Homegrown historian Scott Dawson may have solved America’s oldest mystery. But he’s not done digging yet.

You know the tale. In 1587, English explorer John White left behind 115 settlers on Roanoke Island, including his own granddaughter — Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. When he came back three years later on a resupply mission, the colony had vanished, leaving the word “Croatoan” carved on a post. That much we can all agree on. It’s what happened to those ill-fated immigrants that remains a matter of debate, as a range of experts hunt for clues using everything from digital mapping to DNA, genealogy to shovels and sifters.

Some say they migrated to “Site X” — a proposed fort on the Chowan River that never came to fruition. Others believe they shacked up with the Lumbee tribe even farther west. But ask Hatteras Island native and amateur historian/archeologist Scott Dawson, and he’ll say they’re all wrong, that the colonists were never lost at all. That they sought refuge among Hatteras Island, home to Manteo’s more familiar friendly tribe. And moreover, that the “cryptic” carving was actually a very clear set of directions.

“I don’t know why, but somewhere along the line they decided to teach in schools that nobody knows what the word ‘Croatoan,’ means,” says Dawson. “That’s what made it a ‘mystery.’ Because, if you said, ‘By the way, ‘Croatoan’ means Hatteras, and they’ve been interacting with these people for years.’ If we told them the real story nobody would say they were lost. Everyone would say what I say. So, if that’s the case, why not go down and dig? So we did.”

Every spring since 2010, Dawson’s Croatoan Archaelogical Society has performed annual digs on Hatteras Island with the help of Dr. Mark Horton of the University of Bristol, uncovering thousands of artifacts — including several notable 16th century finds. This summer, Dawson published a book on their work, which he says settles his case once and for all.

More than a piece of local history, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island offers a pulled back perspective that covers the early years of New World exploration, from the political motivations to the differences in approach. At the same time, it updates the interactions between explorers and indigenous peoples over five distinct voyages. The tribes that helped — the mistakes that hurt. And the idea that for all the focus on Roanoke Island, the heart of the story lies 30 miles south.

“I’m from Hatteras, and I didn’t know they landed there before they went to Roanoke,” says Dawson. ”That’s sad. It’s this massive piece of American history that Hatteras was involved with, and instead they just replaced it with Roanoke Island. That’s not right.”

We sat down with Dawson to find out how a local history buff spawned an international excavation — and what’s next for future digs. — Matt Walker

This interview was conducted in August 2020. An edited version appears in Milepost Issue 9.3

You grew up in Buxton, correct?
I did. I live in KDH now. I’ve lived all over, but I went to college at the University of Tennessee and I actually graduated high school up in Virginia.

Have you always been an amateur history buff?
Not at all. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was surf and mess with tourist girls. But I guess I got into it late in high school. And I was really into it during college and ever since. It’s kind of funny: I broke my foot and couldn’t do anything. And I had some Civil War books sitting there and I started reading constantly. And after I healed, I continued to do it.

So it started with Civil War stuff. I was in school in Virginia, and it was like “that’s right behind our baseball field,” which made it a little easier to be interested because it happene nearby. And I had family in the Civil War, like a lot of people, so I read about that. And then it just branched out to all over the world. I read about Che Guevara in Cuba. Lenin. It became something to do before I fell asleep at night. And when I started to read about stuff here, a lightbulb went off: like “Wait a minute. I know where that creek is.” When you have that intimate knowledge of the local geography, and you sit down, and you read read John White (artist/explorer/governor, 1585 & 1587), Arthur Barlowe (exploration leader, 1584) and Thomas Harriot (translator, 1585) —these guys who came over here in the 16th century – it’s different than a historian from Nebraska reading it. Because you’re like “Two waters colliding? That’s diamond shoals.” And I don’t think anybody else had done that before me. So I started interviewing all the construction guys and talking to old people and studying the old maps. It was almost like that Netflix show, Outer Banks, where the guy’s looking for the gold. It’s not too far off from how I was; I was a surf rat who read a lot, and then I got into something. And it was like “Holy shit!’ and the more you study it, the more you go “This is a possibility” so we got some professionals down here to start digging and ‘Holy crap, I was 100% correct.” It was exactly what everything led to. It blew up into an international dig, and 10 years later, I’m talking to the New York Times and Fox News.

How long were you investigating on your own before getting the University of Bristol involved?
I started researching when I worked at Festival Park back in 2006. And I was very familiar with the story before that, but I got access to the primary sources when I was there because they have the Outer Banks History Center, which I’m now on the board of. That history center is like a treasure trove I didn’t know anything about. They have aan stuff they’ll pull out for you. It’s not utilized enough; people should go there more. But I worked there. I was dressed up in the blacksmith shop, firing cannons on the ship and whatnot. It was fun. and when that was done, I’d go to the history center for an hour and start reading and I’m learning all this amazing stuff. It was like a drug. I couldn’t stop. And this whole time, I’m going “How come this wasn’t taught in school? Why does nobody know about this? Why isn’t anyone saying anything? It’s right here and it’s crystal clear.” I don’t have an answer for that. So in 2007 wrote a diffrent book, called Croatoan: Birthplace of America. I self-published it with Coastland Times. I sold the first 500 copies all in like a month. And in that book, I laid the case for what happened from the history — no archaeology. Just according to the primary sources, I laid it all out my whole argument for why they went to Hatteras.

Just to clarify: you propose the Lost colony was never lost. They went to Hatteras—or Croatoan – because they had an existing, friendly relationship. That they left a message indicating that. And that John White understood that message and was on his way to find them when he was blown off course. And if he had made it, there would be no mystery today because he would have recorded what he discovered. But because he was blown off course and nobody showed up for 100 years after, we’re left to fill in the blank.

Yes. And I don’t know whose fault this is. And I don’t want to point fingers. But they decided to teach in schools that nobody knows what the word “Croatoan” means. They say it’s this cryptic message left by the colony. Is it a body of water? Is it whatever? And they’ve said this stuff on the History channel. As recently as last week, Newsweek regurgitated this bullshit. And I don’t know how that happened. But that lie has been going on for 80 years. And that should never have happened. When you read the primary sources: there’s no mystery at all where Croataon was. For example, the very same document that mentions the birth of Virginia Dare – which, by god, they got that part right – it says that Croatoan is an island three separate times. It also says it’s where Manteo was born and that the people of the island are friends. And before that, with Richard Grenvile and Ralph Lane and Arthur Barlow and Thomas Harriot, and White, and everybody that comes over here that talks about Croatoan, they give the latitude and longitude. Of the inlets and everything. So to act like nobody knows what it means – that’s what made it a mystery. Because if you said: by the way this word means “Hatteras” and they’ve been interacting with these Indians for years and Manteo is from there. And conversely, the mainland wanted to kill the settlers — if we told them the real story— nobody would say they were lost. Everyone would say what I say. So, if that’s the case, why don’t you go down and dig. And we did. And we found them. It’s really that simple. It’s so simple that it’s unbelievable. But people want this really complicated answer —that they split into four groups and all this stuff — but it’s just not the case.

That’s crazy. So you looked at primary source reports from the time of all these people. Why do you think nobody else has come to the same conclusion?
They have. It’s just that I was really loud about it. [laughs] There’s a lot of people – at least local people – in Hatteras, in Manteo, in Nags Head. Because it doesn’t take a genius to sit down and read a document. I’m not the first person to say it. I’m just the first person to scream it — you know what I mean? Because I thought if that’s the case, we got to go! We got to dig this up. Because between the hurricanes and these 27-bedroom houses going up, it’s going to get destroyed. I mean, I’m from Hatteras and I didn’t know they landed there before they went to Roanoke. That’s sad. It’s this massive piece of American history that Hatteras as involved with, and instead they just replaced it with Roanoke Island. That’s not right.

I wonder how much of that is just page space? Because I grew up in Virginia Beach, right next to Seashore State Park. Now it’s called First Landing because that’s where John Smith stopped on the way to Jamestown. But I never heard that either. But I always assumed I never heard about the Lost Colony because I grew up in Virginia not North Carolina. But maybe it’s just, “We can only make text books so thick, focus on the first permanent settlement.”
Yeah. Maybe. Who knows? At this point, the ‘why” doesn’t matter. The point is it happened, I’m from Hatteras, and I’m going to say it — of course. For example, on Fourth of July, Manteo reads this passage by Arthur Barlow talking about ‘grapes in the wash.’ And how it’s such a land of plenty – this beautiful description of the Outer Banks. But it’s not Roanoke Island. It’s Hatteras. Because the next paragraph, he says they sailed north to another island called Roanoke. And they know that. And it says the ocean is on one side, the sound is on the other. That’s not Roanoke either. So, it’s not like I’m arguing this ambiguous, opinionated thing. It’s fact. So this irritation builds up like “Man. If we did dig them up. I would finally have the voice to explain all this.”

So how did you get University of Bristol and Dr. Mark Horton involved?
It wasn’t too long after I worked at Festival Park that he came by for this ‘twinning’ ceremony between Manteo and Bideford. And the book was out amongst the history nerd circles, so people said, go see Scott Dawson. So he came down to Buxton. And I was like “Oh shit, I better find something.’ And I had three sites I’d spoken with property owners. One in Frisco, one I Hatteras Village and one in Buxton. And I was really hyped on the one in Frisco. That’s where I thought it was going to be. And there was a bit of Native American stuff in there but it turned out to be a Mid-Woodland Era site, which is like the year 500. It’s neat, and we did dig there and we intend to continue just to just to learn more. But I didn’t know the difference between Native American pottery 400 years ago versus 1500 years ago then, because I’m not an archaeologist. But I do now. At that point, I didn’t know. I just knew that I found stuff here before when I was pulling a shrimping net. It seemed like a good spot. But at least we found something. But we didn’t even get to Hatteras, because we went to Buxton next. And we ended up finding 3 skeletons in the bottom of a test pit that was 2 meters by 2 meters. It was like a little hot tub. And we found 3 bodies in the bottom. And they were Native Americans, but they had English stuff with them. But none of the English stuff in the grave was very dateable – it was an orange piece of pottery, an a musket ball, and horse bride. And, then a lot of native stuff. Pottery. Pipes. But those bones got sent to Raleigh, that’s a rule, to make sure it wans’t some unsolved murder. But you can tell that any way because you’re digging through these perfect cake layers of soil. And they were sealed under a midden, which is basically everything they threw out. Which on Hatteras is a lot of deer bone and sea shells, which last a long time. So you end up with 2 feet of shells, hundreds of pieces of pottery, and pipes – whatever got tossed. And under that was the bodies. So the bodies had been there long enough that people forgot. And the bodies were older than the midden, which was about 1650. So these people died at least 10 year prior. So it fit the age where, if these people died at 70, they could’ve been alive in the 1580s. But that kind of speculation can get you in trouble. So you don’t go running to the press. But that was our first test pit in 2009. And they said “That looks promising, lets come back.”

And they came back every spring up to 2019?
Yes. But that test pit wasn’t really a full dig. But when they came back the next year is when we did a real dig thaw a 5 x 3 meters. Then it was 5 x 8 very year. And then more people .

And they were real archaeological digs?
Yeah. In the beginning it was Horton and a phD student and a bunch of American volunteers. And the second year he brought in more grad students. And the third year, even more. And years four on it got stupid. Super professional, an organized, and tones of college students because it was really clear we had found them.

So how did these digs corroborate your theory? It sounds like the primary sources said ‘This is what they would likely do.” And the dig is the evidence that says “this is what happened.” Is that the difference?
Yes. So before we started digging, say back in 1988, you had Dr. Mark Phelps. He came in and he’d been on Hatteras Island in 1974 when kids accidentally uncovered a mass grave with 110 Native Americans in it. So he knew there was a large native American presence on Hatteras. In the 90s, he was digging on a site in Buxton that dated to about 1650. However, he also found a gunlock from the 1580s — a very dateable item – but it was in a layer of about 1650. And he also found a signet ring with a lion on it, also from the 1580s. But it’s a little ambiguous. The items were from the 1580s but he found them in a layer from the 1650s, so maybe someone traded them. Maybe they just had old crap on them form someplace else. Not super likely, but probably. And we had the same problem. We found 1580s stuff in a 1600s layer. Tidewater pipes and venetian glass beads, a rapier and all this other stuff. It’s interesting. And it could just items they hung onto for while. What we need is a layer of pure 1580s stuff with nothing from the 1600s. And we ultimately found that — and that’s’ the key.

Of course, we went deeper than that. And when he did, he got sterile soil. Which means before that, they lived someplace else on the island. And based on what we saw, the Native Americans would live some place for 40 years and then scoot along. And after a while, they’d return to where they were. So you’d find stuff from the 1700s, then nothing, then the 1500s. And you have to a lot of digging to figure that out. But long story short: we found a layer of pure 1500s. And it was magic. We got over 600 post holes from long houses. So it’s like the heart of town, that’s a lot of buildings. And side-by-side were English buildings. So now it’s not just English artifacts coming up, like the smelted copper bun and the fire bar and the Nuremburg coin and all that stuff. So we’re getting artifacts from the 1500s in a layer from the 1500s. And there’s none of the glass beads or tidewater pipes or super common stuff from the 1600s. And it’s replaced with Native American stuff which is way cooler in my opinion. We also found a few arrowheads, which Native Americans abandoned completely by the mid 1600s. They were using guns and lead shots. We still had a problem though: in the 1580s the Lost Colony wasn’t the only English voyage to Hatteras. So how do we know it’s from 1587 and not 1585 or even 1584. Because all of them spent some time on Hatteras Island. And the answer as in those building. Because in 1584, it was a recon mission that wasn’t’ meant to last. They didn’t build houses. They lived in military field tents. In 1585, they did build houses on Roanoke island but the group that lived on Hatteras Island was only there for a month. They were sent here to spot ships under Edward Stafford. And they did — they spotted Francis Drake who saved them. But they didn’t build houses. They didn’t even have time to construct any before they left. But the metallurgy really put the nail in the coffin. If you’re in a scout party sent to spot ships and feed yourself, why are you going to bother smelting copper and making thousands of cooper gingerbread men? So this is somebody who’d been there for a really long time. Also, the scouting party – and I don’t know this for fact – but they probably set up on the ocean side of the island. They probably didn’t go completely native and live in the village surrounded by Indian houses. But that’s what we found: mixed architecture. The natives didn’t have square post holes. Square beams are an English construction. They hewed logs. The Indians didn’t do that. They didn’t have iron. And it’s difficult to hew a log into square with fucking seashell. So they bent spent into an arc – which was impressive. So the building style is English and is full of English items, as well.

But it was weird, because we expected the colony to set up on their own chunk of island and not be in the Indian village. We thought maybe once they broke down, a few dozen moved in with the Indians in their houses, but not build houses in the Indian village. That was unexpected.

And we ended up finding out this story. So, my fourth grade teacher’s dad ran a bar in Frisco in the 30s. And he found a Nuremburg token as well on accident. And he gave it to an archaeologist named William Haag in the 1950s. Mark got really interested in that because we found a Nuremburg token in the Indian village in Buxton. And they found some in Roanoke Island, as well, that matched up. And mark and I were moving a bookshelf in the Hatteras Island library and found Haag’s manuscript underneath. And I gave the latitude and longitude of where the token had been found. We went over there with a drone. And the Discovery Channel was with us at the time. And Nat Geo was at the dig site for the magazine. So Discovery got hold of this super-ridiculous, expensive drone. And we flew it over where the token was found in the 30s and we found a fort.

