Managed Retreat

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Off the coast of North Carolina, there is a thin stretch of islands called the Outer Banks. Picture a narrow ribbon of sand that runs along the coast for 200 miles. These islands are three miles across at their widest and only 200 yards at their narrowest.

Gordon Katic:
There is one part of the Outer Banks that used to be especially treacherous for ships. It’s called Cape Hatteras.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Gordon Katic of a podcast called Cited.

Gordon Katic:
The Cape is known for choppy seas and strong ocean currents. Since the 16th century, these waves have caused a lot of shipwrecks, over a thousand according to the National Park Service. The area has become known as the graveyard of the Atlantic.

Roman Mars:
So many sailors were dying that in the late 1700s, Congress authorized the construction of a giant lighthouse. It would illuminate the dangerous passage and make the Outer Banks less deadly. The lighthouse went up in a small town called Buxton, North Carolina, right near Cape Hatteras.

Gordon Katic:
The people of Buxton, they love this lighthouse. Generations of families there have helped maintain it.

Danny Couch:
You know, it’s what your grandfather did. It’s what your great grandfather did.

Gordon Katic:
This is Danny Couch. He’s descended from English pirates and his family goes back nine generations in North Carolina.

Roman Mars:
Today, Danny leads tours of the Outer Banks. Gordon went on one of those tours last summer.

Danny Couch:
“We’ve got three maritime symbols in this country, number one, the Statue of Liberty, number two, the Golden Gate Bridge, and then number three, the granddaddy of American lighthouses at 208 feet tall, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The bathroom is on the right. You can leave anything you need onboard. We don’t have any crime here.”

Gordon Katic:
It is pretty majestic. It’s got a red base and a really tall black and white spirally paint job, sort of like a black and white candy cane. I see some people on top. There is a little observation deck. There is a crowd of people waiting outside. A park ranger is standing near the entrance. That’s because this is all a national park.

Tour Guide:
“This is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America that you all are about to climb today, so I hope everybody is ready to climb. It is a strenuous climb today.”

Gordon Katic:
It’s hard to overstate just how important this lighthouse is to the people of Buxton. There are three lighthouse gift shops in town. Practically every business here has a lighthouse in its logo or its name, like the Lighthouse View Motel or the Lighthouse Sports Bar and Grill, even the churches like the Lighthouse Christian Assembly.

Roman Mars:
But back in the 70s, it looked like Buxton might lose their beloved lighthouse. The sea was getting closer and closer, threatening to swallow it up. People were torn over what to do: move the lighthouse or leave it in place and try to defend it against the forces of nature? For the next 30 years, the people of Buxton fought an intense political battle over this decision. It’s the kind of battle we can expect to see a lot more of as sea levels rise and threatened coastal communities around the world.

Gordon Katic:
It all started with a scientist who had a radical idea about what to do with the lighthouse. An idea almost nobody liked.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Let it fall in. Nothing is so important that it can’t fall into the sea.”

Gordon Katic:
“Why don’t you introduce yourself?”

Orrin Pilkey:
“Oh, yeah. I’m Orrin Pilkey. I’m a retired marine geologist who started out in the deep sea and ended up on the beaches.”

Gordon Katic:
Orrin Pilkey is a Professor Emeritus at Duke University. He typically wears short sleeve button up shirts with two or three pens in the front pocket. He studies beaches, but there aren’t any beaches at Duke because Duke is right in the middle of the state. So in the 1980s, Orrin would pack his students into a bus and head East all the way to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Orrin Pilkey:
“It’s usually a pretty exciting place. The average wave height at Cape Hatteras is higher than anywhere else on the East Coast except possibly in Northern Maine.”

Roman Mars:
Orrin would tell his students that the waves at Cape Hatteras don’t just calmly roll onto shore. They slam into it and spray up into the air.

Gordon Katic:
While his students stared out into the water, Orrin explained, “these waves are washing away the beach were standing on and soon they’ll reach the lighthouse”.

Orrin Pilkey:
“The shoreline of the Outer Banks, the entire shoreline of the Outer Banks, is eroding. And partly this is simply a matter of the waves pecking away at the continent. 90% of the world’s beaches are eroding, some very, very slightly and some very quickly.”

