North Carolina’s mobile Outer Banks and its new, immovable Bonner Bridge

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999. Image from International Chimney Corporation website

The iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse no longer sits on the ground on which it was built in 1870. Under threat from the encroaching sea, the 210 ft., 5,000 ton masonry structure was moved in 1999 about 2800 feet southwest from its original location. Masonry buildings, when shaken (during earthquakes, for example) tend to come apart along mortar lines, or even fall completely to pieces. So it isn’t easy to move them safely.

International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo NY and Expert House Movers of MD Inc., were awarded the moving contract. The job was carried out successfully; not a single brick was dislodged during the operation. The lighthouse is now about a third of a mile from tide water, distant enough, it’s hoped, to keep it safe from the sea until at least the end of this century. In recognition of the difficulties involved in moving the structure, the two company’s jointly won the American Society of Civil Engineers 40th Annual Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

The following map shows the location of the lighthouse before it had to be moved:

Map showing shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras NC
History of shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina (map also shows pre-1999 location of the lighthouse). Image: pubs.usgs.gov (paper 1177-B)

To visit the lighthouse up close, drive south from Bodie Island on Highway 12. The H. Bonner Bridge carries the road across Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. The economic life of Hatteras Island depends on it. By early next year, the new Bonner Bridge will be ready to take over from the old one.

Aerial photo ofOregon Inlet and old H.Bonner Bridge, Outer Banks NC
Oregon Inlet and the old H. Bonner Bridge. Photo taken from above Pamlico Sound looking east towards the Atlantic. Image: usgs.gov

Built in 1963 with a life expectancy of 30 years, the old Bonner bridge is in danger of falling down. The new bridge (due to open for traffic early next year) is built to last 100 years according to the designers, HDR Inc., an engineering company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The bridge is built on shifting sand, so that longevity claim is based on the company’s confidence in their engineering abilities. Domenic Coletti, HDR design manager, quoted in the company’s website, said this:

To our knowledge, no one has previously designed and built a [bridge] foundation where piles had to be jetted and driven through nearly 140 feet of soil [sand] in a way that still provided adequate capacity [stability] after 84 feet of scour occurs.” 

SCOUR is the anticipated tearing away of the sand around the support piles due to ocean currents in the inlet.

Photo of the old and the new H. Bonner Bridges, Outer Banks, North Carolina
The old and the new H. Bonner Bridges crossing the Oregon Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image from The Outer Banks Voice, 13/11/2018. Photo by Bob Moris

But consider this: although the new bridge may very well last 100 yeas, how many years will the inlet over which the bridge crosses remain in its present location?After all, storms have opened and closed numerous inlets along the Outer Banks since records began in the 16th century. A hurricane formed the Oregon Inlet in 1846. Another one could close it. The steady migration of the Outer Banks over time, may also cause problems. Here’s part of an October 16 email I sent to Pablo Hernandez, Resident Engineer, NCDOT, asking about that matter:

According to the US Geological Survey, the Outer Banks have historically migrated south at the rate of 60 to 70 feet per year, a process that sea level rise may speed up. This suggests that in 20 or 30 years, the Oregon Inlet may no longer be where it is now, thus leaving the new bridge without a function. I’m wondering what actions DOT plan to take to avoid such an outcome?” 

No answer yet. My guess is that the Army Corps of Engineers will be kept busy dredging the channel for the indefinite future. What other solution is there? Unlike a lighthouse, a bridge can’t be moved. When Mr. Hernandez gets back to me I’ll update this post.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks showing location of Cape Hatteras lighthouse and Oregon Inlet. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

When will North Carolina’s loathsome CAFOs be shut down?

Much of North Carolina’s eastern half lies within the continent’s coastal plain. Rivers flowing from the Appalachian foothills onto the plain, slow down and become sluggish. That makes them prone to flooding, particularly during and after the storms and hurricanes that blow in from the Atlantic carrying heavy loads of rain. The widespread flooding caused by last September’s Hurricane Florence is a good example.

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This soggy, low-lying land is home to about 2,200 industrial pig farms. Known in the trade as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the waste (pig shit) from these factory farms is not treated in any way, rather it is flushed into open pits (called lagoons) and eventually sprayed onto surrounding land, or, in the event of flooding, distributed far from its source by way of creeks and rivers. Each year, about 18 million tons of liquid pig shit (laced with pharmaceutical residues) are released into the environment from the state’s more than nine million pigs.

Pig farm sheds and lagoons
Pig farm (CAFO) sheds and lagoons. Image: Sierra Club

Most of North Carolina’s pig farms are located in the southeastern part of the state, with the heaviest concentration centred in and around Duplin and Samson Counties. This has created a life-threatening pollution problem for the people living in the area.