Is that the survivor camp in the book?
Yes. And we were gonna dig there this past spring, but that’s next. But they got really excited about it. It’s perfectly north south aligned. We went out and measured it. Why is there a token there? It’s not an Indian village. And I don’t want to give away too many details, but it’s the perfect place to put a survivor’s camp. You’re protected by high dunes, there’s a nice cove like a harbor. And you can see the Spanish but they can’t see you. Quick access to the inlet. It all makes sense. But we never touched it because were still digging Buxton and finding stuff. But we want to keep digging where are and get a look at the older Native American sites just before the Colony so we can see the impact that the English had on the tribe. To show how their diet changed and all that.

And that’s we looked at the last time mew we we dug. We went into a place around the 1400s that’s’ pure native. But there’s a layer of 1700s that’s on top. And it’s neat because they’re still eating deer and turtle and all that stuff. But the amount of birds in the midden goes way up after they get firearms — which makes sense. And being form Hatteras, it’s kind of funny they ate so many rare birds and turtles.

So what’s the magic bullet. Is it a skeleton that’s purely English from 1600? Is it DNA testing? Is it genealogy?
The skeleton thing would be good. But that may have already happened. Back in the 80s they built a house in the 80s that’s on top of a hill. And the Native Americans – at least on hatteras island – they never buried their dead on top of hills. They always buried them parallel to creeks. And that’s true all over the tidewater area. They buried them at the base of hills next to creeks and water. Burying on top of a hill is a very English thing to do. So in the 80s, someone built a house on top of a hill and they found a bunch of skeletons. And they took them and put them in hefty bags and covered them with dirt. That could’ve been the colony. But they didn’t’ report it, because it would’ve stopped the building. I heard about it as a kid, and all I can think of was: that house must be haunted. But looking back now, knowing what I know and what we’ve found nearby, it might’ve been them.

But, archaeology is not like TV where there’s this smoking gun — this one ite, that proves everything — this one thing you hold up like Indiana Jones. It’s more of a culmination of things. And finding loads of things is better than finding one thing. So I’d argue we’ve already found what we need to.

Obviously, there’s other groups doing different stuff – like Site X– have they responded yet?
Well, Brent Lane, who found the patch on the map that that focused on , he’s actually been on our digs. And he’s also a member of the Croatoan Archaeological Society. And he was there around the time we found a Nuremburg token, and he said ‘This is amazing.’ He told me about abou Site X a few days before he told the news. And it’s cool that he found a patch on the map. But the map is from 1585. And John White is who made the map with Thomas Harriet. The Colony was in 1587. They hadn’t even discussed bringing a colony in 1585. In the primary sources, there’s Ralph Lane’s account from 1585, where he’d been attack by Indians from Bertie. They’re called the Mandoagg. And they had showered Lane and his men with arrows while they were sailing down the Chowan River. And the Mandoagg were allies with the Secotan, who Lane went tower with and murdered their chief. So he wanted to put a fort where the rivers came together; which is where the patch is. And he said, in the sources, he said how he wanted to do that. But they never did.

And that’s what that map is. But because they never actually built that fort, but White had already painted it, so they put a patch over it. It’s basically 16th-century Wite-Out. And when they dug, they didn’t’ get anything beyond 1650. They found border ware, which is a type of English pottery that was around in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s hard to tell the difference between 1550 and 1650. But you can date it by what’s associated with. And everything else in that layer was 1650 forward. And they made a big deal out of it, but they’ve kind of quieted down.

What about the DNA?
Everyone in North Carolina and Virginia claims some level of DNA. The problem is you don’t have any genealogical records in NC before 1655. But even if they did, it’s not likely the children of any survivors would have English surnames — or even first names. More than likely Virginia Dare’s grandson was named “he who burns easy.” What you’re gonna have is what Lawson found: Indians who had blue eyes who said their ancestors were white people how could speak out of a book.

Basically, it’s a 100 year gap. Any number of people could’ve procreated with native people in that time?
Exactly. There’s too many variables. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. “My grandpa told me this!” Maybe it’s true. But you can’t prove it. because there’s this huge gap. And we’re talking about science here. We’re not on the speculation train. And you can’t make this gigantic leap from 1650 back.

Have the other researchers responded?
No. they’re not to reach out to me. I’m the antichrist to them. [laughs]
Brent Lane came to my book signing. But he’s not part of their group. He’s just a historian. And a good person. He found a spot on the map and reported it. And that’s cool. But it has nothing with the Colony. If it did, I would say so. I wish it did. That would be awesome.

Why is there not more cooperation between the different researchers?
I don’t know. My early experiences with Fist Colony Foundation weren’t positive, so I never reached out to them. I get along with some of them. And Fred Willard was pushing DNA. I wanted to dig in Hatteras, so I did.

So why did you start the Croatoan Archaelogical Society?
That was Mark’s idea. Mark is very professional. And after 2009, after we found those bodies, he sat down with my wife and me and six other people, and he said you need to form a non-profit. When you have that, you’re the local liaison for us when we come over. So we find places for researchers to stay, feed them, provide tools, we built the sifters in my garage. We had a pizza party and built them. In the beginning that’s how it was. It’s so much easier now . But in the beginning there was a wood shortage on the island because it was after Irene. And they were rebuilding the Comfort Inn so I asked them for the leftovers. Those first sifters were built out of the discarded fence from the Comfort Inn. Those have all been replaced with better stuff. But we still have one of the original ones. It’s got a green rope on it. And everyrone on the dig is convinced it’s lucky. Except for mark. He’s like “That’s nonsense” and we know that its nonsense. But ever time we find something cool, it’s like, ” Green sifter strikes again!” But even mark, one time, we got to this one layer and he was like “bring out the green sifter.” It’s kind of an inside joke. But I won’t throw it away.

So it funds your research. Funds your supplies. And it’s you guys working as the face of the research.
That’s right. And we’re not solely concerned with the Lost Colony. We want to do the Croatoan history in general. And everything else – French Indian war – all that stuff we go through on the way down. And after.

Some of the books’ most interesting moments describe what you find on either side. Like, you talk about how the Algonquin dialect was the same for Tidewater, Virginia and the Outer Banks. And some modern linguists have made the same connection with American English.
There were 29 dialects of Algonquin. The one on Hatteras was called the bird dialect. The Secotan were right across the Sound, and they had the wolf dialect. But they also spoke that dialect over in Pamlico county. So the mainland part of dare had the wolf diet. But Pamlico and Hatteras had the bird dialect. So there had to be some back and forth. But I guess it’s not that weird because if you go straight across from Hatteras Island, you’d be at the south end of Mattamuskeet. And the wolf dialect was probably influenced by who the Secotan were next to. And they also had the bird dialect in Currituck. So it’s like a letter C from Currituck, to Nags Head, Hatteras and across the sound in Pamlico. But you have 29 different dialects, and the one we had was in a very small area.

How’d you learn the Algonquin names Was that in the history center?
No. Not at all. That was very difficult. A man named Dr. Blair Rudes spent his whole life doing that and I got lucky and met him before he died. He was the man. If you ever saw the movie New World, with Colin Farrell — horrible movie — but the one saving grace is they used Native American actors from out west, then they asked them to speak Tidewater Algonquin. Of course, they didn’t know it any bettet than we would, so they had to learn their lines from listening to CDs. And those CDs were made by Dr. Rudes. And he sent me a lot of other stuff. And I wish he hadn’t died, because a lot of it I don’t understand. I’m still reading this stuff and to figure it out.

But the first thing I did was look at the people’s names and see ‘which kind of Algonquin is this?’ And Manteo means “to snatch.” And it’s the motion a blue jay does when it divebombs its prey. And it a bird dialect, so it’s Hatteras Island. So is Menatonan. And even David Biers Quinn, who wrote the Roanoke Voyages, which is the Bible on this stuff, he even said Menatonan was the only Croatan was mentioned by name besides Manteo. But he’s wrong. There’s one more, Skico. Who is Menatonan’s son. Wanchese means ‘to take flight off of water. So when I see a bird in the canal take off, I think Wanchese. He’s of the wolf dialect, so he’s probably from Mann’s Harbor.

So, the Secotan had kind of taken over Hatteras in 1582. Wingina sent his brother, Granganimeo, down there to kind of rule over with like 50 bodyguards, Wanchese being one them, so when they took two natives back, Manteo was from Croatoan, but Granganimeo made sure they took one of his dudes, too. Which was Wanchese. That’s why it’s confusing. What Arthur Barlow wrote down, he fucked it all up. He thought there was one tribe. But if you read everything, you figure out what’s going on, especially once you get into the dialects of Algonquin. I didn’t go that deep in the book, I just said what happened. And if anyone has a problem, I can answer it. But if I went that deep into it, nobody would read the book. So I had to just say what happened in chronological order.

Other cool things you discuss are how contact changed native life like diet and weapons. Lie how they clearly move from arrows to gun. And finding brandy bottles. What kind of patterns emerged as you dug?
The natives had nets. They used shells as weights. And they changed to lead because that way’s better, it sinks a lot faster. So the fishing changed. The hunting changed. The diet changed a little. Still eating fish, and deer. The farming doesn’t seem to be affected that much. The seeds are still the same. Pretty much. Some English seeds got introduced that seemed to thrive. And there is one reference to that by Barlowe in 1584 where they said they tested some English peas that grew like 14 inches in six days, so maybe when they came back in 85 and 87 they brought those peas along with because they knew they did well here. And we ended up finding English peas – or seeds for them. We have a botanist in our group, and pumpkin seed are probably most common, but they’re also bigger. not a lot of seeds are gonna make it to now. But for crops it’s beans, corn, squash, pumpkins, peas sunflower seeds and cucumbers. A bunch of different kinds of melons, cantaloupes. One interesting thing we found was peaches. Because those aren’t supposed to be here. That’s not a new world food. However, the Spanish brought peaches into Florida 90 years before this. And the Indians did trade peaches. So maybe the English brought them; maybe they traded with Indians. There’s no way to tell.

The brandy bottles? It’s ridiculous how much brandy they got into. And they continued to like it. Because in the 1600s they’re alcoholics for sure. And then you start to see smokehouses, which is the older Indians’ reaction to the alcoholism. Which is building little sweat lodges for them to go into and burn a bunch of tobacco and try to cure the alcoholism. It doesn’t. But they though it would purify them. They also had the yaupon, the black drink, which make you shit your brains out. And they would take that during a holiday – which was a day of forgiveness. And they would drink that stuff and get the squirts and that was the physical symbol of getting the badness out of their body. And after they all had diarrhea, they would have forgiven themselves for all their wrong-doings. Hatteras still has this, but they call it Old Christmas. Every January 6, Hatteras Islanders go and drink and beat the shit out of each other, and everything’s square after. [laughs]

It’s funny you say that. Because if I say, “They eat seafood, they hunt, they drink too much,” not a whole lot has changed. I don’t know what that says about geography influencing human nature, or humans finding places that fit their personalities. But it’s interesting.
Pretty much. And the funny thing, too, is if you pay real close attention, the very first thing the Indians traded to English, was two piles of fish on Hatteras Island. They came in two ships that first year, and this guy rode up to them in a canoe. And thy said that, after speaking many things not understood – because the guy’s goin’ on in Algonquin – they gave him a shirt and a hat, and let him taste some wine and some meat, and they let him go. And when they let him go, they said he started furiously fishing out of his canoe, and filled the whole thing with fish. And he put it in two piles on the beach, and he pointed to one ship and then pointed to the first pile; then he pointed to the other ship, and pointed to the second pile. Like, “This is for you.” And he left. And they said it was the best fish they’d tasted in all the world.

But its ‘it’s funny to me how perfect it is that the first thing Hatteras Indians gave them was fish.

Well, everywhere people envision Thanksgiving, they think Plymouth rock. But when you talk about this story, it’s the story of native cultures and white people everywhere. It starts with some friendship, ends with some violence.
Well as far as a big meal between Native Americans and English goes, the first one is 1584. They said that the Hatteras Island natives would bring them six freshly killed bucks every day. And coneys, which are rabbits. And those swamp rabbits taste just like pork.

It is analog yof how the new world started. A little bit of feast, followed by a bunch of violence. And largely due to misunderstanding. Because as you point out, the Secotan were aggressive, but the Croatoan were friendly.
And it went both ways. Those 15 guys that were dropped off in ‘86 didn’t do anything. And the Secotan attacked them and killed two of them because, you know, a white boy’s a white boy. Both sides were guilty of, “They look the same, let’s kill ‘em.” And that’s human nature. And if they natives would have dominated in the end, they could’ve. The white people happened to win.

Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. I mean, Virginia Dare is basically the first anchor baby.
Well, I think it would be cool, if they redid the play from the Indian perspective. And start with Virginia Dare as an old woman, and she’s sitting down, telling the story to Indian kids. And she talks about how they came over and go from there. That would be way cooler. Maybe I’ll start my own play in Hatteras. And start it just like that.

I assume there had to be Native American sites in town, correct? Or did they stay south of the bridge or on Roanoke island?
There was a very tiny outpost on Roanoke island. It only had 9 houses. Barlowe lists 9 houses. And what it was a satellite. So Manns Harbor was the real Indian Village. And they had a little camp on north end of Roanoke Island where they’d collect oysters and stuff. But it was like the suburbs of Manns Harbor. They didn’t really live there there in force because there’s a lack of fresh water. It’s very swampy. On Hatteras, they had a natural aquifer there. Not many places have that. And you can’t live without water. They’d frequent there. And they’d camp there for days, but it was more of a suburb. But back then Manns Harbor was a thriving place and Manteo was this little nine-house village that was really part of Manns Harbor.

What about KDH and nags head? Any sites there or are they all down south?
They’re all on the soundside. Colington Island had a significant amount of Indians in the Mid Woodland Period. But we’ve taken pottery samples from all of those. Kill Devil Hills, instead of having shell mixed in, like Hatteras. It has quartz. And it’s older. But whatever happened, not a lot of Indians were living out on the beaches when the English came over. They were all on Hatteras. They had about 1000 people. When Ralph Lane was here, he said the largest village they saw was Chowanoke – which had 700 fighting men. Which is about 1/5th of the population. So 3500 people. But there were only 32 buildings, because the buildings were huge. They had these 60 to 70-foot long houses, with extended families. And we know from Jamestown records, there was about 23 people in a house. So that would be similar here. And Hatteras had a between 15 and 20 in those. And you do the math, and that’s 1000 people. And the English archaeologists say that based on the middens there had to be at least 1000 people on Hatteras. But we’ve lost so much to erosion it’s hard to say for sure. But that quickly dwindled. By 1701, when Lawson went there, they only had 16 fighting men. So did Chowanoke. And many had less. Because disease had ripped them up so much. And that’s maybe 80 to 90 people. And most of them had blue eyes. There was a small pox epidemic that ran through Eastern North Carolina in 1695. And you think about COVID, that’s nothing compared to this. Ninety percent of Native Americans died. And small pox is a horrible way to die. And even that didn’t wipe ‘em out. And on Hatteras, the fact that many had blue eyes, is probably why they survived. Because [those characteristics] would make them a little more immune.

What’s the future of archaeology on the Outer Banks? You just brought up erosion. Is it sort of a race against time?
It is. Because if we become crybabies about building houses, they won’t give us permission to dig at all. You just have to ask to go dig in the part of the yard where they didn’t put a pool. [laughs] It’s one of those things. If you come across as some kind of off-the-wall leftist that doesn’t want people to build houses, you’ll never get permission to dig on their property. So you just have to say, “Hey man, we’re just here for the knowledge. Thank you so much. we just want to salvage a little bit.” And that’s what we’ve been doing. One of the Mid Woodland sites in Frisco got completely ruined by a giant house and a pool. But the let us in before they did it. They said, “Hurry up!” And we said ‘Okay!’

