An oft-quoted visitor to Ocracoke Inlet is Virginia scientist (and slavery defender) Edmund Ruffin, who published his Agricultural, Geological, and Descriptive Sketches of Lower North Carolina, and the Similar Adjacent Lands in 1861. “The occupations of the whole resident population of Portsmouth,” Ruffin wrote,
are connected with the vessels which have to wait here. Pilots, and sailors, or owners of vessels, make up the greater number of the heads of families and adult males – and the remainder are the few, who as shopkeepers, &c., are necessary to minister to the wants of the others. If Ocracoke inlet should be closed by sand, (which is no improbable event,) the village of Portsmouth would disappear--or, (like Nagshead) remain only for its other use, as a summer retreat for transient visitors, sought for health and sea-bathing. Another such settlement or village, and supported in like manner, is at Ocracoke, north of the inlet.153
Of course, Ruffin’s predictions came true. Although it took another hundred years, Portsmouth very nearly disappeared, and Ocracoke came into its own in the twentieth century as a summer retreat. The histories of the two villages appeared to diverge, masking a shared past when they stood on either side of the busiest inlet on the entire North Carolina coast – a key border region link to, rather than a barrier between, North Carolina and the watery world beyond.
Chapter 3: Restless (and Storm-Battered) Ribbons of Sand: Hurricanes and Inlets
As geologist Orrin Pilkey has pointed out repeatedly, Cape Lookout National Seashore – and everything else on North Carolina’s Outer Banks – is built upon a no more than momentarily stable configuration of a dynamic system that continues to move and change, as it always has – sometimes slowly over long periods of time, sometimes literally overnight. As the Cape Lookout Village Cultural Landscape Report says, Cape Lookout and Core Banks have moved more than four miles to the west in the past 7,000 years, and the Outer Banks themselves have moved forty to fifty miles since the sea level began to rise 18,000 years ago.1 Hence we must constantly remind ourselves that any “map” of the Outer Banks is no more than a snapshot of a brief moment in geological time.
Stretching more than fifty miles from Ocracoke Inlet to Beaufort Inlet, Cape Lookout National Seashore includes more than 28,000 acres of fragile coastal beaches and dunes, and drew nearly 700,000 visitors in 2005 – not all of whom were as concerned about or interested in the natural environment as they might have been. But all 28,000 acres are regularly buffeted by threatening weather events, the most dramatic of which are hurricanes. It is an environment that during all of the park’s now more than forty years, has required constant vigilance and constant repair.
Our discussion here of the natural environment of Cape Lookout National Seashore is limited to the impact of storms and hurricanes upon the national seashore and its historic resources; the location and configuration of the inlets; the nature of the sounds as the opening and closing of inlets changed their character and impacted the economic and social development associated with them; and the consequential or related histories of populations, communities, occupations. More specifically, we will examine the effects of particular storms and hurricanes that have struck the Outer Banks within the Cape Lookout area since the middle of the eighteenth century when Portsmouth was founded.
The storm and hurricane history of the Outer Banks has been documented for a long time – anecdotally since first settlement, meticulously and scientifically for at least a century and a half. Jay Barnes’s North Carolina Hurricane History begins in 1524, and lists more than forty major hurricanes in the twentieth century alone – fourteen of them “notorious” ones that together claimed more than 250 lives.2 Not all affected the Outer Banks, but some of those that did (such as Hazel in 1954, Donna in 1960, and Floyd in 1999) have been profoundly destructive. Even storms that did not qualify as hurricanes (e.g., nor’easters) could and did impact the Banks dramatically – demolishing structures, battering or even erasing communities, opening and closing inlets.
Similarly, the history of the Outer Banks inlets – not a few of them created by hurricanes – is well established and fully documented. No fewer than fourteen inlets, appearing on maps from the 1580s through the present, have at various times cut through the Banks, remaining open anywhere from a few decades to hundreds of years.3 These inlets have been the subject of repeated attention as they have opened up, shoaled up, closed again, and been dredged (generally fruitlessly) to allow ships to pass. Eight of those inlets have existed between Cape Lookout and Ocracoke Inlet during historic times.4 The preeminently important one for Cape Lookout National Seashore is Ocracoke Inlet; we will consider it at great length below.
Significant Weather Events Before 1700
North Carolina’s “Cape of Feare” got its name from Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who endured a severe storm nearby in 1524. Two years later, Spanish expedition leader Lucas de Ayllon lost one of his ships in a “loathsome gale.” Dunbar’s historical map of the Outer Banks shows seven inlets that opened in 1585 – presumably by the same weather event.5 [ILLUSTRATION: Historic Inlets map from Dunbar Plate VII p 218; CAPTION: Fig. 3-1: Historic Inlets of North Carolina coast. Dunbar, Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks, 218.] The following year, Sir Francis Drake, trying to replenish Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke Island colony, encountered a hurricane that wrecked many of his ships. The North Carolina coast had a severe hurricane in August 1587, and at least four major hurricanes hit the Atlantic coast in the fall of 1591, one of which struck Roanoke Island.6
Data for the seventeenth century are scarce. Jamestown, Virginia was hit by a severe hurricane in 1667, with twelve-foot surges. Ten thousand houses were destroyed, and seventy-five people died. The same storm hit North Carolina, but details on its destructiveness are lacking. Hurricanes also hit the Outer Banks in 1669, 1670, and 1699.7