conversation on the air. Of course the Republican Party aims if it can to entirely defund public radio. That way folks won't get to hear such conversations, and the authoritarians can get to do what they want easier. No doubt they would say, "and that'll be cheaper for you 47%-ers anyways."

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