Horton says it’s just a taster of what’s to come. What’s that mean?
Nothing that I can tell you, but it’s all good news. I had to ask him, “I want to put something out. I’m dying to talk about some of this stuff.” And he said, “Just don’t mention A, B and C.” but if you read between the lines, you can read what else we found. But he’ll put it out there. We just need to finish the dig first. I’ll just say that we got ‘em man. Trust me: We got’ em. That’s all I can say.

Any chance one group went to Hatteras, and one went to Site X or somewhere else? And there’s more than one answer?
There’s always a possibility. I think, initially, they all went to Hatteras and their grandkids went wherever. But I don’t think the colonists split up. There’s no evidence for it. Just pure speculation. And there’s no reason to say they went inland either. But had the gone inland they would’ve gone to some place that was at least allies of Croatoan, like Currituck or something.


What’s in your wallet? If you didn’t now before, chances are are you do now. With the economy in a slide, more folks are tapping into petroleum-based revenue streams — aka credit cards. Assuming you can get a lender to flow you some dough.

“I know all about being turned down by lenders,” laughs 33-year-old Alex Cohill. “The first time I went to buy a new vehicle, they were like, ‘We can’t give you financing! Your credit score is too low!’”

That was eight years ago. The former financial recruiter had just moved to Nags Head after losing his Pittsburgh gig during the last recession. Strapped with student debt and bad credit, he started researching ways to improve his chances to access more money. He figured out the most direct way was to…go assume even more debt?

“Not really,” says Cohill. “You have to pay the bill off every month. But using credit cards was the easiest way I saw — for me any way — to take advantage of money I was already spending and increase my own personal credit score, which can unlock more ways to save money overall.”

Groceries, gas, a good meal out? It all goes on the right card to gather the greatest benefits. Today, he’s not just chock full of good credit, he’s jam-packed with great info on what cards deliver the best rewards, and how to manipulate them so you can make money on everyday purchases — and save dough on future borrowing. We asked Cohill to run down his top picks for plastic that pays off both in the short-term and for the long haul. — Matt Walker

The following interview took place in April 2020. An edited version appears in Outer Banks Milepost Issue 9.2

Where are you from originally?
I grew up in New Jersey, actually.

How’d you end up here?
Like a lot of people, my family always vacationed here. About 8 years ago, I was working in Pittsburgh and the company I was working for closed my section down. I was in the financial recruiting division. I lost my job. I was working in business development. I got a nice little severance, and I figured I’d move to the beach for the summer and figure stuff out. I was loving it so I stayed here. Met my wife and never looked back.

How did you become a credit card expert? Does it go back to your financial job background?
Maybe. The company I worked for was very large. Long story short, I got an offer to run a struggling office in Pittsburgh and turn it around inside of a year. And then they closed the division 9 months later. So I started caring a lot about personal finance stuff then. And moving down here, obviously things are different. People have to manage their money because of the seasonality of where we live. And so I was younger, and things were a little out of control for me , which I didn’t like. so I started looking at credit cards specifically as a way to take advantage of money I was already spending. And using credit cards was the easiest way I saw – for me any way – to increase my own personal credit score, which can unlock more ways to save money overall. You get better rates on lending if you buy a vehicle ore are fortunate enough to be able to buy a house. So that’s where it started for me.

And that’s when shit hit the fan last time. Now it’s hitting the fan again. So what about credit cards that piqued your interest? And what did you learn?
I always thought I was unique in my ignorance about those types of things. One of the most significant things I’ve learned is that a lot of people are in that same position of ignorance: they don’t know what a credit score is, or that they have one, and that it plays a pretty significant role in what they need. Because there’s nothing more ridiculous, and this happened to me, I wanted to get a new vehicle. And they’re like, “Okay, we can’t give you financing because you’re credit score is so low.” And I was like, “what are you talking about?”

A lot of people don’t realize that not having a credit card can ruin you, too, because you don’t have a record of being a good risk.
Yeah, there’s five different factors that influence your credit score. But the biggest thing learned is what makes what makes up a credit score, and what you can do to positively affect those factors. One’s time. There’s no way you can make time go by quicker and add more successful payment history and age to the accounts you have. The best you can do is responsibly manage the credit you do have, and if you don’t have any, you’re in a good position because you also don’t have any debt — which is ideal in some ways. But there’s a lot of different tiers of credit products. So for a person who has no credit, they have no debt, so a lender would consider them risky because they don’t have anything to go off of. But what they do have is an opportunity to prove themselves. Because they can get something like a secured card. Or some companies give credit cards with lower limits – like $300 or $500 – to prove yourself. And that’s where I delved in.

I had student loans, like so many people, but that was really it. So I didn’t have a lot of credit experience. My first car I bought cash. I lived in a city for years and didn’t need a car after the age of 20. So, until I as 23, I didn’t have any need to figure that stuff out. So what I learned was why credit scores are important. And using a credit card is the easiest way to boost your creit score if it’s non-existent or suffering.

So what’d you do? Apply for a low-number card? Get the best card you can and pay I off? is that the process?
For me, I went to Capital One. They have a reputation for being a lender that will give lines of credit to people who have no credit. But I guess there’s different strategies, and it depends on what you personally are trying to accomplish and where you stand. If you have outstanding debts with missed payments on them, you’re going to have a problem. Anything below basically a 99% payment history is going to be pretty significant as far as points being taken off of your overall credit score. So, if you’re in a position, where you have say, missed payments or no credit at all, a credit company is going to give you a very a low limit – if you’re even approved. So the best place to start is your bank, because they’ll have a secured credit product. Or Discover has a really good secured credit product because it allows you to earn rewards.

Basically when people ask me, friends or whatever, the formula’s not the same for everyone. Depends on what you have going on going into it. For me, I’m fortunate enough to have all my monthly expenses mapped out. So I know where I’m spending my money and I know the credit cards that will give me the greatest return on those expenses. But for a person who’s not in a position to get any credit card they might want, I recommend the Discover card, because it allows you to earn money on your expenses while still being a secured product. And then, unsecures after a year.

So, define a secured product.
If you get a credit card with a $400 limit, you would put down a $400 deposit. And the company would hold that in escrow for a year, and then give you the money back after the secured period is over.

So you spend $400 to have $400. It’s like the training wheels approach.
That’s a great way to put it. It’s an entry level way into having a credit card. And after a year, if you made all your payments on time, they give you the $400 back and you get to keep the line of credit. And they might even increase it to $1000.

So you’re worth taking a risk on. And you can use the card like you originally intended. And I assume that’s like an “emergency” credit card. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to run up a credit card and use it.
Absolutely. Paying interest no your credit card if you don’t need to is just wasting money. So having a secured card, something like that, you build credit to unlock more options as far as a higher tier of lending rates for a car loan or a credit card. If you want to move into a more significant rewards situation. So Discover, is 1% flat cash back on all purchases on a secure Discover card. So that’s 1% of money you won’t make otherwise. And even if you put a $400 deposit down, let’s say you pay $400 a month on groceries, you do that on that card, get your 1%, pay the card off, the total balance resets to zero. Do it again the next month.

And over the course of the year, you put $4800. And you got $48 at the end of the year spending like you normally would.
Exactly right. And once you establish yourself with lenders as a less risky customer, you unlock a lot better products for yourself. So, for me, I have credit cards I use specifically for groceries, and I have a card for any travel related expenses, and then credit cards I use for overall expenses, and then one I use just for restaurants – because I get the highest return in specific rewards that those credit cards offer. Usually it’s percentages or travel points or what have you.

The way to use a credit card is pay it off, right? So you only spend what you know you can pay off, and then you build up in tiers and they trust you enough to give you more money, and you get a loan for this or that. Because if you don’t have a credit card, you go to get a loan on a house and they’re like “no.” Which is almost as bad as being over your head.

So, the best way to use a credit card is to pay it off. So you need to set limits in your head of what you can afford, use only that much, then pay it off to build up tiers of more and more credit and open up opportunities for more loans and better cards.

So that’s where the training wheel credit cards come in. So once you get past training wheel status: it’s how you use that formula to get more benefits for your money.
Kind of. This is why, when friends ask me, “which should credit card should I get?” I say ‘it depends.’ If you want to be as intense or insane – or as my wife might say , ‘anal’ — as I am, and have different cards you use for every sort of expense, then the first thing a person needs to figure out is where they spend their money right now. That’s the first step: what are you spending money on all the time? And what aligns with your personal monthly expenses. And I think the way to start is to think about the different factors that make up a credit score. Some of the you can work on and some you can’t. Length of accounts is a big factor and anything less than 5 years is considered “still risky.” And that’s not something you can do much about. You also need to consider the percentage of available credit is and how you’re using it. If you have zero dollar sin available credit, you’re not going to get a significant boost to your score. And the amount of available credit over all is another factor, and your payment history, and what types of credit you have. So if you have a car loan, and a personal loan, and a credit card, and student loans, that’s a mixture of different types of accounts that you have opportunities to develop responsibility with. So having no debt and no cards, unless you’re independently wealthy with cash, you’re not really in a position to demonstrate to lenders that you can be responsible. And unless you’re very fortunate to have inherited wealth or earned wealth, then you’re’ going to need a loan at some point to buy a car or a house or an emergency – whatever it is. So, it goes back to “why credit cards?” It’s the easiest thing I could personally tackle sitting in my living room, the easiest first step to positively affect my overall credit rating and my appeal to lenders to want to be in business with me — to give me money at a rate I’m happy with.

So before you go into this, it stands to reason, you want to be paying all your bills. It’s a big ding to be paying your bills. So before you get into credit card debt you want to be paying all your bills to start with.
100%. So I graduated with college with student loans. And you have a grace period before you have to start paying them back. And that time came for me and I was like, “I’m just gonna ignore this for a while.” And I got into some trouble with that obviously. And when I went to apply for a car loan they said my score was too low. And I realized that was dumb on my part. And I knew I couldn’t miss any more payments. But negative payments only stay on your report for seven years, so those don’t appear on my credit anymore, fortunately. But I knew I had to counter balance that somehow. And the way I did that was giving myself opportunity to pay positive payments. And that’s where the credit card came in.

So you’re never too late to start. Within seven years you’ll be out of the woods. You just have to stick to those habits.

So if you’re at training wheel candidate — you have no credit or horrible credit – you get the secured Discover card and you show your trustworthy. And if you keep paying it off you get some benefit.

Is it safe to say that some of the bigger rewards cards also have a hefty interest rate? Or some catch that pays off later? They’re sort of banking on you getting behind some day?
Yeah, that’s a concern. And a lot of the top tier rewards cards come with an annual fee. So that’s where a little bit of math comes in. So, to give you a scenario, I had a friend who wanted a card just for restaurants and entertaining. He goes out to eat a lot. So Capital One has two cards: the Savor Card and Savor One. Saver One is no annual fee and you get 3% back at restaurants. The savor card is $95 and you get 4% back. So, if you’re going to spend more than $9500 a year at restaurants, the Savor card is worth it. Because you’ll get more than 1% back in rewards.

Wow. And $9500 doesn’t’ sound like a lot over a year, That’s $800 a month at restaurants.
Exactly. And American Express for example, has a ‘cash back’ family of cards. So the Preferred Cash you get 6% on groceries — and that’s the best across any card. And that comes with a $95 a year fee. And they have the American Express Cash, which is 3%. So if you think your family spends $1000 a month on groceries, you to think, is my $95 going to be made up by getting 3% more over the course of a year, or not?” And it has other rewards associated, too. Is 3% on gas going to be better than 2%? So you have to start thinking about it – and that’s only if you’re at the position to pick and choose the credit cards you can apply for and hopefully get approved for. And then you have to dedicate those cards to those expenses.

So, if you know you commute a lot, and you know your family eats a lot of groceries, you know that card makes sense. Then you have to decide, is it worth spending the money to get those extra percentages back. And that’s where you do that personal math. But first, you can shop based around your lifestyle.
Right. If you’re a single person living alone, are you going to spend a grand a month on groceries? Probably not. But you might go out to restaurants and bars a lot. So a card that focuses on groceries won’t make sense, but that Savor card might. You have to know your own budget. You have to know your fixed expenses, and you have to know your variable expenses, because if you don’t you won’t be able to make an informed decision about a credit card. But only if you have options. Some people won’t have options. They’ll only have one or two cards they can get, they only have a few hundred bucks to put down on a secured card. And that’s great, because it’s an important first step. But if you are in a position to where you want to start using rewards, you have to know your own budget and where you’re spending your money to make a more informed decision to yield the best results.

So you’ve got a training wheels card – that’s the Discover. You’ve got a couple of options for dining out – the Savor cards — and options for more domestic lifestyle – American Express.
And the Savor card also has rewards for concert tickets, and theater tickets – they’re geared toward people who spend a lot of time going out doing fun things. Probably people that don’t have kids [laughs].

Do most banks have some examples for all these?
Yes and no. The major lenders you think about Chase or American Express, Capital One, Citibank, Barclay’s, Bank of America has a lot of decent cards for being a bank. PNC has a couple that rare worth looking into. So American Express and Chase are more into travel rewards. So they have a lot of products that are geared toward people who travel. And some are affiliate cards – American Express has a relationship with Delta, and Chase is United, and American Airlines is Citi. So people who live in Atlanta, a Delta hub, why would you get a Citi card which is American? Norfolk flies a lot of Delta, too, so they may think of that product too. So they each have some skin in each of the areas, or want to.

So are any of the travel cards better than others?
It depends on what you want to do. Capital One has the “Adventure Card.’ And we haven’t even talked about sign-up bonuses, and that’s an important element. A lot of the more lucrative rewards cards have sign up bonuses attached to them, which is something to consider. And right now the most important consideration people will probably be making is introductory 0.0 APR periods. So, if you’re thinking just travel, the Capital One Venture card is 95 bucks a year. But you get two-times “travel points” per dollar spent. So I spend probably 500 a month on that card specifically — on say, water bill, life insurance, other stuff — so I get about 1000 points a month. So over the year, I get $120, which is like a night in a hotel. So that balances out the 95 fee for me. But what’s more worth it is they recoup your TSA Pre-Check or Global entry fees. So that’s a pretty significant benefit. So Venture is a good one. But it also come with a 50,000 point bonus for travel. That’s 500 for a ticket, or a couple nights in a hotel or AirBnB. So that’s a good one. And then Adventure 1, is no annual fee, 20,000 point bonus – or 200 bucks. And you get 1.5 points on all purchases. So again it comes down to math and what makes sense for you.

But if you’re going to Hawaii every year, you might get a United card and everything you spend goes into miles and that’ show you pay for your ticket.
Yeah, and Air Alaska and Air Hawaii, have their own branded cards. So do Royal Caribbean and and Disney —

Wouldn’t want one of those now…
No kidding. But funny enough, a lot of travel-related cards are restructuring their rewards now. Especially the ones with high annual fees, because hey know nobody’s traveling.

So, it might make sense now to have an all-around card, since you might not be eating out as much or traveling as much.
Right now, if a person is getting a credit card tomorrow, and they feel like their credit is in a position where they can get a card with a low introductory rate or zero percent for an extended period of time and a decent signup bonus, then straight cash back rewards on groceries because you’re eating at home more. That’s the probably the way to do it.

