Repairs continue at Cape Lookout National Seashore nearly 4 years after Hurricane Dorian
When people in eastern North Carolina talk about recent hurricanes, it’s most often Florence and Matthew that dominate the conversation. While Hurricane Dorian in September 2019 spawned tornados in Onslow County that damaged an RV park, the impact was much less devastating for mainland communities than other recent storms.
That was not true, however, for the region’s barrier islands – and cleanup continues at Cape Lookout National Seashore nearly four years later.
"People talk about certain storms, but they talk about the storms that affected them. Dorian was devastating to the people and places that it impacted. I have seldom seen, and I've been responding to storms since Andrew back in 91 or 92 -- the devastation from Dorian matched anything I've seen anywhere, including Katrina. I mean, I mean smaller scale obviously, but the people that were impacted were ... they were impacted. It was a bad storm.”
Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said Hurricane Dorian damaged structures on the islands, particularly at Portsmouth Village.
The village was once a bustling fishing and shipping village, but the last people to call it home left in the early 70s. About 20 buildings remain and are maintained by the National Park Service.
"After Dorian, what we did was evaluate the structures,” he said, “You know, one was their vulnerability. Where were they located and how vulnerable are they to future storm events, whatever that event might be flooding? You know when, et cetera. And then we looked at how much damage they had, and then we looked at what it's going to cost to repair them, to bring them back to the way they were before Dorian.”
Repairs to some are in the works but others, he said, just couldn’t be completely repaired.
"So, right after Dorian, we basically fixed the skin on them. So, the roofs were repaired, windows and doors were at least covered and protected. All the buildings were cleaned out, dried out, you know, so they wouldn't receive any further damage. So we could get to them. But all three of those houses had structural damage to them that are going to require a little bit more effort. So, that's why it's taking a little while to get to them,” West said, “One, getting the money to do them, the other getting the engineering done on them so that we're sure we're replacing the right things and doing the right things to them.”
And he said work will start relatively soon on a few other projects. “We still have some big projects out there, the Dixon House, the Wallace House and the school all have targeted projects on them starting in the second quarter of fiscal year 2024, which would be January, and our historic preservation crew will actually perform work on those three structures, but that's going to be a lot of work because those all three of those structures were heavily damaged by Dorian.
Even with some uncertainty in the current hurricane season because of the El Nino weather pattern – most experts say El Nino years often have fewer hurricanes – West says they are still bracing for potential storms.
"Are we going to have storms that impact us? Absolutely,” he said. “It will impact the base of the island and the sand and the salt marshes and stuff. Without fail, it will happen. It's happened since long before we can remember, and it will continue to happen. The thing that gets us excited is when it impacts man-made objects because, well, we like those things. I mean, they're handy. They're convenient, they're cool. They trace our heritage and lineage, and we want to be able to explore those things. But the key is that the base of all this remains, and that's the islands.”
One particular concern this hurricane season – the forecast for King Tides, or higher than normal tides that typically happen during a new or full moon.
"But one of the things I took note of this year is that almost our entire hurricane season, we have one and some months two King Tides in. I cannot even imagine the devastation that might be possible if we get hit by a hurricane and it happens to come ashore about the time that we were on high tide from king tide,” West said, “It would be bad. Bad would be the word.”
He also notes that damage from Nor’easters can be as bad as, if not worse, than, that caused by hurricanes.
Regardless of the type of storm, West says each changes the islands in some way.
"When you go back next time, it will be different,” West said. “It may not be different in a way that you've physically noticed because maybe all the cabins seem to be there at Great Island. But if you look closely, it will be different and sometimes it will be grossly different.”
And many returning visitors to Cape Lookout are surprised to find that the place they made earlier memories has changed.
"When you come to a place like Cape Lookout and you come because of your family memories or your vacation trip and stuff, you want to come and re-experience the things that you remember. I akin it to going home.”