Map of North Carolina showing distribution of hog farms on coastal plain
North Carolina showing distribution of CAFOs. Coastal plain lies east of the blue line. Map by Steve Wing, UNC-Chapel Hill

A recent study by J. Kravchenco and others, published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, October 2018 (vol.79 no 5 287-288), concerning health risks to humans living near pig farms, has this to say:

“North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants. . . . Among North Carolina communities, including both high-income and low-income communities, the lowest life expectancy was observed in southeastern North Carolina. . . . The residents living in close proximity to hog CAFOs . . . are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied wastes and their overland flows, leaking lagoons, and pit-buried carcasses, as well as airborne emissions, resulting in higher risks of certain diseases. In fact, previous survey-based studies of residential communities reported significant health risks for residents, including higher risks of bacterial infections, higher frequencies of symptoms of respiratory and neurological disorders, and depression.”

To say that CAFOs stink is an under statement. Here’s Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, Duplin Co., speaking about what it’s like when spraying starts at the pig farm near her home:

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.” — quote from The Guardian, May 2018

Why do the human inhabitants of the region put up with being rained on by animal faecal matter to the point of dying prematurely? No need to look further than North Carolina’s 2018 Farm Bill recently passed into law by the Republican controlled legislature. While the bill allows pollution from pig farms to continue unabated, it, in effect, prohibits citizens from challenging the polluters in court. The focus is on protecting the $2.9 billion industry and its owners from interference by the citizens. The citizens need for protection from the industry’s filthy practices is not even considered. Yuck! Living downwind from certain politicians can really stink. North Carolina’s hog industry is run by Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Sufferers from pig farm pollution are not the only people that have it in for the industry. Animal rights groups are also out to get them. If the farm operators were discovered treating dogs the way they treat pigs, they’d be in court facing animal cruelty charges. It’s my guess, however, that the environment will prove to be the industry’s most powerful enemy. As our warming world generates larger, more violent hurricanes, industrial pig farming on a waterlogged coastal plain will become untenable. Will the industry be allowed to move its CAFOs to higher ground, where the politicians live? What do you think?

Map of the USA showing location of North Carolina
North Carolina in red

North Carolina’s valuable pile of sand

This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.” — Stanley Riggs, former professor of marine and coastal geography. — Courier-Tribune, Sept. 15, 2018

The pile of sand Riggs is talking about is the Outer Banks, the 200 mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. His concern is the continuing development on that long sand bank, and the general lack of interest in restricting it.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

Given that the Outer Banks consist of shifting sands, sit barely above sea level, and are located in a part of the world subject to violent ocean storms, why is there continuing development?

The developers know that building houses and roads on sand is asking for trouble. The difficulties associated with the stability of buildings have been researched for well over 2000 years. Matthew, a great authority on the subject, said: ”And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and Great was the fall of it.“ — The guy knew what he was talking about.

Image of fallen house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina
fallen house, Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Steve Early/ Virginia Post

North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission studied the situation in 2010 and wrote a report predicting a 39 inch rise in sea level by the year 2100, enough to flood coastal towns and wash away the existing built environment on the Outer Banks. Advocates for economic development in twenty of the State’s coastal counties formed the NC-20 group to lobby against the report which, they said, was based on bad science. It would, they argued, scare away business and tourists. The Legislature agreed, passed a bill prohibiting scary predictions, and ordered the commission to write something acceptable to the economic development people. The result was a 2015 report predicting a sea level rise of 6 – 8 inches by the year 2045. What a relief

As well as the thousands of year-round residents and summer-cottage owners, the Outer Banks attract several million tourists each year. It’s a big enterprise and an important tax generator. Of course government wants to support it, and they’ll continue to do so until the environmental situation becomes untenable. In the mean time, the real estate developers, estate, agents, house builders, private insurers, road contractors, shop owners, and rental accommodation suppliers, will all get paid. And the tourists will continue to enjoy fun in the sun.

What about the property owners? Well, in real estate, timing is everything. They’ll just have to watch the market and judge when to sell — that’s if they even care; purchasing beach-front property is not a poor man’s game. And if a hurricane happens to blow their stuff away, there’s always FEMA and the Feds (the American taxpayer) to help them rebuild their houses, on taller stilts if necessary.

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene
Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Image: Telegraph/AP

If sea level rises faster and higher than the 6 – 8 inches currently mandated by North Carolina’s law makers, who will bare the cost? Probably the people living in towns along the State’s low lying mainland coast. The houses they live in are not summer homes or holiday rentals — it’s all they’ve got.