So we talked gas. Restaurants. Groceries. Travel. Are there other obvious categories or are those the big ones?
Yeah. There’s no, like, daycare ones unfortunately. But Citi has a card called Double Cash, which is good, because you get one percent rewards as you spend it and another percent back as you pay. So that’s 2% cash on everything. And it’s no fee. But there’s no sign up bonus. And usually, you’ve got an introductory bonus rate for 9 months. But it’s a solid card for sure. If you have a cad that’s’ got a $150 sing up bonus, that’s $15,000 you’ll have to spend – at 1% — to get that money back. So, what can you spend on your card to make that money back? Can you pay your rent or your mortgage with your credit card? Can you pay your kids day care? Can you make a car payment? Your cell phone bill? Cable? Internet? And if you can, make sure they don’t charge a processing fee, because some people do. So total up those bill and see how much money you’re going to potentially spend. And ask: is it going to be worth $150 right now?

And at some point, it’s like “How much work is it to keep track of everything?”
Sure. And for example, PayPal and Venmo, if you pay with a credit card, it’s 3%. But if it’s automatic draft, it’s no percentage. So is that worth paying with a card? Probably not.

So it sounds like your saying, “Know your key expenses, know your behaviors, and pick a card or two that instinctively make sense: “Use this card for restaurants, this one for groceries, this one for travel.” Then lean back and know that collectively it will work out.
Yeah. Focus on two or three things. My family, my wife and two kids, I know our most significant expense after a house and my daughter’s school is groceries. So getting the most money back for groceries makes sense. We like to go out to eat, but we don’t do it all the time. But we do it enough that having some cash back for restaurants – with no annual fee – why would I not do that? If we spend $200 to $300 on a restaurant per month, we get $80 to $100 back a year, why not? But gas, restaurants, groceries are usually the ones people focus on.

But even doing the math, it’s s $80 or $100 – maybe $200. And only if you pay the thing off. You’re not gonna come out richer spending money. So the number one thing people need to recognize their own behavior. If you’re not responsible with money, adding a credit card to the mix likely won’t help.
Yeah, it’s not free money. Do I go out and say, “I’m gonna get the $20 olive oil instead of the normal $8 because I’m getting six percent back?” No. you have to apply that same logic to every purchase. You don’t go put that new iPhone on your credit card for $8 in rewards. It makes no sense. You want to make money back on the expenses that are already happening. And right now, people aren’t ‘driving as much, so not as big of a deal. But Amazon? Chase has and Amazon and an Amazon Priime card. If you have an Amazon Prime card, you get 5% back on all your purchases on Amazon. So that’s probably a decent card to have in your wallet right now.

Have it plugged into your Amazon account and leave it there.
Yeah. And other cards have rotating categories. Like Discover it and the Chase Freedom card. They’ll offer 5% each quarter on groceries or Amazon and, or gas and going out. And they try to do it seasonally. So holidays is online shopping. And in summer its’ gas and restaurants because people travel and eat out. And I have that Discover card. And I got it for the sign up bonus — the first year they doubled the cash back on everything. And I ended up with 1000 cash at the end of the year, because I maxed out all the categories. So for that first year, I was pumping every single dollar that we spent through that card. And I didn’t use any rewards. And at the end of the year I earned $938 bucks because they literally doubled everything. And that’s pretty sweet for a sign up bonus.. But the thing is, I didn’t lose any money because I didn’t pay any interest. I would buy things and then I would pay it off every month.

And they’re betting on you to do the opposite. It’s all a gamble. They want to sucker you in, hook you with a low rate, and at some point, they’re betting shit happens and you’re not as diligent as you thought you’d be, and the payback comes in.
Totally. And credit cards make their money two ways: transaction fees and interest fees. So, if you’re making 20 transactions a month, they’re getting a percentage of those. And on top of that, if you’re carrying a balance, they’ll make money on interest fees. So they want you to make transactions, but they also want that interest. So they want people that are going to screw up and carry a balance from month to month. So basically it’s you versus them: “I’m gonna have self control. I’m not going to screw up. I’m gonna get these rewards and I’m gonna pay nothing.” Because if you pay no annual fee, then all you’re doing is getting

Will it be harder for people to get cards in light of the crisis?
I think I’s going to be easier, personally, because people are hunkering down and banks want to lend you money. Credit card companies want people to use their products. They’re losing money on transaction fees. People are making fewer transactions. They’re doing one big grocery run, paying a Netflix bill and a cell phone bill. They’re not running around all day ibuying coffee and then gas and then a hot dog. So instead of putting 20 to 30 transactions on a card, they’re down to eight or 9. So I think they might try to lure people in. But that’s just my own thoughts. I haven’t done any research.

Their job isn’t to make sound financial choices for you. Their job is to turn a profit. And if it means getting you on a hook, they will.
Yeah, they don’t care about the consumers, other than dollar signs. It’s sad, but it’s true. That’s why I say it’s us versus them. Credit card companies don’t care about you. So you shouldn’t concern yourself with what they think about you. You have to do what’s best for yourself.

So don’t feel guilty about jumping from 0% interest credit card to 0% interest credit card.

But I assume that can catch up to you, too.
Well, it depends. When I first started getting into this, I wanted to get all these zero percent interest cards. Fortunately, I had enough self-control to pace it out. And it has a benefit, but it has negative impacts as well. Because one of the score factors is the amount of new credit you have and total accounts. So, if you have five years of credit history, and five accounts – say 2 student loan accounts and two credit cards. All of a sudden you open a new credit card, now you have six account over five years. Now your average age of accounts isn’t one year. It’s like eight months. So if you open a bunch of credit cards immediately, and your average age of accounts goes down, a percentage of your credit score is going to drop. But opening a bunch of credit cards very quickly, you’re adding inquires to your account – which will drop your score. And some of the more conservative banks, if you have five new accounts or three credit cards within a 24 month period, it’s an automatic denial for any of their products.

That’s crazy.
And one thing you don’t want to do is waste an inquiry of you’re not sure you’ll be approved. So everybody is entitled to a free credit repot every year. You can go to each of the bureaus, and you can get a free report. It’s not going to be a score, but it’s a report, that they see with al your credit history. You have to pay for the score, which might be worth it—it’s like 10 or 20 bucks for one time. And all those lenders use the FICO model. But all the free sites like Credit Karma, they use a different method, and it’s a toy in comparison. It’s not real. They’re so non-representative of the actual score that a bank would see. And those sites are all advertising platforms. They want you to apply for cards through their site, because they make a nickel or a click and 50 cents per application – or whatever. It’s in their best interest to sell you a credit card product through their website. It’s not in their best interest to give you realistic odds. So it’s a worthwhile expense to get your score though one of the bureau’s directly.

And a lot of credit card companies have pre-qualification tools where you put in name, address, income, etc. and they’ll list if they have any pre-qualified offers for you. And that doesn’t count as an application. And it’s an easy way to check without dinging your credit score. It’s a soft pull, so they’re not doing a hard inquiry on your credit so it won’t count against your credit at all.

It’s safe to say, this is all about making debt an asset, right? Because everyone’s gonna have debt. So there are ways to make debt work for you. You just have to be careful.
Exactly. And having the amount of available credit that you have, does factor into your debt to income ratio. Because if you have $70,000 in student loans and car payments – and you make $70 grand a year. You have an even debt to income ratio. But if you have a higher amount of credit, totalling a $100,000, using a small amount of that credit, say carrying a $1000 balance from month to month – – that’s 1%, which is an incredibly small amount of credit usage.

And that’s a good thing then.
Very good. So there’s percentage tiers within the credit scoring model. Zero to 10% is considered the best. So if you have $100,000 in available credit and your monthly balance is between 1 and 10%. But it goes by 10s. So 11 to 20, 21 to 30, and above 30 is considered more risky.

So if you’re running around with your credit cards maxed out and a bunch of student loans, you can’ be relied upon to handle any more. So ‘pay your shit off’ is what it comes down to.
Right. Don’t’ overspend outside your means. And that’s’ why making a budget is important. And it can be daunting. But just knowing your fixed expenses every month, can be very eye-opening and help you manage your expenses – more so on the variable end. But it will help you not incur unnecessary debt. So, I spread zero percentage interest rates over certain credit cards, so if any major expenses come up in a given period, we know we wouldn’t have to pay interest on them. And we talk about missing payments having an effect. But basically, if you can prove that you’ve been making payments on time for a about a year, having those missed payments in the past will be less significant of a factor. More conservative lenders might be looking for two, three of four years. But some of them, this day in age, can be more flexible.

So, if you are getting behind in these scary times, it won’t cripple you forever.
Totally. But when using credit tools as a component of personal finance strategy, if people do have collections accounts, and they’re worried, right now it’s not the time to worry about paying off those collection debts. Because just because you pay it off, that negative mark’s not going to go way from your credit report. It’ll show it’s resolved, but it will still be there. So there’s no benefit right now, when times are tight, to pay off those accounts. Put your money toward real expenses. There’s very little [immediate] benefit to paying off an account that’s been moved to collections Those agencies buy those debts from hospitals or other lenders for pennies on the dollars. There are different strategies you can use, though. You can offer a compromise – “you say $100, I’ll give you $50, and you take it off my credit report.” And they might do it, because odds are they spent even less. In that case, it’s beneficial. But if not, let it ride.

And I guess If you have a zero percent APR, its’ pay it off before it kicks in. Because 18% adds up quick.
And there’s credit cards that are for balance transfers. If you’re looking to unload some high-end interest debt to a different card, there will be a fee, but some offer really long introductory deals. But they want you to transfer the balance. So, instead of having a really strong reward structure, the benefit is having a really long introductory balance transfer rate.

And they just hope you screw up.
The want you to screw up. They have interest in you successful managing your credit.

That’s your responsibility.
Yes. And that’s the thing with credit cards. If someone’s just getting into it, yes, you’re getting rewards, but more importantly, you’re setting yourself up for – down the road — being able to get the best financing on a car, or the best mortgage rate. And that’s where thing spay off. The short-term benefit is a signup bonus and 3% on gas or whatever, but the real long term benefit is getting tier-one lending. That can save you thousands when you got to get a car or house. So the long-term benefit is the impact on your credit score, which overall improves your attractiveness to lenders.


In Wilmington, residents still buy bottled water to avoid drinking GenX. In Charlotte, running a hot bath might mean soaking in coal ash. Boiling pasta in Pittsboro? Prepare to sample some polyfluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS). But on the Outer Banks?  

“I’ve always said, the only way you’re going to die from drinking the water here is if you drown in it,” says Ken Flatt, who retired last year after serving 30 years as Dare County’s Utilities Director. “We’re so regulated. We’re right behind the nuclear power industry, I would say.”

It’s more than just how our water’s treated. It’s where it begins: pumped from a deep, confined aquifer as opposed to pulled from rivers and lakes, which can carry more pollutants. Add a comparatively young and ever-evolving system of high-tech facilities — and a dedicated team of longtime workers — and you get a product with both plenty of safety checks and precious few secrets.

“People think of us as a black box, but we’re really open,” says our current Utilities Director, Patrick Irwin, who took the job after working 29 years for both Currituck and Dare County. “We do school tours. We bring in college students. We’re always happy to convey information on all of our areas, because it’s important for us that people know what we do.”

We sat down inside their state-of-the-art Skyco plant to find out: what makes our tap water so top-notch?

The print version of this interview appeared in Milepost 9.1, Spring 2020.

MILEPOST: First things first: where does our water originate?

PATRICK IRWIN: We pump from the Yorktown aquifer, which has a confining layer [of clay] on top, and a confining layer on bottom, so it’s real consistent. It’s still brackish — it’s saltwater and freshwater — but as we bring the water up and push it through our membranes, we don’t have to make that many adjustments. If you’re a surface water treatment plant, every time it rains you’ve got to change how you feed your chemicals. So using the aquifer was a great decision made early on.

KEN FLATT: And that aquifer is 10,000 to a million years old, depending the layer. However, it has to be treated with chlorine because there are organics in it.

And by “organics” you mean dead trees, dead animals…

KEN FLATT: Anything carbon-based. Of course, when you combine organics with our disinfection — which is chlorine — they can form trihalomethanes, but those are regulated, too.

PATRICK IRWIN: And that chlorine keeps our water safe from bacteria. But there are contaminants in all water. The question is: at what level is it safe to drink? That’s the EPA’s job. Our job’s about following regulations. And as regulations keep getting tighter, we have to keep working on our treatment to stay ahead of it. For example, the trihalomethane regulations were 100 parts per billion, and the state lowered them to 80 ppb. In Dare, we were right around the high 70s, but we knew the EPA would eventually drop it, so we went to 20 ppb with the nanofiltration units in service.

KEN FLATT: And to further explain a part per billion, it’s one drop of water in 10,000 gallons. So that’s how diluted it is.

So with bacteria, I‘m sure we’re avoiding E. coli and things like that. But what do trihalomethanes do?

KEN FLATT: The concern, over the long term, is cancer. If you’re above the limit, the risk level is you have to drink a liter a day for 60 years to have a 1-in-100,000 chance of getting cancer. That’s pretty remote. For GenX, they’re now looking at parts per trillion. And that’s one drop in 10 million gallons of water — which is 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

I think people are shocked that a company can just discharge any amount of chemicals into the water. 

PATRICK IRWIN: Well, GenX isn’t regulated. There are no regulations. Now, if that were here, reverse osmosis would remove the GenX. But the treatment plant at Cape Fear doesn’t have reverse osmosis. And, again, they use surface water, which is also much more difficult to treat.

KEN FLATT: And the other thing with surface water is it contains pharmaceuticals. So they find estrogen, betablockers. I was at a conference where a guy from the EPA said they tested water in Arizona, near this place that is famous for retirees, and they found traces of Viagra. [Laughs]

Do we have any surface water plants?

KEN FLATT: No. Fresh Pond was decommissioned in 2008.

And we don’t have any Teflon plants either.

PATRICK IRWIN: And that’s another really good thing. We’re out here; there’s no industry at all.

What if you have a well?

PATRICK IRWIN: It’s surface water, so they’re susceptible to anything that might infiltrate through the soil. But your house probably has a treatment system that runs it through some type of softener, removes the iron, and then it probably hits it with some chlorine solution to disinfect it. We don’t hear of people getting sick from shallow wells.  

How high-tech is our system compared to the rest of the state?

KEN FLATT: We’re definitely in the top ten percent.

PATRICK IRWIN: I’d say we’re probably tops. Because there are other reverse osmosis plants out there, but most of it’s surface water. And all our crew has to get a top license to operate. Same with our wastewater guys in Stumpy Point. Plus they’re a dedicated group. They work night shifts in summer. They’re here 24 hours a day.

So is reverse osmosis like a filter? Water goes in one side and comes out the other, and there’s a system that removes whatever might cause you harm?

KEN FLATT: It’s more like an envelope that’s rolled up, like a spiral, and the fresh water passes through the membrane and the salts and the impurities are rejected. You’d think we’d be removing the salt from the water, but we’re removing the fresh water from the saltwater — hence the name ‘reverse osmosis.’ You’ll also hear the term “desalination.” People sometimes assume we’re treating ocean water, but it’s just reverse osmosis.

How is reverse osmosis different from nanofiltration?

PATRICK IRWIN: They’re basically the same process. With reverse osmosis, the membranes are tighter. It removes more contaminants — like aqueous salts. We use that at the North RO (Reverse Osmosis) water plant in Kill Devil Hills, Stumpy Point Water Plant, Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Water Plant, and the Cape Hatteras Water Plant. But we use nanofiltration in Skyco because that’s fresher water; it’s more efficient.

Where’s it go from there?

KEN FLATT: Dare treats all the water and we sell it to the towns and they distribute it through their distribution systems. We pump water to a ground storage tank and they pump it to their elevated storage.

Does the ocean ever impact our aquifer at all?