Roman Mars:
The beach in front of the lighthouse can erode fast. The rates vary wildly from decade to decade. Sometimes the coast loses 50 feet a year. Other times, the beach actually gains sand. It’s an erratic natural process, but Orrin says climate change is also part of the story. It’s speeding up the erosion process.

Gordon Katic:
For decades, a bunch of different government agencies have been fighting back against the sea. They tried barriers to slow the waves. They put down a wall of sandbags. They even tried this thing called beach nourishment. That’s just a fancy way of saying pumping a ton of sand onto the shore. They had some other inventive ideas too.

Orrin Pilkey:
“They put in what they call a seascape. It was plastic, strips of plastic that floated.”

Gordon Katic:
The strips were supposed to act like seaweed and keep the sand from washing away.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Here it was, this is a very cheap way to stop erosion at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, but it didn’t even begin to work.”

Roman Mars:
In fact, none of this stuff worked. After decades of fighting back against the waves, the ocean was getting dangerously close to the lighthouse, less than half a football field away.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Basically, we would stand beside the lighthouse and see how this precious historic structure was due to fall in. I mean, it was easy to see where a good storm would have taken out the lighthouse. It wouldn’t have to be a humdinger storm, but it had gotten to that stage.”

Gordon Katic:
And so in 1974, Orrin wrote an academic article. He said, “We’ve tried pretty much everything to protect this lighthouse. It’s time to give up.” He wrote, quote, “It is difficult but necessary to come to grips with the ultimate result of living with nature at the shoreline.” And then he started telling the people of Buxton to let the lighthouse go.

Roman Mars:
Which made them really mad.

Orrin Pilkey:
“The whole idea of letting things fall in was absolutely outrageous. Of course, we’re going to defend ourselves. As one corp of engineer colonel said, ‘We’re not just gonna hold up our hands and slink away.'”

Roman Mars:
Most North Carolinians did not want to see the lighthouse fall into the sea. In 1981, a photographer and conservationist named Hugh Morton started a group called “Save the Lighthouse”. Schoolchildren across the state raised money to support the group and they recruited prominent North Carolinians like university presidents, business leaders and politicians.

Gordon Katic:
Danny, the tour guide from the beginning of the story, he became the local representative for Save the Lighthouse.

Danny Couch:
In terms of uniting political philosophies and you know, contradictory elements of society, developers and environmentalists, everybody can rally around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and that was essentially the essence of what was going on. Nothing else mattered. It was to do right by that lighthouse and our heritage in this country.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, Danny settles on one big idea, build a solid concrete wall all the way around the lighthouse.

Danny Couch:
I think you can pick and choose your fights with Mother Nature. You’re not going to win all of them. You got to pick a fight that you can win.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Ah, yes. It was a very common attitude in those days, but my idea was to live with nature at the shoreline.”

Gordon Katic:
Orrin thought the seawall would be extremely expensive and ultimately counterproductive.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Well seawalls, this is one of the more controversial things that I was saying, others too, that seawalls destroy beaches.”

Gordon Katic:
Orrin had maps and diagrams of the East Coast. They showed that seawalls made erosion happen even faster. He argued that that’s exactly what would happen at the lighthouse. A wall would make the beach smaller and smaller.

Orrin Pilkey:
“So now, you’re a beach community without a beach.”

Roman Mars:
With this seawall plan, the lighthouse would eventually become a walled island out in the water. Not ideal, but even if you were fine with that, the wall probably wouldn’t hold. Orrin said, “It’s hard to imagine building a seawall strong enough for the waves at Cape Hatteras.”

Orrin Pilkey:
T”hey have lots of big storms at the Cape. Unless the seawall is going to be half the size of the lighthouse, the storm surge would top over the seawall and topple the lighthouse.”

Gordon Katic:
Then one day Orrin met an engineer named Dave Fischetti. Dave said, “Look, people don’t want the lighthouse to fall in. We don’t want a seawall, but there is a compromise. That thing can be moved. It’s around 200 feet tall, about one and a quarter million bricks and 4800 tons, but believe it or not, engineers have moved bigger buildings.”

