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  • RisingPerspectives of Change on the North Carolina Coast
  • Baxter Miller (bio), Ryan Stancil (bio), and Barbara Garrity-Blake (bio)

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Five Little Birds, Hatteras Inlet, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Dare County. A shoal off the southernmost point of Hatteras Island. Just as quickly as a sandbar emerges, it can recede, grow, or disappear. Subject to the forces of wind, salt, and sun, the birds are a reminder of the isolation and dynamism of North Carolina's barrier island system and the generations of adaptive and resilient "bankers" who have lived, worked, worshiped, played, grieved, and celebrated on this ribbon of sand they call home.

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Over sixty years ago, my grandfather was offered a sizable piece of waterfront property at the northern entrance of Buxton Village on Hatteras Island for $3,000 by his aunt, the famed village postmistress, Maude White. At the time, the parcel—no more than a half-mile wide from sound to sea—was like other parts of what is now the wild and natural National Park.

Today, travelers are welcomed to the village, which is home to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, on either side by several locally owned beach motels and businesses. Now assessed at over a million dollars, the land, like so many other parts of the island, is where tourists jockey for the biggest rental homes closest to the beach, where developers scalp for empty parcels on the edge of the sea, where hundreds of thousands flock to recreate on the very sand in question, and where fishermen maneuver for the best spot to soak their bait. But in the 1950s, as family lore goes, my grandfather gave the land offer no more than a few seconds' thought, making known his sensible wish to stay high and dry in Buxton Woods. Uttering, "No fool would ever build on the beach," he deemed it a poor investment.

Last fall, after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, battered the Gulf, and with Hurricane Maria, the strongest one on record, barreling toward the United States, I stood on that section of beach, where a handful of shrimp boats often trawl in the distance. In the last year, those boats have been joined by a lonely dredge and hundreds of yards of rusty pipe tasked with channeling millions of cubic yards of sand to the shore—a re-nourishment effort to widen the beach and, in turn, hopefully save the adjacent road, motels, and homes from being washed into the sea.

I wondered what my grandfather would have thought.

A proud descendant of Hatteras lifesaving surfmen, lighthouse keepers, and commercial fishermen, I've clung tightly to stories of my heritage, passed down to me by my father. Although I wasn't technically raised on Hatteras, these are the stories that help make sense of who I am—my relationship with the environment and my sense of place.


Advances in technology, engineering, and construction, along with commercial and economic realizations, have shifted our adaptive ideology on our barrier islands and across coastal North Carolina. Today, we build higher dunes and more jetties. We harden our shorelines with seawalls. We dredge our inlets and re-nourish [End Page 102]

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Impressions of Re-nourishment, Buxton, Dare County. Before 2018, high tide would regularly bring the sea up to the base of the motels at the northern entrance to Buxton Village. Storm events would usher water underneath the structures and across the road. In the summer of 2017, beach nourishment began on a 2.9-mile section of shoreline that, once complete, will stretch from the old lighthouse site to north of the village. At an estimated cost of $22.1 million, the project will relocate approximately 2.6 million cubic yards of sand to the shore.

[End Page 103] our eroded beaches. We build our houses higher off the ground and ever closer to the water. We pave over the land underneath us and employ dikes to drain agricultural fields and protect them from saltwater. We attempt to regulate our fisheries in the face of warming water and changing migration patterns that extend...