KEN FLATT: That was a concern when we first started up the RO plant in Kill Devil Hills. So we monitored and monitored. But the confining layer won’t allow it. And we’re not pumping enough out of it to make a difference. Charleston has issues with saltwater intrusion from underneath, but Charleston pumps so hard because they have so many people.

You mean they suck out so much water that the well wants to pull more water from someplace else?

KEN FLATT: Yes. It creates a cone of depression.

PATRICK IRWIN: Our real saving grace is our offseason. It allows our wells to recover. But, at the same time, you have to be careful with your storage, because you want to keep it fresh. You don’t want to overbuild your system. Because you want that water to turn over.

KEN FLATT: Corolla has big issues with storage, because they will use 200,000 gallons per day in February — and go up to 3 million gallons per day in July.

I saw a Facebook post saying the new KDH water tower looked small. But it sounds like you’re saying it should be small.

KEN FLATT: Sure. Just like you wouldn’t want to drink a glass of water you left on the counter for two weeks. That’s why we flush the hydrants every spring and fall. It freshens the water in the system, and it gets rid of the stagnant water.

PATRICK IRWIN: We have some areas we do weekly because they’re troubled areas. We’re such a north-to-south beach, you’re gonna have a lot of dead ends east to west, so you have to open those lines to pull water through them and keep it fresh.

Is there a tipping point? I can’t imagine reaching that population year round, but could demand get too much — like everyone putting in a swimming pool or something?

KEN FLATT: Well, swimming pools are a big water user, but our water demand has not increased since 2004, when they changed all the appliance rules. Because a washing machine only uses 40 percent of the water it used to. Toilets flush less. So our water demand has remained flat.

Are there any differences between the plants? Different things you need to adjust for?

KEN FLATT: The county has a website where you can go to look for water quality analysis. It showcases all the plants. And all the water parameters are pretty consistent — the pH, the chlorine levels. The only extra treatment the towns might do is boost the chlorine a little. And people say, “Oh! There’s chlorine in the water!” Well, it keeps you from getting diseases! And the other benefit of chlorine is when you bring your vegetables home from the store, you rinse them and it kills the bacteria.

PATRICK IRWIN: And after a storm, if we had a lot of breaks [in lines] we might increase the chlorine. After Dorian, we didn’t, because we only had four breaks on Hatteras Island. But four leaks is really nothing. During Isabel, the pipes were dumping into the ocean in Kitty Hawk, just completely cracked. Of course, we step up the chlorine at that point. But we can’t allow consumers to drink the water until we pass bacteriological tests.

KEN FLATT: And we notify the customers. We’ll do door hangers. And if we need to, we go on the radio. 

So what are the other big misconceptions about water quality or how it works?

KEN FLATT: I think the biggest rumor was always the arsenic level. And one of the stories I heard was the pilings were loaded with arsenic and that got into the water. And that’s so completely untrue. It’s a naturally occurring element. The issue really came about when the EPA reduced the limit from 60 parts per billion to 10 part per billion, and we were at 16. So, we put in an arsenic removal system that’s been running since 2004. And we’ve hit maybe five ppb since.

It’s still safer than taking a sip from a stream somewhere.

KEN FLATT: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

PATRICK IRWIN: Just because of the bacteria alone.

What are the biggest issues or challenges here? 

PATRICK IRWIN: I know people always have questions about lead and copper — especially thinking about Flint, Michigan. But we don’t have any lead and copper pipes in our distribution system. It is in some of the houses. I’ve got copper pipes with lead solder. But the county adds a corrosion inhibitor that coats the pipes and we go and test the worst of the worst sites. And it works — my house always non-detects.

What would a “worst of the worst” site be?

PATRICK IRWIN: That would be houses built between ’83 and ’86, with copper pipe and lead solder. You can go to Ace and get a test kit, if you’re concerned. But we’re not Pittsburgh or Detroit or Flint. They had actual lead service lines.

What about improvements for the future? Any cool advances?

PATRICK IRWIN: We have a capital improvement plan for the next six years. We’re gonna change out some units in the North Reverse Osmosis plant. We’re putting in new wells down in Cape Hatteras. We’re changing out membranes. Automated meter reading is over five years completed.

<b>KEN FLATT:  All the guys can log into the plant with their phones, and start wells remotely. There’s leak detecting software now that will set off an alarm if the meter runs constantly.  And you can go back and look at the customer’s use. We can tell when you turn your sprinklers on. When you get up at night to take a leak. Big brother knows. [Laughs]

What about threats to water quality moving forward?

PATRICK IRWIN: I think sea level rise will be an issue with our pipes along the beach road. In Kitty Hawk, we already had to move some pipes because of storms. We lost 2000 feet in Isabel, between Frisco and Cape Hatteras. So, storms, sea level rise — the same things everybody else on the coast deals with.

KEN FLATT: But if there’s a problem, believe me, we’ll be the first to tell you. The big thing is we operate the water system in the public trust. So our decisions aren’t solely based on finances; they’re based on reliability and providing a safe product to our customers. Sometimes that’s overlooked. That’s what went wrong in Flint. They let people make decisions that weren’t in the public trust. And they provided a bad product and didn’t tell people. But our system is relatively new. It was started in 1979. I think the first studies were done in 1972, when they started looking at public water supplies for Dare County. And all those studies are online in detail for everyone to read. They’re great if you have trouble sleeping. [Laughs]


Drunken teens? Fiending junkies? Stupid tourists? This fall, the whole beach was frothing with opinions — and outrage — over who snatched Orville Wright’s copper likeness from the national monument. What many don’t realize, however, is it’s the third time that Orville’s been kidnapped. (He first went rogue back in 1985; in 1987, both brothers enjoyed an unplanned holiday.) At press time, the bust had been recovered on a KDH beach, but whodunnit remained a mystery. We tracked down one of the original pranksters from ’85 for an anonymous interview to see what happens when a stupid prank becomes a federal offense — and what punishments today’s fun-loving criminals can expect.

This interview was conducted in October of 2019 and appeared in Milepost 8.4 (Winter 2019/2020).

MILEPOST: What happened back in 1985?
Just a lot of bad decisions. And a lot of beer. [Laughs]

Were you still in high school?
No. It was my first year of college. We must’ve been home for summer because the FBI came looking for us on the beach wearing business suits.

Were you planning to do something the night of the heist?
No! It was totally random. Just another crime of opportunity. We’d been riding around in a buddy’s van having a few beers, and we ended up at the monument. At some point it was just two of us left at the top, drunk and high. We were like, “Hey, these things move!” So we shoved one over. Then we shoved the other one over. Then we wrenched off Orville’s head, carried him down, and threw him in the bushes. We didn’t even tell the others. We just jumped back in the van and went highway surfing — riding around on top, Teen Wolf style. [Laughs] Just another basic night of teenage debauchery.

Did you even remember the next day? And did you realize you’d made a mistake?
Actually, a friend saw the paper first. He called and woke me up: “Do you have Orville?!” And I was, “Yeah! We got Orville!” At that point it was still funny. Then I saw it was frontpage news, and it was like, “Uh-oh. That was probably a bad idea.” [Laughs] And then it was on the national news. And that’s when we were like, “Oh. We’re f#%ed.”

What’d you do?
After a couple days, we called the Coastland Times from a payphone — full Deep Throat style — and said, “Orville’s in the bushes.” We were hoping they’d stop looking for us if they got the bust back. But, by then, everybody was super pissed. I don’t think it took the cops a week to find us. They rounded us all up, one by one, took us to the park service offices at Fort Raleigh, and put us in separate rooms. At that point, I just told them the truth.

How’d they’d figure it out?
I think one of the girls told them. But there was also a $5000 reward, so who knows? I mean, there were five people with us that night — and that’s four too many. [Laughs]

How scared were you?
I was terrified! I had to tell my mom I stole Orville’s head! And all week people around us were talking about how they wanted to kill us. Even my mom’s boyfriend was like, “They should kill those bastards!” And it was a federal offense. They were talking about 15 years in jail, a $750,000 fine. But they ended up charging us with destruction of government property. We had to pay $7500 in restitution — each — and got two years federal probation.

Who do you think it was this time? People on Facebook are blaming tourists and junkies.
It’s kids — of course it’s kids! It happened homecoming night. If it were junkies, they’d have stolen both of them.

Do you think they had the same idea — that by ditching Orville in the dunes, the cops would stop looking?
I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking. But I heard they might have prints. If that’s true, they’re done.

Think they’ll have solved the case by the time this mag comes out in November?
Depends on how many people were there, but they’ll be dealing with it for at least another six months. It took us forever to go to court. And I’m still hated around here. In fact, about 15 years after, I helped a teacher friend with a class project, and the school was like, “Don’t ever bring him back!” [Laughs] Those poor bastards. They don’t know what they’re in for.

What would you do?
It’d probably be better just to turn themselves in. I bet they would have gone easier on us if we had. But we also were paying for the damage. Apparently, you can screw off the heads — that’s what the guys did in 1987.

Do you know anything about who pulled that one in ’87?
No. I was back at school. But the FBI came knocking on my door: “The heads were stolen again.” I was like, “Wasn’t me! I haven’t been there since that night!” I still haven’t. Acutally, I’m kind of surprised they didn’t come talk to me this time. [Laughs]

Well, that was the last time anyone got the originals: the NPS says the current ones are replicas.
So they never got ’em back?!

No. They got ’em back. They just stashed them someplace secure.
That’s good. Because I paid a lot of money to make them look like new. [Laughs] — Richard Hauptmann


Getting a second coastal scientist’s opinion on Dare County’s plan to replace the Cape Hatteras jetties.

We’re not saying they asked the wrong questions. We’re just saying they asked the wrong people.

At the June 3 Dare County commissioners meeting, Coastal Science and Engineering presented a bold plan to handle Buxton’s erosion woes. With the equivalent of two years of sand being lost within a year of completing the recent project in March 2018 — nearly 304,000 cubic yards disappearing due to Hurricane Florence — the company suggested trying to restore the Cape Hatteras groins to better protect homes, businesses and NC 12.

“We can’t control the weather,” said senior coastal engineer, Dr. Haiqing Liu Kaczkowski. “But this is the one thing we can do.”

It’s still tricky. While state law banned building hardened structures on the coast back in 1985, the Navy finished Buxton’s groins in 1970. Restoring them might be “grandfathered” under NC’s Coastal Areas Management Act, provided they agree the structures remain 50 percent functional. But even if the county can find a way to do the work, should they?

By definition, groins trap sand in one place — and steal it from others. (Upon completion, Buxton’s current trio of steel structures immediately began eroding the beach south of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.) However, CS&E’s team asserts that groin designs have vastly improved. With continued nourishment, they say, more refined profiles collect enough sand to protect the threatened area while letting the surplus flow south. They even presented a “successful project example” — a terminal groin installed in 2013 at the far southwest end of Folly Beach, SC.

The commissioners responded with solid follow-ups. “How will the new design meld with a restoration project?” “Can they reduce the rate of loss on the southern end?” They also recognized that energy levels differ between coastlines.

And the engineers’ answers were certainly forthright. They noted any groins will still require immediate, and ongoing, nourishment. They also said if monitoring showed erosion exceeding the historical rate, “you might have to pull the groin out.”

But the fact is, every coastal protection presentation is part science — and part sales pitch. So why is the county asking the contracting company these questions when we’re home to Wanchese’s Coastal Studies Institute and Duck’s Army Corps of Engineers’ Field Research Facility? Both are full of coastal science experts — neither of them stand to see a penny from doing the work. (Much less a multi-million-dollar contract.)

We reached out to PhDs in both places for professional opinions. The Army Corps declined. (They feared the public might confuse one scientist’s opinion for an official government stance.) But Dr. Reide Corbett, who is the Dean of Integrated Coastal Programs and Executive Director of the Coastal Studies Institute, agreed to watch the online video of the presentation and provide his take.

“I’m not a coastal engineer,” he cautioned. “But I’ve focused a lot on coastal processes in my 20-plus-year career. And by January, CSI will have two on staff — I’m sure either would be happy to provide input.”

Until then, here’s Dr. Corbett’s two cents. Think of it as free advice from a coastal health specialist.

Ed note: The following interview took place in July 2019. It also appears in Issue 8.3 of Outer Banks Milepost.

MILEPOST: So, what was your take on the presentation? Did it feel balanced? Accurate?
DR. REIDE CORBETT: Well, the county’s being proactive to help protect property, people and the road — so that’s good. But Buxton is always going to be a challenge. One thing to point out is that the Outer Banks has key “hot spots” with increased erosional rates. S-Turns is one. South Nags Head is one. Buxton is one. There’s all sorts of reasons why we have these hot spots — some of it’s underlying geology, some of it’s geomorphology of the offshore bathymetry, which focuses wave energy — but the fact is we have them. And just nourishing those hotspots doesn’t solve the problem. It adds sand — it buys time — it doesn’t solve the problem.

Which is why they want to rebuild the groins — to trap sand in place longer. Except these engineers say new designs trap just enough sand to create just enough beach — but let the rest flow south so those beaches there won’t erode. Is that right?
Every groin traps sand. That is what they’re constructed to do. And if you trap sand in one place, you starve it from someplace else. What they’re saying is, “We’re gonna rebuild these groins using slightly different engineering. Then, we’re going to add enough sand right away, so there will be sand moving past the groin and not starving anything down drift.” Yeah, I think there’s logic there, but I do think there needs to be more information. Does the county understand the amount of sand that’s going to need to be pumped — and therefore, the amount of money that’s going to be needed — to fill that pocket they’ve created by constructing the groin? That wasn’t really discussed.

They use Folly Beach as an example of what works. Are they comparing apples with apples?
No! Heavens no! Yeah, we’re both beaches along the Atlantic Seaboard. I agree with that. But there’s a reason Cape Hatteras is a surf mecca: the amount of energy we have is different, the number of storms and nor’easters we have is different. Then, let’s look at offshore bathymetry, offshore slopes. Also, Folly Beach already has a groin field that starts way up in town — they simply added another. Have the groins solved their problems? No. The city still nourishes. And they nourish fairly often — in fact, Folly Beach just finished a project in January 2019.

At one point, the commissioners asked if the engineers could guarantee the same accretion. What’s your take?
Again, that’s totally dependent on the dynamics of the system. The groin they show is next to an inlet — inlets are pretty dynamic. And that photo they use from August 2018, five after years of completion, looks great. But August is a time where you get accretion anyway, because there’s less energy in the system. That’s not when you want to plan for; you want to plan for winter when you have waves. I’d want to know: what did it look like at January of that year? I don’t want to suggest they are cherry picking, but just grabbing a snapshot does not tell you the dynamics of the system.

Is it safe to say the answer all comes down to saving money? Will the county spend less total money putting in groins and dumping less sand?
Yeah. Dealing with sand is just a simple budget — what comes in, and what goes out. And adding a groin changes the budget. But you’re not creating sand by putting in these groins; you’re still going to have erosion, and you’re still going to need to nourish the beach. And that was mentioned, but I’m not sure everybody heard that.

There was another statement that seemed to go unnoticed: if erosion rates down coast start exceeding the historical rate, we might have to pull the groin out. That was never addressed again.
And then you have to ask, who has to pull it out? Is it the firm? Is it the Park Service? Is it the county? I guess you can argue all those questions don’t need to come up unless you get permission to rebuild. But we’re putting a lot of money into these short-term solutions without having these hard discussions about what the long-term plan is. I think it would be good for Dare County to take a leadership role, working with the different townships to start thinking a bit more holistically. There also needs to be some additional thoughtful conversation beyond the protective approach — nourishment or groins —toward thinking about how to accommodate these changes, as well. A perfect example is that jug-handle at S-Turns. That doesn’t make everybody happy, but the fact is nourishment there is not economical, it’s not going to hold the road, it’s not going to work in the long-term. So, they’re thinking out beyond the two-, five-, or seven-year plan. And that needs to happen not just across Dare county, but across every US coastline, and across the world.