Roman Mars:
This presented a pretty good opportunity for Orrin. He could use the lighthouse to test something that planners call “managed retreat”. The idea is that as sea levels rise, we won’t be able to defend every coast with a giant wall. Instead, we’re going to have to make plans to abandon certain areas and move some things out of the way. Orrin thought, if Buxton could be convinced to move this big lighthouse, it might show that managed retreat is doable.

Gordon Katic:
So he and Dave Fischetti along with one of Orrin students, Dave Bush, formed their own group. They called themselves the “Move the Lighthouse Committee”.

Orrin Pilkey:
“We met together a lot and we produced a blizzard of papers documenting things about erosion and things about moving buildings and mainly aimed at the media.”

Gordon Katic:
“Why did you care so much to spend so much of your time?”

Orrin Pilkey:
“Yeah well, it became a challenge of course. I guess I got emotionally involved also. I wasn’t going to let that lighthouse fall in, in spite of that first article of mine.”

Gordon Katic:
So now you got these two groups. They both want to preserve the lighthouse, but they’re debating how. Ultimately, it’s up to Congress and the National Park Service because this is federal property, so the two groups are trying to convince the feds that they have the better plan.

Roman Mars:
The town of Buxton flatly rejected Orrin’s move idea. A local magazine did a poll. Over 90% of residents wanted to keep the lighthouse in place. Many were offended by the very idea of retreat. Hugh Morton said retreating from the shoreline would be, “Ceading man’s historic battle against nature and it would make Buxton the laughingstock of the coast.”

Gordon Katic:
Danny’s group, that’s Save the Lighthouse, they felt confident they could win this fight and they didn’t like these outsiders telling them otherwise.

Danny Couch:
It was a situation of, again, where the local people kind of claim ownership of that and how dare somebody with some out-of-state plates come in here and want to tell these poor dwellers on these shifting lonely sands what to do with their lighthouse. I mean, we, we’re not afraid to pick a fight. We’re very independent people.

Gordon Katic:
Danny told me a story to explain the tension between Orrin’s group and the locals. He said there was a Duke grad student who would drive to give talks in Buxton. Danny remembered meeting him one day.

Danny Couch:
He proceeded to waltz into a gas station that I was running at the time, a filling station and automotive repair shop, and we’re changing out a semi tires for a tractor-trailers and stuff and he starts wagging his finger in my face, “Don’t you know that this lighthouse, we’re going to lose this lighthouse and y’all are obstructionists. Y’all are.. you are, not y’all. He wasn’t a y’all. He said, “You are holding this up. You’re holding this project up.” I’m standing there with a tire iron in my hand.

Roman Mars:
Orrin and his group had a serious credibility problem in Buxton, and they understood why people like Danny were upset.

Orrin Pilkey:
“Of course, yeah, of course, we were outsiders. We were from way far away in Durham.”

Gordon Katic:
“Did this ever give you pause?”

Orrin Pilkey:
“I suppose so. Going into a community and saying, ‘Hey, I know the truth”. I felt that there was a bit of arrogance in that but, what was the choice? I didn’t know anything about how you deal with people, I guess, in this sense. I understood sometimes that I was speaking over their heads, or saying things that they did not understand or did not want to understand.”

Gordon Katic:
There were other reasons people didn’t like Orrin’s group. Many worried the lighthouse was so big and so old that it would break if you tried to move it. Others had strong feelings about the location of the lighthouse. They said it would lose historical value in a new spot.

Roman Mars:
And then there were also some big money interests. Business owners and real estate developers thought a move would hurt their bottom line. If you owned something with a name like, the Lighthouse View Motel and then people move the lighthouse out of view, well… you can see the problem.

Gordon Katic:
Throughout the 80s and 90s, there were lots of scientific committees, commissions, studies and reports. They all decided that moving the lighthouse was the best idea, but that didn’t do much to convince the locals.

Roman Mars:
Except for these two local lighthouse historians, Bruce and Cheryl Roberts.

Gordon Katic:
“Bruce?”

Bruce Roberts:
“Come on in.”

Gordon Katic:
“Nice to meet you.”