Map of North Carolina showing physical regions
North Carolina Physical Regions. Map image from NCPedia

 

Light Rail Transit – the right choice for Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA
The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA. Image by Mega Anorak at Flickriver.com

It’s an eight minute ride on The Tide, from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus in Norfolk’s Ghent district to downtown Norfolk. The Tide is the city’s Light Rail Transit line. Opened in 2011, the line runs seven and a half miles from its western terminus at EVMC/Fort-Norfolk, through downtown Norfolk, to its eastern terminus at Newtown Road. From end to end, the ride takes 18 minutes, including brief stops at nine intermediate stations.
Map showing route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk BA
Route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk VA (termini marked in blue and circled))

The route to the east from Downtown Norfolk is far from scenic. It runs roughly parallel to Interstate-264, which means that the passing scene consists mostly of highway support structures  — underpasses, overpasses, level-crossings, and the like. Also on view are commercial buildings and parking lots. Many parking lots. Suburban residential areas along the the way appear like untamed nature by comparison. The ride is comfortable and entertaining. And it gives one an appreciation of the enormous amounts of concrete and blacktop used to sustain our automobile economy.
Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle
Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The Tide is presently equipped with nine Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicles. These are double-ended cars with operating controls at both ends and doors on both sides. The same vehicles are in use or on order at nine or ten other US cities.
Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle
Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image from Siemens website

According to the August 13, 2016 issue of the Virginia-Pilot, building the 7.4-mile line cost $318.5 (including $86 million in cost overruns). That year, weekday ridership had reached 4,800, and the operator, Hampton Roads Transit, declared the project a success. There’s been talk since then about extending the system into other parts of Norfolk and into Virginia Beach.
Investment in Light Rail Transit systems makes perfect sense. They are clean, quiet, safe, popular, and they do the job. But for Norfolk, the big question is this: Expand the transit system or Protect the city against the rising sea — which comes first?
The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station
The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station. Image by Jon Bell

 

Norfolk VA – Retreat, Dig-In, or Both?

The Coastal Plain — the land bordering the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Cape Cod — was once sea bottom. It has low topographic relief and extensive areas of wet land and drowned valleys such as the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and Long Island Sound. From the air the plain looks as flat as a pancake. The part of the plain that extends eastward into the Atlantic, forms the continental shelf. Norfolk, Virginia, is located on the eastern edge of the plain, on land the sea now wants to reclaim as its own.

Water view of Norfolk VA
Norfolk VA viewed from across the Elizabeth River. Wiki Commons image

It’s a pleasantly warm November day in downtown Norfolk. The sun is shining on the Elizabeth River and there’s nothing to suggest to the casual visitor that the city is under threat from an encroaching ocean. But the Inhabitants of the city are well aware of the threat and are constantly reminded of it.

For example, here’s part of a memorandum from the administrators of the Eastern Virginia Medical School to its students, faculty, and staff, concerning campus safety:

[The school] is located in a low lying coastal area; Norfolk’s elevation and its proximity to several rivers make it susceptible to flooding. Nearly every year, and sometimes several times throughout the year during times of heavy rain, hurricanes or nor’easter storms, the EVMS Community is threatened with the potential of precipitation, tidal and/or wind-driven flooding and/or low-land flooding.

The memo goes on to offer safety tips: If advised to evacuate your home, do so immediately; If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move to higher ground; If possible, move essential items to an upper floor; Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves; Do not walk through moving water. As little as 6 inches of moving water can make you fall; Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.

The EVMS campus is located a mile or so north-west of Norfolk’s downtown core, in the district called Ghent. But the threat of flooding is not restricted to any one area, it is a constant concern throughout the city. 

Norfolk VA storm surge map
Norfolk VA storm surge map. Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management

What the map tells us is that, under present sea level conditions, the surge from a category three hurricane would put most of the city under several feet of sea water. However, because the level of the sea is continuing to rise, the potential for catastrophic flooding will increase with time.
The grey area on the map at the north end of the city marks the location of Navel Station Norfolk, the nations largest navel base. The base is particularly vulnerable to storm surge. When a serious storm approaches, the fleet wisely heads out to sea.

Aerial view of Naval Base Norfolk
Naval Base Norfolk. Image: Wiki Commons

So what can be done to protect the city?

The US Corps of Engineers – Norfolk District, has produced a 438-page report titled ‘Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study’ in which it proposes building — at a cost of $1.57 billion — a series of storm surge barriers and sea walls. The scheme is designed to protect the city from a 50-year storm, assuming a rise in sea level of 1.5 feet. However, since no one knows what level the sea will actually rise to, or how strong future storms will actually be, and considering the high cost of the plan, it’s unlikely the city will move on the recommendations any time soon.
The May 21, 2018 issue of Inside Climate News, quotes George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director:

“I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues, . . . There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin’ on?”

In the same issue, the author, Nicholas Kusnetz, writes:

“Norfolk officials say they don’t know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won’t be enough.”