Well, I’m sure there has to be pressure to move fast when there’s a time limit to get FEMA money — and you’re trying to respond before another storm hits.
That’s right. There are properties there that are at the brink of being in the surf zone. They just finished a nourishment a little over a year ago and they already need more sand. That’s scary for that community. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about that in the short-term. I’m saying we shouldn’t be doing that in a vacuum.

So what questions should they be asking? Not just of the engineering firm, but other scientists?
Well, for the Buxton area, they need to ask, “If we rebuilt the groins, what’s that cost? How much nourishment are we talking about so we don’t lead to increased erosions down drift? What’s that cost? And how often are we going to have to nourish this after we put in these groins?” And you can do those calculations based on one groin, two groins, or three groins. But all that leads to the question of, is this a solution? And the answer to that is no. You still have an erosion rate. This is still an erosional hotspot. You’re still going to have to nourish. And to think ten or 20 years out is a hard discussion — but it has to happen. And the conversation needs to involve the community, it needs to involve scientists, it needs to involve engineers. Because, right now, we’re in a very reactive situation. If we can’t put plans in place today, we will always be reactive. And people are going to be really ticked off if we’re always reactive. And that isn’t going to help anyone. — Matt Walker


NOAA’s Dr. Neil Jacobs just wanted to score more waves — he ended up scoring America’s top meteorology job.

What’s the difference between an armchair quarterback and an armchair weatherman? The QB’s never gonna reach the big leagues. The weatherman just might run the whole show.

“My official title is kinda long,” laughs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Dr. Neil Jacobs. “It’s Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, performing the duties of Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. What that means is, I’m the acting NOAA administrator.”

Not bad for a guy who spent his days at the University of South Carolina monitoring the Weather Channel so he could score waves between double-majoring in math and physics. In fact, Jacobs was halfway through grad school — and on his way to working with semi-conductors — when he had a change of heart.

“The whole time I was in school I was trying to figure out when the coastal lows would set up so I could go surf,” he explains. “And predicting waves is just applied math. I decided I might as well decide how to do this for a living, because I was doing it anyway.”

He transferred into North Carolina State University’s meteorology program and got his masters in Air-Speed Interaction and a PhD in numerical weather prediction — all while doing a fair bit of firsthand verification on Outer Banks beaches.

“Between my aunt’s house in Virginia Beach and another friend in Kill Devil Hills, I’d be back and forth to the Outer Banks all the time.”

After graduating, he went to work for a start-up called AirDat, which was equipping commercial airlines with state-of-the-art weather sensors. The idea took off — so did his career. In 2013, a corporate buyout made him the Chief Atmospheric Scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corporation. (He also served as Chair of the American Meteorological Society’s Forecast Improvement Group.) In 2018, the Trump Administration tapped him to join NOAA; this past February, they put him in charge.

Today, Jacobs’ job description includes managing a $5.5 billion budget while working to improve NOAA’s predictions. That means everything from upgrading computer models and pushing technology to turning everyday gadgets into active weather gauges — all to keep American citizens safer, happier and better informed. The irony? He’s usually too busy to benefit personally.

“The last time I surfed the Outer Banks was about three weeks ago,” he admits. “It’s tough to get out of DC. I’ll know it’s good, but I’m totally slammed. So, I go stare at the webcams and think, ‘What am I missing?’”

Now that’s what we call sacrificing for your country. As we head into another hurricane season, we asked Dr. Jacobs to give us the update on what NOAA’s doing to protect our coast — and what residents can do to protect themselves. — Matt Walker

This interview took place in April 2019. An edited version appears in Issue 8.2.

MILEPOST: What’s your your exact title?
DR. NEIL JACOBS: It’s really long. It’s NOAA Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, performing the duties of Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

So what does that mean for the average shmoe?
I’m the acting NOAA administrator.

Does that mean you’re currently the top guy in charge?

How’d you end up there? I understand you grew up on the Florida coast?
My dad was in the Air Force. So we traveled around. At one point he was stationed at Homestead so I was back and forth between South Miami Heights and Vero Beach. I spent most of my time surfing a little farther north in the Sebastian Inlet/Wabasso area, because South Beach was never good normally. And then my parents, in the mid-80s, moved up to Charleston, South Carolina and I started surfing Folly Beach. And I ended up going to the University of South Carolina for undergrad, only because I felt like College of Charleston was too close to my house and my parents would be over at my apartment every day. So I did undergraduate at USC in physics and Math. I started a graduate program there in advanced math and physics doing work with the semi-conductor industry. But the whole time I was doing that I was basically watching the Weather Channel trying to figure out when the coastal lows would set up and the winds would switch offshore so I could go surf. And this was really before there was a lot of information on the Internet. But I was about halfway through a graduate program and just got sick of it. I decided, “You know what? Predicting waves is just applied math. I might as well decide how to do this for a living because I was doing it anyway.”

So, I started working on wave models and atmospheric models and ended up looking at a couple of different grad schools. And it came down to Scripps in Southern California, MIT/Woods Hole in Boston, and North Carolina State University. Scripps was just too far from the rest of my family. And I went up and interviewed at Woods Hole and it was August, and there was actually some hurricane swell, and we ended up surfing down in Rhode Island. And it was really good but I was wearing a spring suit in August. And they were telling me that in the winter you have to wear 7-mil booties and a dry suit — and I didn’t even own a hood at that time because Folly was as far north as I surfed. And so I ended up going to NC State. And my aunt had lived in Virginia Beach for most of her life. And between her house in VB and another friend in Kill Devil Hills, I’d be back-and-forth to the Outer Banks all the time. Even as a kid, I’d spend summers in Virginia Beach and we would just drive down. That was basically it. I graduated with a Masters in air-speed interaction and a PhD. in numerical weather prediction from NC State and taught at NC State for a while, just undergraduate thermodynamics and atmospheric thermodynamics. And worked with a start-up company called AirDat that was equipping commercial airlines with weather sensors and running models, and writing model code. And at one point, that company, was acquired by Panasonic so I started doing model development, and software engineering and forecasting for Panasonic. But then the White House calls me up one day out of the blue and asks me if I want to take this position NOAA, and I certainly wasn’t going to live that down.

It’s interesting that you never dove into the government route before. Was that a conscious decision?
It was just luck. I was actually headed to a post doc at the EPA out of grad school. And that program got relocated to the West Coast from the Research Triangle in Raleigh and I didn’t want to go out there; I wanted to stay in North Carolina. And at that point I was teaching adjunct at NC State and teaching adjunct at Meredith College. And this start-up company called AirDat – which was basically two guys who invented this sensor in a garage and tested it in the back of their motorcycle. And they came to hire my advisor. And my advisor just got tenure, so he wasn’t going to leave. So he said, “Why don’t you hire my grad student? He’s going to be looking for a job in a couple months.” And I thought, fine. Between the two adjunct position and a side job working at bike shop, I wasn’t going to say no to job opportunity. I thought it was like every other start-up company, that it would most likely fizzle out or fail. But this one had a really good idea and literally took off.

And that kept you in North Carolina. So were you doing your own personal forecasting just to stay wet?
I was actually using the models that we wrote at AirDat and then later the models we were running at Panasonic to do forecasting for my own personal surfing. The cool thing about Panasonic is we had offices all over the planet so I was traveling about 250,000 miles a year in a plane. I’ve got boards stashed all over the place; France, Singapore, Indonesia. And I would just fly to the different Panasonic offices and leave boards there and then figure out how to schedule meetings on Fridays and Mondays so I could stay over the weekend.

So you had your own little personal forecasting system – just for yourself. So you’ve witnessed the progress of technology from the pre-internet days, to where armchair forecasters and websites everywhere. Obviously, things are more accurate, but what else have you noticed as far as the evolution of weather forecasting from your college time ‘til now?
There’s a couple of major advancements. The first one is that the code is obviously more accurate. The computational power allows us to run models at much higher resolution, much faster. The other thing is we have a lot more accurate observations going into the model to initialize them. And the code is becoming more and more efficient and the computers are becoming so powerful that — so, when I was in grad school, we were running MM5 [ 5th generation mesoscale model] and WRF [weather research and forecasting model ] on a super computer. I can run that on my MacBook now. So, what’s happened is because a lot of this software people can run on their personal computers, we’ve started putting code out on GitHub and people – essentially arm chair forecasters or people who are software engineers or just kids who like to tinker with code — can download it and run it. And if they find bugs or make improvements they can actually enhance it. So we’ve gotten to a point now where we’re basically crowdsourcing model development. In fact, yesterday we uploaded the entire package of Wavewatch III code to GITHUB. So now anyone can download it and run it and do their own surf forecasting.

What’s GitHub now?
So, GitHub, is a repository for code. And anyone get an account and upload code and make it freely available for others to download.

So we’ve gone from a time when you needed the weatherman just to where the average person can be the weatherman. Not just in terms of forecasting for themselves but helping inform the general public.
Well, I think we’re seeing a shift — and we’ll probably see that shift in our personnel as well — where it used to be that we had a lot of skilled forecasters who knew how to interpret model output, and that will probably be the case. But now the model output is becoming so accurate, I think we’re going to see a shift from skilled people who know how to interpret the output to software engineers and modelers who actually improve the creation of the output.

So you’re telling me that forecasters will have less of a job and computer nerds will have more of a job?
Well, I think the evolution will probably keep pace with the retirement and new hires. But where I’d really like to see the future of an agency like NOAA go is recruiting more people out of college — and even out of high school — and get them in programs that are software engineering-based. Because we’re heading into a more digital age where we’ll be dealing with more data and processing. And there will always be humans involved. But instead of having a human in the loop, we’ll be having a human over the loop where you have people monitoring automated processes. There will always be a need for people, but the skill set is slowly going to shift.

That includes machines, too, correct? Isn’t NOAA using more drones and gliders and automated technologies that can go places — like storms — where it’s not safe to send people? Or just not possible?
Yeah. We’re looking at all sorts of observing systems. So, drones — from the larger fixed-wing drones to even these small-quadcopters can produce useful data. And we’re looking to use other instruments that wouldn’t necessarily be designed for the purposes of collecting weather data but we can figure out how to extract information we can use from it. So, for example, your smart phone has a pressure sensor on it. so we can pull barometric pressure from people’s smart phones if they’re willing download the app and upload the data. The other thing is when we get into more smart cars, if you blue tooth your phone to your car and you turn on your windshield wipers — or you have road sensors that senses road conditions — that data can be uploaded and assimilated into the model to verify precipitation forecasts. There’s all sorts of ways that we can extract information that we can use in the model from automated processes that were designed without even having weather in mind.

That’s crazy. I remember you were looking at planes and ships delivering data, too, to fill in gaps in places like the ocean where there might not be any info.
Yeah. Getting information over the ocean is one of the trickiest things to do. And there’s so much open ocean there. And satellites are hugely critical but the big hurdle with satellites is, even though the horizontal resolution — or the spatial resolution — is so accurate you can basically read someone’s license plate from outer space, it’s the vertical coordinate that’s tricky. Even the most accurate observations have a plus or minus error of half a kilometer in the vertical coordinate. So it’s really what’s going on in the lower part of the atmosphere over the open the ocean, is really hard to measure. And so we have surface drifting buoys which are helpful, and then observations from ships. And it used to be that a lot of these observations were hard to come by because we couldn’t get the observation off the ship. Now ships — and its’ the same for commercial airlines — are installing sat coms for either purposes of either communication or passenger communication. Because everyone wants to check their email or have access to the internet no matter where they are on the planet. We can use those channels to run weather data off either ships or planes at the same time, as well.

It’s kind of like, if you opt in, you’re a willing partner but you’re a like a latent weather gauge sending data into the weather service. I’m assuming its’ for hindcasting and verification? Or forecasting? Or all of it?
It’s stuff we used for hindcasting and verification, as well as forecasting. In some cases, if it’s smart phone apps – you may have to pay for the app, it may be free, you would certainly have to opt into the program to upload the data. And then in more sophisticated situations where it’s airlines or ships, that would be something along the lines of a commercial data buy where we would purchase a feed from a company that would aggregate that data.

It’s interesting. Because the use of people data is so controversial — whether it’s Facebook or what have you. But this sounds like its’ a pretty positive application, if you’re willing to click that box. So where do we stand in terms of satellites and models. This is the time of year armchair forecasters are watching the tropics models. Everyone talks about the US model versus the European model. Is the European model better, and why? And what’s that mean?
Right now it’s better. The European ECMWF have had a more advanced model for probably eight or 10 years now. It’s almost all related to how they do data assimilation, which is the step in the model where you aggregate all the observations and build your initial conditions for the model. The actual prediction aspect of the model itself is no better than what the US has, but it’s how they do the data assimilation step that’s more sophisticated. And we are in the process of developing a version of our own data assimilation system that is what we call Four-Dimensional Variational Assimilation. And so I think that is going to be the real key to surpass the European Center. Because we all use the same data. We all share the same data. There’s no data they have that we don’t and vice versa. What it really comes down to is their ability to better use the data. And there’s a couple of things we’re doing on our end that I think will make some pretty significant improvements on the data assimilation side. A lot of it is how much satellite data we use. Right now, per volume, we only use about eight percent of the data that we collect and a lot of that actually gets thrown out. So roughly 2 to 3% of the data we collect influences the model initial conditions per every model cycle. If we could double or triple that our accuracy would sky rocket. The big hurdle there is the satellite data files are huge. And so, we have to thin the information before we can even move it to a place where we can assimilate into the model. Because we have to assimilate it into the model, essentially, almost as fast as we collect it. and the files are so big we have to thin them so we can move them quicker. So that thinning process actually strips out valuable information. And so what we’re looking at now is moving the processing of the files to where the data is. In other words, doing the pre-processing of satellite data in the cloud, so we won’t have to thin it before we move it. We just process it where it is and then move it. And the other thing we’re looking at is actually using artificial intelligence or machine learning to thin the file more smartly. In other words, you wouldn’t want to thin the file the same over a high pressure system as you would over a tropical storm. You would want to thin it more over a high pressure system and less over a tropical storm, because that’s where you need to retain more information. So, algorithms like that, with AI and machine learning, are where wer’e looking at as well.

When would that be available?
We should be on pace to upgrade the data assimilation in 18 months. Whether that enables us to surpass ECMWF really depends on what upgrades they have planned.

That’s’ crazy. So how much more prepared are we than say when we were 10 years ago — and how much ore do we have to learn?
Good question. I can’t answer the last one, because I don’t really know what I don’t know. But I would say every time we look at something in the future we think is science fiction, all of a sudden it becomes reality. I mean, at one point, nobody thought we’d even be able to forecast the next day. And now we have statistically significant skill out well past day 7. So, 10 years ago, our ability to forecast at day 4 to 5 is what it is now for day 7. There have been some theoretical papers saying that when you look at roughly 2 weeks, no matter what you do in predicting a chaotic system, that is the limit of predictability. But we’re finding that if we start looking at coupled ocean atmosphere models, we can get skilled well beyond three to four weeks, but we have to have a coupled ocean model to do that. Because once you get beyond forecasting into week 3, it’s really driven by the circulation in the ocean.

