Writer/editor/audio producer

The Bumpy Business of Hauling Historical Sites to Safety


The Bumpy Business of Hauling Historical Sites to Safety

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You wouldn't expect a 2,800-ton lighthouse to be light on its feet. But in July 1999, North Carolina’s historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse tiptoed up the shore. The brick, black-and-white behemoth, which stands more than 200 feet tall, was too close to the crashing waves for comfort. And the problem wasn’t going to get better.

When the beacon was erected in 1870, it was 1,500 feet from the sea. Over the years, tides carved sand from one location and heaped it onto another, whittling down the shore around the lighthouse. By 1970, it was just 120 feet from the water. Experts cautioned that a storm surge could disturb the sand or the yellow-pine timbers of its foundation, causing the structure to buckle or even collapse. Assuming that sea-level rise didn’t accelerate beyond its 1988 pace, a panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) forecast that the shore would retreat by a minimum of 157 feet by 2018. So, in 1988, they set out to plot a defense strategy.

There are a number of ways to stave off erosion and advancing water. You can fight, by replenishing dunes, planting dense thickets of beach grass, or building a barricade of cement or sandbags. Or you can flee, by giving in, cutting your losses, and coming to terms with sacrifice.