Bruce Roberts:
“Yeah.”

Gordon Katic:
“How you doing?”

Bruce Roberts:
“You’re right on time.”

Gordon Katic:
Yeah. Cheryl wasn’t around when I met Bruce. She was busy working on her new lighthouse book.

Bruce Roberts:
“My wife does most of the writing and I take pictures of lighthouses. I’ve actually photographed almost every American lighthouse.”

Gordon Katic:
Bruce and Cheryl have basically turned their home into a shrine for lighthouses. They’ve got over 100 lighthouse books. There is a bunch of miniature lighthouses scattered about. I see countless lighthouse paintings and pictures, and in their study there is a giant three-panel room divider. It looks like one of those Japanese screens, only it’s got the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse painted on it.

Bruce Roberts:
“There is something about a lighthouse, I think, that is special, and particularly Hatteras. It’s the best-known one.”

Roman Mars:
Back at the time of the controversy, Bruce and Cheryl were writing a book about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. That’s when they started to do some research.

Bruce Roberts:
“We had read the reports that the lighthouse would be lost. We talked to some of the other scientists who had studied this and made an interesting discovery.”

Gordon Katic:
The scientists told them that the lighthouse sits on yellow pine timbers. They’re submerged in a pool of freshwater.

Roman Mars:
It’s a strange design. The builder who constructed the lighthouse knew that if he kept those beams in freshwater, they’d be preserved.

Gordon Katic:
His plan had worked for over 100 years. But here is the problem, the ocean was coming closer and closer to the lighthouse and the ocean is filled with microorganisms that could degrade the wood. If the saltwater seeped into the foundation, the beams would rot.

Bruce Roberts:
“That was the reason that Cheryl and I realized that if nothing else happened, a lighthouse will begin to tip as that wood foundation was eaten away. We actually went and talked to several of the scientists who had signed a study saying it had to be moved. We got convinced that they knew what they were doing and that it could be done.”

Gordon Katic:
This was a huge get for team “Move The Lighthouse”. Bruce and Cheryl weren’t technocratic outsiders. There were lighthouse fanatics and they were saying, look, like it or not, the scientists are actually right.

Roman Mars:
Then in 1996, two major hurricanes hit North Carolina, Hurricane Bertha and Hurricane Fran.

News Anchor:
North Carolina and Ocracoke Island and Hatteras Island are under an evacuation mandate.

News Reporter:
With the waves pelting over the dunes, there likely won’t be much beach here tomorrow.

Roman Mars:
Hurricanes were becoming more frequent and more intense and this created a new sense of urgency, so in 1997 Congress started planning a potential move.

Gordon Katic:
17 years after “Save The Lighthouse” formed and after almost two decades of debate, a public meeting was held to discuss the move. It was organized by a US senator from North Carolina as well as the state senator from the region. It was April 1998 about 400 people filed into an aquarium, the largest building in the Outer Banks. Children were bused in from every school. There were 11 news crews there reporting on the event. The people of Buxton knew the fate of the lighthouse might be decided here today.

Danny Couch:
They had their, “Move It or Lose It,” signs and then the others were like, “Save Not Move.” This guy came up to me and grabbed me by the arm and said, “Here’s your sticker,” and I looked at it and it said, “Move It or Lose It.” Well, I don’t want that damn sticker.

Roman Mars:
Politicians and their aides watched as people got up to testify for each side.

Danny Couch:
Every time somebody said something that was beneficial to their side, they would erupt in cheers like you were some of the Roman Colosseum with a bunch of gladiators.

Roman Mars:
And Bruce, who was there along with Danny, thought the crowd was clearly against the lighthouse move.

Bruce Roberts:
“Ah, I think I felt that we were going to lose.”

Roman Mars:
Bruce went back home feeling defeated. He was convinced Congress was not going to fund the move.

Bruce Roberts:
“I think the next day or two I heard the phone ring back in the office and Cheryl went back and I heard her say and say, ‘Oh yes, senator’.”

Roman Mars:
North Carolina State Senator Mark Basnight was on the other end of the phone. He said, “Before the meeting, I supported moving the lighthouse, but then I saw just how unpopular that was and now I don’t think I can do it.”