And that’s where monitoring ships come into play?
That’s exactly where we would use it. And not only that, we’re looking at a couple of other different observing systems. because to do a four-dimensional ocean model we need sub-surface observations, too. So we have a system called the argo profiling network which are just these sensors that go up and down in the water column. And whenever they hit the surface, they relay data through the iridium sat com, and we hit 2 million argo profiles a month or two ago. So these things are all over the ocean and they’re going up and down in the water column. And then were’ also basically underwater drones, which we call gliders, all over the east coast. we deployed a couple in advance of Florence going around in the Gulf Stream collecting surface data.

I know from talking to NOAA last year, they said that were getting really good at forecasting track — but intensity was a big ‘what if’. And Florence and Michael both seemed to reflect that. How is that process coming along? And what does that mean for public awareness moving forward?
So, intensity forecasting is really the tricky part. We’ve got a really good handle on track forecasting. The problem with intensity forecasting — whether it’s the storm that’s sort spreads out and weakens the core , or it tightens up like Michael did — is really a function of the sea surface temperature and the low-level energy. And the problem is, a lot of the satellite data that we use for sea surface temperature, we can’t see below the clouds. So it’s really hard to understand what’s going on in the mix layer beneath the storm. Because a lot of the satellite imagery can’t penetrate the storm. We can see what the sea surface temperature is doing ahead of the storm, but not beneath it, so in some cases when the storm moves over an area where the water column is really deep, warm water, if it upwells more warm water, it will continue to strengthen. But if it upwells cold water, it will weaken itself. And trying to understand that dynamic is tricky unless you really have good subsurface temperature information, which is where the coupled model come into play. But between having really have good subsurface temperature information, and also understanding the physics of the eyewall, those are probably the two forecasting frontiers that are gonna play into intensity. The issue with Florence and messaging to the public is a more complex social science issue because what we found is that, Florence was coming in as a Category 4 and there were a lot of model runs that were showing it weakening but not as much as it did. And people thought: “Oh, it’s downgraded to a 3, and now it’s downgraded to a 2,”and then they hear this word downgraded and they think, “Oh, we don’t have to evacuate, its’ not that big of a deal, it’s only a 2 it’s no ta 4.” And the problem is, people didn’t realize this thing is gonna sit onshore and just park itself there for four days and you’re gonna get three feet of rain. And really the deaths in hurricanes are all water-related. Very rarely are people killed by the winds. It’s the water, whether it’s storm surge or just flooding. So when you a have a storm, even if it’s a Category One, just sit on the coast and you have sustained onshore flow that’s sort of piling up the water — even if it’s not a major surge — it’s preventing the drainage from the rivers. So with Florence we saw three feet of rain dump with a sustained onshore flow, so the rivers and the estuaries couldn’t drain. And we just had massive flooding. And you don’t see that information conveyed in the traditional Saffir-Simpson Scale.

No. And here, the public is pretty passionate — kind of like you were growing up. And there’s spaghetti models all over Facebook. Is it a TMI situation where people end up armchairing their way into the result they want to see – whether its’ evacuating or not evacuating? Are we victims of the information age in that regard.
Yeah, I guess there’s two groups of armchair forecasters to avoid: the ones who think they understand and probably don’t. And the ones that really want an outcome. For example, all these winter weather snow lovers out there have a personal bias toward whatever model puts down the most snow in their backyard, because that’s what they hope happens. And it’s interesting to read the chat forums and blogs about people who want certain types of weather and have sort of a bias when they’re trying to do an objective forecast. So in a situation like this, I just urge the public: if you’re into weather you can hang out and read the blogs, but check in with the Weather Service because that’s where the experts are. Our people are trained, they have access to all the information — including information that the general public may not have access to — and there’s a lot of thought and process that goes into the forecasts that we produce.

It’s funny here, because we had Florence coming at us and missed us. And then Michael sucker punched because we saw it coming all the way from the Gulf and thought, “What can that do?” Do we just grow numb with our own experiences? Or are thing changing so much you have to prepare for anything? Or is it a mix of both?
I think you definitely have to be prepared. When I was growing up in Florida, I thought we were seasoned hurricane veterans because we had been hit by multiple hurricanes in South Florida. And, there, we had a one-story cinderblock house with no trees in the yard so all we did was board up the windows and ride it out. Then, when we were in Charleston when Hugo hit, we hadn’t really thought it through. We stayed because we thought, “We rode these storms out in Florida all the time.” But what we didn’t realize was the building codes were different , and there were pine trees everywhere. And we had 14 trees go down in the yard, two of them went through the roof. And I remember being in the middle of the eye, with a kiddie pool in my sister’s room, because water as just pouring through the ceiling. And the next day we had to chainsaw out of the driveway and you couldn’t get anywhere because there were so many trees down. And so it’s that kind of stuff that you don’t really think about because it had been so long since Charleston had been hit by a major hurricane. That kind of prepartion is important. And now that the emergency manager community is more in tune with the local people, the local community, and they know the impacts on a local level. Really, the folks you want to listen to in a situation like that are your state and local emergency managers because they’re going to understand the impacts as it pertains to you neighborhood versus a larger scale forecast for the state or even multiple states across.

The reporting we see is more intense storms, more active seasons. What’s the future look like in terms of that and what is NOAA looking at in terms long-term prediction, and protection, for what I assume are climate-change situations?
Yeah, there’s sort of a two-fold part to the problem. Typically, it’s a function of pure statistics, the longer you observe a distribution of a system the more likely are to see extreme events. So I don’t know that there’s been enough information to date to show that there’s a statistically significant change. But, there are several model simulations that use the projected warmer scenarios — say 50 or 100 years from now — and then they run a hurricane simulation of say, Hurricane Florence, but swap out the sea surface temperatures that may be one or two degrees warmer. And you end up getting fairly intense storms. There is some debate about whether you get more storms or less storms, some show more, some show less, but most studies show more intensity with more precipitation. But the caveat is these are forecasts based on forecasts, so you’re really assuming he warming scenario is going to materialize. But the thing that is certain is the financial risk exposure. So even if the storms don’t get more intense or more frequent we still have more people living along the coastline than we used to. And we have more development, more investment, and there’s basically more financial risk exposure along the coastline. And so any time you have storm hit, even if it’s the same intensity it’s always been, you’re going to have a lot more financial damage and potentially more lives at risk because of the sheer population growing along the coastline.

So would you buy a house on the Outer Banks?
[laugh] If I could afford the insurance, yeah.

Do you still get down here at all?
Here and there. I was down to surf about 3 weeks ago. It’s tough to get out of DC. If I’m short on time I’ll run down to VB or Delmarva. Usually, I’m totally slammed, so I go to some place like Surfline and stare at the camera and think, “What am I missing?” But if I can get down to the Outer Banks, I’ll do it. I have to give a shout out to Jesse Fernandez, I’ve been riding some of his boards lately and I’m stoked on them. I’ve been riding a variation of the blunt, set up as a quad.

So what do people do to say prepared this season and years to come?
Just tune into our website. Pay attention to the forecast. And listen to your state and local emergency managers when there’s a storm that’s aimed at the coast. And take what they say seriously. If they say, “leave,” leave. If there’s an evacuation and people decide not to evacuate, not only are they putting their own lives at risk they’re putting other lives at risk — not just the folks trying to rescue them, but all the people who may also be in a situation where they need to be rescued. So not adhering to evacuation orders is selfish. And the other thing is be prepared, were gonna be doing a hurricane awareness tour in advance of the hurricane season where we’ll be releasing a lot of information. FEMA is going to be putting information on how to be prepared. This stuff should go without saying: it’s always better to be prepared and not need it than it is to not be prepared at all. And heed the advice they give: don’t’ drive through water. It’s the common sense stuff that keep you out of trouble.


Last February, four busloads of angry Outer Bankers rallied to Raleigh for a public forum. Their purpose? To join hundreds of other citizens protesting the Trump Administration’s new draft plan to explore for petroleum off North Carolina — along with nearly all of America’s Outer Continental Shelf. One year later, those voices have only grown louder as every governor from Florida to New Hampshire has officially asked to be removed from the process, reflecting a wall of unified, bipartisan opposition that runs from coastal businesses to county boards to the halls of Congress. And yet, this spring, it looks like we’re going have to rally again — right here in KDH.

In February, while residents were still waiting for the Department of Interior to issue its proposed plan, we learned the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had booked the Ramada Inn conference room on May 14, and was researching rooms in Wilmington as well. So what’s that mean? It means by the time you read this, the Outer Banks could be closer to seeing rigs on the horizon than ever before — and residents will have to be ready to push back harder than ever.

“Obviously, we still have to get the official plan to know exactly what they’re proposing,” says Michael Flynn, Coastal Advocate for the NC Coastal Federation. “But if we rallied in Raleigh, I’m sure we’ll rally here. So I would encourage everyone to go ahead and set aside May 14. And be prepared for more ways to voice opposition.”

But it’s not done yet. We still have 90 days for public comment before the DOI issues its decision — and still more ways to fight after that. We asked Mr. Flynn for some straight answers on how we got here, what might happen, and what we can do down the road.

This interview took place in February of 2019 and appears in Issue 8.1.

MILEPOST: I think most Outer Bankers feel like we just beat this issue a few years ago. How did we end up back in the crosshairs?
MICHAEL FLYNN: Basically, there are five-year plans that are developed by the federal government to issue lease sales for offshore oil and gas exploration. In 2014, the Obama Administration proposed opening the Mid-Atlantic and the South Atlantic. There was a lot of public outcry voicing opposition — for the same reasons as today — and the Environmental Impact Statement identified that the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic plan was too environmentally sensitive to include this industry. So they were removed from the 2017-2022 plan in March of 2016. Fast-forward to 2017, the Trump Administration issued Executive Order number 13795, which directed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to initiate a process to develop a new Outer Continental Shelf Program for 2019-2024. That Draft Proposed Plan was released in January of 2018. It’s a very aggressive plan that pretty much includes 98 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf.

I can’t speak for them. But personally, I think the strategy was to open it all up, and then pull back to the places that they really want to look at — like the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic. But once they started the process last January, it kicked off a 60-day public comment period. That’s when the Coastal Federation — along with other members of the Don’t Drill NC coalition — held a “Rally to Raleigh” protest on the same day as the open house as a bullhorn to generate attention. But the public comments provide the real weight, because they have to be considered as part of the Environmental Policy Act.

Do we know how many comments were made? And the amount of support versus opposition?

We know there were around 2 million comments — you can read 27,000 of them online — but I don’t know how they tilt. [Ed. Note: a scroll through the first 300 comments posted to found three in favor of drilling.]

Theoretically, they spent the past year reviewing those comments. What else are they doing?
They’re tasked with preparing a preliminary environmental impact statement. But they could also narrow their focus based on the input they’ve received.

So, they might exclude California since they know they won’t let them get away with it. Or, since [former DOI Secretary Ryan] Zinke said, “Florida’s out,” they’ll exclude them.
Well, Zinke said that, but it was never the case. By law, once the process begins, they must include the areas through all the stages — you can’t pull states halfway through. But they’ll look at where might be most profitable — where it might be omst environmentally damaging. Then, once they announce the proposed plan, it will initiate a 90-day comment with more public information sessions. So we still have one more chance for public input.

So we’re basically where we were in March 2016. We’re just waiting to see if we’re included. What’s the consensus?
Anything could happen. But with the info we’re being provided — in light of them looking to hold open houses here and in Wilmington — I would expect North Carolina is being included.

How far off could they drill?
Federal waters go from three nautical miles to 200 miles. But, historically, as far back as the 80s, they’ve looked at a site roughly 40 miles off Cape Hatteras as an area for reserves.

The Deep Water Horizon was 41 miles.
Yes. And we’re deeper than that, so they’re using similar rigs. And that rig was only ten years old when it blew. But what goes unnoticed — or less noticed — is the chronic impact drilling has over time. There’s residual oil that impacts beaches. There’s a lot of material that gets shed during drilling that contains heavy metals — arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium — that has the potential to be toxic to marine life surrounding the rigs. And then the predecessor to even getting the first rig installed and constructed offshore is seismic testing. That has potentially harmful impacts on not just mega fauna like marine mammals — such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, which is endangered off our coast — but down to the smallest supporting member of the food chain: zooplankton. There was a study done in Australia that showed each of these seismic blasts — and they’re done repeatedly over ten-second intervals — has potential to be lethal to about 50 percent of the zooplankton population. Smaller fish feed on zooplankton; larger fish feed on those fish, including the commercial fish we harvest. So it has cascading effects on the seafood industry.

What about the argument that “we need to know what’s out there” to make informed decisions?
Those surveys are conducted by private companies who sell the data to the oil and gas exploration companies. It’s not made public.

So “we” won’t even know what they find.
No, for that to happen, the government would have to go do the work and then share the data with the private industry.

What about the other arguments — more jobs, energy independence, it’s safe. How are those holding up?
If anything, they’re getting weaker. In fact, the administration reversed the safety standards instituted after BP, saying that regulations to include blowout preventers and more regular inspections are too financially burdensome to the industry. As of this year, we became the leading energy exporter — we’re officially “energy independent.” In fact, the DOI now uses the term “energy dominance” instead. And most of the jobs that are generated will go to experienced workers who’ll be imported from the Gulf. And I think the oil industry is talking about bringing — at most — 30,000 jobs for the whole state. We have 12,000 jobs in Dare County alone. And a $1.1 billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry. So that’s been our argument all along: this is the revenue stream we want to protect.

We know all the Atlantic state governors have asked to be removed from the process, except one. What else is happening to push back?
So, last year, New Jersey, Maryland and Florida introduced bans on drilling activity or the construction of infrastructure that support that industry in their states. There’s a flurry of congressional bills beginning this year, like the Defend Our Coast Act, which was co-sponsored by Congressmen Walter Jones and David Price from our state. And that’s in addition to two lawsuits that are challenging the decision by the Division of Marine Fisheries to issue the incidental harassment authorizations that allowed BOEM the opportunity to issue permits for seismic testing. And more than 200 communities passed resolutions opposing drilling along the Gulf and East Coasts. In fact, all of North Carolina’s coastal counties are opposed right now except Carteret and Brunswick — and Brunswick has reversed their position from being in favor to just taking no stance.

So, it’s not just like a few towns, or a couple governors, or one party. This is a pretty unified line of “no’s.” It sounds like more opposition than last time.
I know. It sounds like it’s been amplified. So it confounds me that they keep pressing forward. But one of the most eye-opening parts of this past year is how intentionally deceptive the process can be. It’s not so much asking, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ It’s, ‘Can we get away with it?’ And I guess we have to see the proposed plan to really see if all these states and communities who voiced their opposition aren’t included. Or if the federal administration just keeps plowing ahead bullishly and saying, “We don’t care.”

So let’s assume we’re included. What can the average person do?
You can’t officially comment until they release the plan. But, as far as protocol and procedures, right now people can review the draft plan. And they can look at the previous Environmental Impact Statement for the 2017-2022 plan and prepare a comment letter to submit following the release of the proposed plan. And certainly we’ll be ready to rally and demonstrate and make our voices heard. But contacting state and federal legislators can happen now. And start spreading awareness. Talk to your neighbors: “Have you heard about this?” “Could this impact your business?” “Here’s why it’s bad.” But I don’t think there’s anybody here who isn’t vulnerable. Just look at what erosion does to this area. Or a hurricane. Imagine what an oil spill would do.

Then what?
Once that 90-day comment period closes, BOEM will again review all those comments and prepare the final program and preliminary Environmental Impact Statement. And Congress and the president will have 60 days to review that and decide whether to approve the plan — or not. That’s when we’ll need to lean on our congressional reps even harder.

