Nearly every structure directly on the beach was on stilts and raised significantly above projected storm levels. In our case, the cottage my parents built was crafted by a local Outer Banker who put an extra nail in every shingle and drove pilings of top-of-the-line quality much deeper in the sand than required by code. The result was that the cottage never lost so much as a shingle in a number of rough storms, including the granddaddy of its day, the Great Ash Wednesday Nor'easter of 1962. Today, with beachfront cottages and commercial lodgings squeezed on top of one another, the entire area is changed and is more susceptible to eroded beaches which lead eventually to homes disappearing. I don't see it as global warming or climate change, I see it as the over building in areas that need space in order to allow nature to replenish itself, like it always did in the old days.
This isn't just a problem on the Outer Banks and, in all fairness, some communities have done much better than others. And, of course, development is a factor that can never be eliminated, nor should it be because it actually does much good for commerce and economic health. Like everything else, however, too much of a good thing tends to turn it negative. Just like good health is supported by moderation in how much we eat, moderation in the use of our precious and pristine environments retains nature's ability to heal itself. One has to only look at that gleaming oceanfront skyline of Miami Beach to recognize the need for limits on "binge" building.
In the case of Miami Beach, what looks gleaming has an underside that is hidden. When all the land was used up, their obviously solution was to build up. and up and up and up. In a place that once was a swamp by the sea, the continual building of huge structures where the land can't support it means that parking garages are often subject to flooding in even a heavy rain with resulting weakening over time of the heavy building's foundation. As it continues to push the envelope, things continue to get worse and traffic is snarled, people lack patience and what used to be relaxing becomes another day in the city. Even the ocean is damaged due to the high volume of dredging to keep the Port of Miami open and the sand gathered is then dumped into the sea. What were once excellent fishing grounds are now a dead zone where marine life is choked off. I remember when you could catch sailfish and even bigger fish within close proximity but not often any longer.
Now the Outer Banks will never be another Miami Beach, but it still has major issues that continue to get worse. Cottages built on the oceanfront practically wall to wall at Nags Head disrupt air flow, making it hotter inshore and blocking the natural flow of water and the movement of sand back to replenish the beach later since it is blocked or covered by the construction. The beach suffers, people begin to think they were better off back in the city and things like the needless death of a Corolla pony caused by careless driving recently just happen. Crime goes up, traffic doesn't move and the fragile heavily occupied sandbar gasps for help while no one listens.
Why does no one listen? It's really quite simple. When developers see a beautiful spot they want to put as many people on it as they can. The denser the zoning, the more money to be made, then they move on to another place and repeat the same process. It's certainly not just the Outer Banks, it's everywhere and the quality of life for many suffers.
Down here in Florida, even the under developed inland area where yours truly lives is under the gun, the developers have no concern that the land is a watershed and is important to our wonderful aquifer, the source of water for many residents of Florida. They just keep the push to pave and build over it regardless, saying that there is plenty of water when our aquifer, like the beaches of the Outer Banks, are gasping for help. When the potable water is gone, Florida will close up shop.
When the beach is destroyed because of improper dominion by man, the Outer Banks will either be gone or unlivable as well. It's likely that they will have a water source problem, too, as is more and more prevalent throughout the country yet never discussed. The result is, we all lose, except for the developers who are long gone and the politicians who garnered large campaign donations for pushing major development schemes. In reality, the lobbyists are the masters, the people be damned at just about every level of government.
Can the endless cycle be stopped? It is hard to say but probably not likely. In the meantime nature will run its course. My family had a cottage during the late 1940s through mid-1960s and we weathered many bad storms. Even the greatest one I ever remember, that great nor'easter around Ash Wednesday in early March of 1962, spared our cottage while it played havoc and destroyed the homes of many others. That's what a storm of the century will do, only in 1962 Nags Head was wide open and the sand could blow back and forth and the sea had plenty of channels to ebb and flow. We were spread out which allowed that to happen. With an almost solid wall of cottages and lodging establishments today, I fear that would not be the case today, but no one wants to consider it.
I wonder what my great-grandfather, the long-term Keeper of Bodie Island Light would say? Or my favorite aunt's husband, who built our wonderful cottage? Or even my dear departed Mom, who grew up in Wanchese before taking the journey from fishing village to New York City for nursing school, only to come back home for the summers with a husband and three children in tow? Sadly, I think I know, for they had great respect for the tenuous relationship between sand and sea, unlike those who only see it in terms of dollars and cents today. It is so much more than just an investment, it's a gift to us from a benevolent God who expects us to take care of it.
We can only hope that people in the future will look at things with a longer term objective than just tomorrow or next year. The sea, a powerful force is always ready to surprise us. Man can try, but if the sea wants to destroy a beach it will and it is doing so to those golden sands at a rate very fast compared to back in those earlier years. Just like California doesn't prepare for the "Big One" on the San Andreas fault, the Outer Banks isn't prepared to deal with a force that man's domain can't match. Look at a map of the Outer Banks and picture another perfect storm on these now over populated beaches. Sooner or later it will come and things will change. Oh, how they will change.