Cheryl Roberts:
“And I said, ‘Wait a minute’.”

Roman Mars:
Here is Cheryl.

Cheryl Roberts:
“‘Do you know about that timber that’s the foundation, and the danger of its collapsing?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well then Mark, you should not be making a decision in this matter. You need to listen more to the facts’.”

Roman Mars:
Cheryl told the senator about the pine boards and the saltwater. She told him, “If we don’t move it, the lighthouse might just fall over.”

Bruce Roberts:
“He’s listened to her for an hour, hour and a half and she won him over.”

Cheryl Roberts:
“His eyes had to be opened. He had to know the facts, the scientific facts.”

Roman Mars:
This was the critical moment. Cheryl got the Senator back on board and he urged Congress to act fast. A few months later, Congress funded the move.

Gordon Katic:
In a last-ditch effort, the local county sued, but they lost. It was a stinging reminder that even though it may have felt like Buxton’s lighthouse, it wasn’t. It belonged to the federal government.

News Reporter:
It’s an exciting morning here. We’re live at Cape Hatteras and we’re going to have all sorts of folks to talk to.

Roman Mars:
The move began on June 17th, 1999. Over 200 journalists swarmed Buxton because nothing like this had ever happened before. No one had picked up a 4800-ton lighthouse and moved it over a half a mile. People called it the move of the millennium.

News Reporter:
“Make sure they know we’re rolling the tape from the truck.”

Roman Mars:
You’re hearing tape from a documentary made by a local TV station.”

News Reporter:
“Already there have been 1800 visitors to the park this morning. That’s about double what they usually see coming here this time of year.”

Roman Mars:
The park service put an orange fence near the base of the lighthouse and tourists lined up along it. Locals sold them t-shirts and hotdogs as everyone waited anxiously.

News Reporter:
“Brian, what do you think about the lighthouse? What do you think about it?”

Brian:
“It sure is big.”

News Reporter:
“It sure is big. How are they going to move that? Can they pick it up?”

Brian:
“I’m sorry, but it’s heavy.”

News Reporter:
“It is heavy. It’s very big.”

Gordon Katic:
The process was pretty simple. First, the engineers cut through the granite base of the lighthouse. Then they slid seven giant steel beams underneath it. The beams created a new foundation, a grid under the lighthouse.

Engineer:
“Okay, open your number ones.”

Engineer:
“The pressure’s at 44.”

Gordon Katic:
Then they rolled wheels under the steel grid and using hydraulics, they lifted the whole thing up onto a track leading to the lighthouse’s new home.

Engineer:
“We got to keep a close watch now. Up we go.”

Engineer:
“All right, coming up. Okay, the lighthouse is up off the shore and she’s on our jacks.”

Gordon Katic:
The engineers were all ready to roll. They pulled a giant lever and the lighthouse started to inch forward.

Engineer:
“Guys, move it, move it.”

Roman Mars:
If you were there that day in the crowd, this all would’ve looked anticlimactic because the lighthouse moved so slow.

Crowd:
“That’s it.”

Crowd:
“That was it.”

Crowd:
“Can you see it?”

Roman Mars:
You couldn’t even tell. The rangers had to put markers along the track just so you could be sure that it did, in fact, move.

Crowd:
“It’s just going real, real slow.”

Crowd:
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Now I see it, cool.”

Crowd:
“You’re lucky to be here to see it.”

Gordon Katic:
At the end of the first day, the lighthouse had only moved 10 feet. This whole process would take weeks.

Crowd:
“Oh, my word.”

Crowd:
“It’s still going, yep, slowly but surely.”

Gordon Katic:
Bruce remembers showing up one day near the end of the move. He saw Danny coming towards him through the crowd. Danny told him, “They’re moving it too fast.”

Bruce Roberts:
I’m stunned. I said, “What’s wrong with moving it too fast?” He says, “Look, every restaurant is making money. Every hotel is making money. We have never had crowds like this ever before.” And he said, “If you can just slow it down until September, we’ll all be rich.”

Engineer:
“Slow it down. Slow it down. Slow it down.”

