Hurricane Irene: ‘Just what the islands need’

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As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Irene, all eyes are on the Outer Banks, a line of long, thin barrier islands off the North Carolina coast where the storm is expected to reach American soil Saturday.

Tourists and locals have fled by the thousands, the governor and President Obama have declared an emergency, and residents are left with little option but to pray that their homes survive the storm.


But it turns out that what’s bad for people may be good for the islands.

Orrin Pilkey, a geology professor at Duke University, put it like this: “The storm that is coming up the coast here is just what the islands need.”

Make no mistake — if the storm is as slow-moving and large as meteorologists predict, the Outer Banks will take a beating. Wildlife will drown and vegetation that makes it through the high winds may be killed by the salt spray from the waves.

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

View Hurricane Irene track forecast in a larger map And damage to structures could be enormous. “We are going to see an awful lot of buildings destroyed and an awful lot of buildings damaged,” Pilkey said. “And because it’s so slow-moving, there are not only going to be high winds and big waves, but they are going to last a long time.”

Pilkey, who wrote “A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands,” said storms of this magnitude were essential to the islands’ survival. Heavy storms bring new sand to the islands, helping them stay at sea level rather than eroding and disappearing into the sea.

It’s a strange thing to live in a place where a natural disaster is essential for the environment. Californians who live in fire-prone areas are familiar with this dilemma. For people, fires are catastrophes, but some of us live in environments that depend on fire for survival.


Pilkey said a similar argument could be made for hurricanes and barrier islands. “A naturalist living on a barrier island knows that protecting your house is not a good thing,” he said. “Because protecting your house ends up destroying the beach.”


Highways clogged as tourists leave Outer Banks

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-- Deborah Netburn