Engineer:
“We’ve got five inches, four inches, three inches, two inches, inch an a half, one inch.”

Engineer:
“Hey, that’s it. Whoa, right there.”

Engineer:
“That’s it.”

Roman Mars:
As the lighthouse inched to its new home, it was again 1600 feet from shore. The exact same distance it was in 1870 before the sea washed the beach away.

Gordon Katic:
Before the move, the people of Buxton felt something terrible and undemocratic was happening to them. These out of towners were destroying the heart and soul of their island. The community fought hard and they lost. But in a strange way, things actually worked out for them.

Danny Couch:
I look back at this, you know, after this is all said and done, was moving that lighthouse the right thing to do? Yes, it was.

Gordon Katic:
Danny got a ton of business from the tourists. His repair shop and gas station had never done so well, so he’s had a complete change of heart and he’s not alone. In fact, most people think that the move was the best thing that ever happened to Buxton.

Danny Couch:
Something as monumental as moving America’s lighthouse put us on a national radar – on an international radar – and people started thinking about the Outer Banks. It was a raging success.

Roman Mars:
Danny doesn’t look back now and see the move as a cowardly retreat. He sees it as a testament to human ingenuity. This all makes Orrin hopeful because if Danny can change his views, maybe others will too.

Orrin Pilkey:
“You know, I think the moving the lighthouse with a profound event in terms of our response to sea-level rise. I think the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is kind of a good example of what we’re going to be doing a lot in the future. If you can move a 3000, or whatever it is, ton lighthouse, you can move a lot of cottages.”

Gordon Katic:
But it’s not just lighthouses and beach cottages, there are thousands of miles of vulnerable US coastline. The battle of Buxton is just a preview of the tough choices we’ll have to make.

Orrin Pilkey:
“We have 3000 miles of barrier island shorelines, so whatever happens here is also happening in Galveston and also is happening in Myrtle Beach and Jekyll Island, Georgia. They’re all going to be asking for money from the Feds. We need money, we need money. We need to nourish the beach, or we need help building a sea wall, but it ain’t going to be there. That’s why retreat is important.”

Roman Mars:
By the year 2100, at least 500 US communities will be at risk from sea-level rise, including major cities like Miami and New Orleans. That’s according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And then there’s the millions of people in other parts of the world in countries like Bangladesh or the Solomon Islands that are already being badly affected.

Gordon Katic:
If people get this worked up about a lighthouse, imagine how hard it’ll be when we start talking about moving entire cities. How can you do that fairly and in a way that doesn’t devastate communities? We’re going to be fighting this battle over and over again.

Roman Mars:
And after all of this, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse will probably have to move again. It might last 100 years at its current location, but some scientists say it could be even less than that.

Credits

Production

Reporter Gordon Katic of the Cited podcast, with production help from Sam Fenn, spoke with local resident and activist Danny Couch; Orrin Pilkey, a retired marine geologist who taught at Duke; local lighthouse historians, photographers and authors Bruce and Cheryl Roberts. Thanks to WRAL-TV for letting us use their documentary, “The Cape Light: Away from the Edge.” Coda on moving the Telmex building in Guadalajara with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (9)

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  1. John B

    The Belle Tout lighthouse on top of the spectacular Beachy Head cliffs in England as moved 3 months before, so while your move was heavier and longer, it wasn’t unprecedented.

  2. Sharon Roney

    There is an apartment building called the Greystone Court in my neighborhood in Columbus Ohio built just after the turn of the last century. It is U-shaped and the ends are along a major street. When the High Street was widened in 1922 the first apartment on each floor was removed and the facade was reattached. It happened so long ago I don’t think anyone really knows about it.

  3. Meaghan

    When resettlement happened in Newfoundland, the communities moved houses from one town to another using sleds and boats. The pictures of it are spectacular.

  4. Petra Almqvist

    In northern Sweden there is a town (Kiruna) beeing moved 3 km so that it doesn’t fall down a mine..

  5. Wow! I wonder how on earth Matute Remus managed to move that telephone exchange while maintaining service?! I’ve worked on structured cabling for buildings for many years and that seems like an absolute nightmare. I would love to know more about how this was accomplished.

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