So, worst-case scenario is they announce North Carolina’s included in the proposed plan—we gotta rally, we gotta submit comments, we gotta pressure our legislators. What if it’s the opposite? What if we wake up and we’re not included?
I think it will depend on what “not included” means. Are they still looking at South Carolina or Virginia? Because then the drilling still impacts us — look at Florida after BP. So we need to pay attention and be prepared to help protect our neighbors.

And what if — least likely of all — they reverse course and nobody’s included?
We wait five more years. They’ll reset the clock for 2024. And we see what the next administration wants to do. But that’s why these congressional bills are really important. Some are five-year moratoriums. Some are complete bans. So tracking these state and federal legislations is key.

Because they could protect us for a longer period of time. It feels like these next few months could very well determine the future of the Outer Banks. Would you agree?
It seems like it. But the opposition is about as prepared as we could ever be. And the Outer Banks community has been stellar. The towns. The counties. The mayors and other officials who spoke at the rally. And everyone else who headed to Raleigh, jumping on the bus in the middle of the week — sacrificing a day of work just to make their voices heard. People here know they have something precious to offer. And they’re fighting to protect it. — Matt Walker

Keep tabs on all offshore drilling issues — including impending meeting dates locations, information on how to comment, and protest opportunities — by monitoring For more on the NC Coastal Federation, go to


Why do some distant cultures share certain traits? Dr. Evert Van De Vliert breaks down the science behind “latitudinal psychology.”

Truth time: we totally thought we were bullshitting this issue’s theme. After all, how could some arbitrary, invisible line on a map influence different cultures all over the earth? Then we did a little Googling, and it turns out we weren’t entirely off the mark.

According to Dr. Evert Van de Vliert, Professor Emeritus of Applied Social Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “Different latitudes along the same longitude offer different seasonal cycles of cold in winter, heat in summer, drought and deluge as well as pathogen prevalence. This is bound to have psychosocial and societal consequences, and so it does.”

Enough consequences, in fact, to merit a whole new discipline called “latitudinal psychology.” Over the past two decades, Dr. Van de Vliert’s been a pioneer in the field, revealing that life in countries and states sharing the same degree north or south of the equator can have much in common, “when it comes to creativity, aggression, life satisfaction, individualism versus collectivism — you name it.”

Does that mean you’ll find a bunch of beach bums riding the 36th parallel in the heart of the Middle East? Hardly. But you will find them just across the ocean. And inside any given country or state, you’re even more likely to discover somewhat distant neighbors sharing surprisingly similar values.

We asked Dr. Van Vliert to explain his studies and connect a few dots right here at home. — Matt Walker

The following interview was conducted via email in September 2018. An edited version appears in Issue 7.4

MILEPOST:What is your full name/title/position? And at what schools/institutes do you work and do research?
DR. EVERT VAN DE VLIERT: Evert Van de Vliert, Professor Emeritus of Applied Social Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. I have also worked at the University of Bergen in Norway, but am now retired. My current research is done in close cooperation with an international team of colleagues.

How would you describe your research? Is there a specific discipline/science it falls under? How groundbreaking is the field? Is it emerging? Established?
Latitudinal psychology. It’s a brand-new term for an emerging interdisciplinary interest covering geography, ecology, and cross-cultural psychology.

How long have you been studying it? What prompted your interest? Was there a specific moment? A relationship between to specific cultures? A series of observations?
I have been working in this field ever since 1995 when I was President of the International Association for Conflict Management (IACM) and had to give a presidential address to IACM members from all over the world. My talk addressed links between ambient temperatures and domestic political violence in 136 countries between 1948 and 1977. Political riots and armed attacks appeared to occur more frequently in warm countries than in both cold and hot countries, after controlling for effects of population size and density as well as levels of socioeconomic development and democracy.

What sort of patterns do you see when looking at cultures along certain latitudes?
What we see, time and again, is that north-south differences dwarf east-west differences in culture. Take, for example, cultural individualism versus collectivism. Against popular knowledge, we find no east-west differences in individualism—collectivism after controlling for latitude and wealth. Instead, we find that collectivism increases from the poles toward the equator in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere.

Can you briefly describe ‘ cultural collectivism’ versus ‘cultural individualism’? Feel free to use examples if it helps.
Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose; everyone is expected to look after herself or himself and her or his immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth on onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive ingroups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. North Carolina shows a high rate of collectivism compared to other states.

Why is that? You mention the poles? Are they themselves an influence (e.g. the magnetic energy)? Is it more of the climate itself?
Of course, latitude is an imaginary coordinate that can have no impact at all, and the poles and the equator are not much help either. No, the answer must be sought in the latitude-related ecology. In the running for the explanatory crown are cold stress, heat stress, drought stress, deluge stress, pathogen stress, and poverty stress because all of these stresses are varying along latitude rather than longitude.

How many degrees difference are we talking? Is it 1 degree? 5? 10? 20?
We are not studying ecologies and cultures at bandwidths of latitudes or longitudes but at the precise midrange latitude and midrange longitude of where a population resides. For large countries such as the United States and China, midrange latitude and midrange longitude are nonsense variables, with the consequence that we have to study states or provinces.

How does climate influence cultures then? Temperate (easier) environments make people behave one way? Harsher climates the opposite?
That’s right. As warm-blooded animals we have basic needs for thermal comfort, nutrition, and health. Temperate environments are ideal as they offer comfortable temperatures, consumable flora and fauna, and low disease burdens, with the consequence that inhabitants experience little stress and reduction in control. They tend to create easygoing cultures. In places with colder winters, hotter summers, or both, people experience more climate stress and reduction in control. They require more and better clothing, shelter structures, and heating or cooling systems, increasing investments of time and effort in the pursuit of foods and drinks, and more measures to safeguard family health. As a long-run consequence, and depending on how much money they have to cope with climate, poor populations tend to develop threat appraisals and survival cultures whereas rich populations tend to develop challenge appraisals and self-expression cultures.

Can you briefly describe ‘threat appraisals and survival cultures’ versus ‘challenge appraisals and self-expression cultures’? Again, if it helps, include examples.
People with threat appraisals interpret their place of residence as having threatening characteristics, such as too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, given the poor income resources to cope with climate. In consequence, they have a survival problem, and attempt continuously to control the situation — they develop a survival culture. People with challenge appraisals interpret the same characteristics as challenging, given the rich income resources to cope with climate. In consequence, their problem is how to handle climate in inventive and innovative ways–they develop a self-expression culture. John Steinbeck, for example, being rich, noted: “I have lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me”. Why? Well, he did not have enough daily challenges to spend his money on.

Do temperate cultures also tend to draw more people then? Harsher keep them away? Or does it alter how people deal with those climates?
Well, as you know, arctic and desert areas are not overcrowded. In between these empty areas, our species has learned to cope with harsher climates by inventing and innovating billions of ideas, practices, instruments, and artifacts to deal with our three fundamental problems—how to stay comfortably warm, how to acquire and retain food (especially water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), and how to prevent disease.

How does the passing of time influence these traits? (e.g. if a place I easy to live for a long period of time – or hard to live – does it hardwire the character of the town?)
The daily weather has only short-term influences. Persistent cultural values, beliefs and practices are rather shaped by the average weather, i.e., climate. However, this process of niche construction and culture creation takes so long that inhabitants are usually unaware of the impact of their habitat on their habits.

Does that then impact other factors inside that culture? For example, you mention the role economics can play and that a harsher climate, having money can make it easier, which makes people more inclined to seek money. Does that then become a stronger personality trait among those cultures?
Sure, the arctics and deserts also exemplify the impact of climate on how difficult it is to eke out a living and create the cash and capital needed to deal with all the consequences of the cold or the heat. As a consequence, yes, our research has shown that poorer people in harsher climates are working more for money than for fun.

Describe your thermometer for “livability.” Is that strictly about temperature? Or something more?
Much evidence indicates that an ambient temperature of 720F (~ 220C) is optimal for thriving of plants and animals, and for psychosocial functioning of humans, who feed on plants and animals. It is the approximate point where the metabolic rate required for the clothed individual is both minimal and independent of the ambient temperature. Relatedly, it is the temperature preferred by tourists, too. Even more importantly, basic needs for nutrition and health are met more easily in habitats endowed with abundant flora and fauna amid supportive seasonal temperatures.

What about economics? Is it safe to say you’ll put up with less money — or higher costs — for a better climate? (In Florida and California, they call it the Sunshine Tax.)
Indeed, economists see climate as a commodity, have modeled climates, and have estimated their prices. My thermometer for livability can be used also as a scale for guesstimating the price of a place of residence with given winters and summers. Smaller upward and downward deviations from 720F should lead to a higher price for the local climate, thus a lower monetary compensation for working and living in that local climate.

You note that 72 degrees is the optimum temperature? On the Outer Banks —roughly 35.1 to 36. 8 degrees north — our year-round is roughly that, but it’s also got wider swings — we have week-long freezes, and hot, humid summers. How does that alter the “livability” factor? And what sort of traits would you anticipate to find here?
I am not familiar with the Outer Banks but may perhaps assume it to be not too different from the Caribbean, an excellent example of a region where easygoing cultures prevail. The Caribbean lifestyle on Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, and numerous smaller islands, is relatively relaxed. These islanders tend to shun both working for money and working for achievement. Neither survival pressures nor self-expression pressures seem to weigh heavily on the islanders’ thoughts, emotions, and actions.

I’ve found we’ve got a mix of traits on the Outer Banks. We’re a summer beach town, but we have pretty harsh weather at times (winter storms and hurricanes). We’re also quite isolated and small. (Our county of 37,000 year-round people is 90 minutes to two hours from the nearest city, Norfolk/Virginia Beach — an hour more if you live on the southern end, where options get more remote and the climate/opportunities rougher.) But we’re also a very natural setting with great surfing, fishing, kiteboarding, nature. For decades, people moved here would sacrifice income and careers to have access to those attributes. It’s also a rough economic climate — it’s hard to make money, but our culture is actually pretty laid back and friendly, with a community that shares a passion for the outdoors. So, it’s hard work for little financial reward — but also a pretty carefree, close community that’s tight and conflict-free. Does that fit into your observations? Why or why not? And are there places you think of on near the 36-degree line that fit that pattern?
Now that you have filled some gaps in my knowledge, this cultural pattern does not surprise me. It sounds easygoing and relatively collectivist as is the case in the Caribbean.

How specific can these changes be? There’s roughly 1.5 degrees between Corolla and Ocracoke. Ocracoke is an island to the south you can only reach by ferry, with a year-round community of 500 that’s existed for 300 years. Corolla is almost a tourism suburb that’s sprouted up in the past 35 years and is on the northern border. What similarities might we assume? What differences? And is there a point where certain elements — isolation, time — will outweigh geography and climate?
It is always difficult, if not irresponsible, for a scientist to generalize from research results based on a worldwide cloud of data points to a single dot somewhere on the planet.

Obviously, the Outer Banks is a tourism-driven community, more than anything. Do tourism-based communities see changes faster, because of the influence of people from other latitudes? Or do islands stay more resilient because of their isolation?
We never studied the spatiality of tourism, nor the specifics and particulars of islands.

This all started because of my curiosity of looking east along the 36th parallel and seeing what places we shared a latitude. I’ll give you some examples of what I found, that seems similar, and maybe you can suggest a reason behind it — or dispel my inclinations. Southern Spain (this seems like the most obvious parallel): directly across the Atlantic from our main towns, you reach find small Spanish beach towns with small year-round populations, such as Zahora, where city people spend their summers (like here.) There are little bars, and people who camp. There’s even a cape with a lighthouse (we have 4 lighthouses, and one cape). It’s also just south of Cadiz, home to a long-standing fishing culture. (Before 1950, we were entirely fishing/seafaring – or piracy.) Besides, Cadiz, and some small “Frontera town” they’re about 2 hours form the closest big city with an airport — Seville. (Like here.) So relatively isolated, with lots of open space and national parks. (Like here.) There’s even a town called Tarifa, that’s the kiteboarding capital of Europe —our Cape Hatteras is kiteboarding capital of the East Coast. Is that all coincidence? Or is there some mix of geography and climate? Or psychological attitudes? (Reliable jobs are in the city; fishing on the coast, which was us before tourism.)
Of course, that is no coincidence. Your observation fits in nicely with our repeated finding that north-south differences in culture dwarf east-west differences in culture. For climatic, pathogenic, and economic reasons, these longitudes along roughly the same latitude are expected to have roughly the same cultures.

Then there are other discoveries that likely coincidence — but just seem weird. For example, because we’re the closest land body to the Gulf Stream, our fishing port of Wanchese, sends tons of seafood to places up and down the East Coast — it so happens the world’s largest fish market is in Tokyo, and is just .2 degrees off of the Wanchese. Or, the Outer Banks is known for begin able to drive on the beach. Pismo Beach — which is on the same latitude — is the only place you can drive on beach in all of Central or Southern California. Or, in the ‘50s, the Outer Banks was almost made a test site for nuclear testing — we share the same latitude as the Los Alamos Nuclear Research facility, site of the first tests? Am I just seeing relationships that don’t exist? Is it just, again, the odds of looking at such a huge region? or am I missing something?
Societal functioning has many fathers and mothers. It would be no less than silly to attempt to explain all pattern complexity with one single most important theory or field such as latitudinal psychology.

One thing your research mentioned was that communities behave similarity on opposite side of the poles. That they can be mirror images. I did some checking. The closets town to our coordinates Santa Teresita, Argentina. It so happens it’s basically a beach town like here — similar population (roughly 6k people) and similar age. (50 years old.) Is that a coincidence too? Or is that pattern? Or something in between?
I would not be surprised if a study would show that climate accounts for this covariation.

Are there any distinct geographic patterns that are unexplainable, where certain places seem to have a stronger impact on people/history? For example: you hear people talk about earth’s “chakra points.” People even say that Cape Hatteras is some sort of magnet that draws people — residents and visitors alike. Or do people just make this stuff up based on other existing beliefs?
I am not aware of any scientific evidence supporting these claims, i.e., no accurate descriptions that document the phenomenon, let alone predictive and/or explanatory studies that deserve serious attention. Yes, human beings do relate to certain places, so much so that they prefer to migrate to regions with similar climates (e.g., English emigrants in Australia and New Zealand, Amish and Mennonites in North America, etcetera). No, there is no magnetic energy pulling people to Outer Banks; it is simply that people use the thermometer for livability to select their holiday options.

Do all cultures place a level of importance on certain places, whether it’s spiritual or cultural (e.g. holy sites and monuments)? And if so, why? What fundamental need does it serve?
There is little doubt that the inhabitants of all places on Earth have adapted multiple habits to their geographic habitats. That said, people around the globe differ considerably in the extent to which they recognize that, emphasize it, and manage it. One reason is that people are motivated to perceive themselves as having control over their lives. Again, this is not a simple mechanism as there are at least four fundamental processes to achieve and maintain control.
Can you expand upon the that motivation for people to perceive themselves as having control over the lives? Is this universally shared among all cultures?
Yes, it is a universal motivation: people everyday, everywhere want to perceive themselves as having control over their lives.


The less you care about an election, the more it probably matters.

On Nov. 6, Outer Bankers will once again mobilize en masse, packing the polls to make decisions that will determine the fate of our nation, our state — our very neighborhoods! (Yeah, sure.) Maybe if it was 2020. Then roughly two-thirds would crawl off the couch to pick a president. But when it comes to mid-term elections, history indicates less than half of Americans will bother to cast a ballot. And it only gets worse from there.

“All of the energy and all of the interest [in America] is geared toward presidential years,” says Dr. Michael Bizter, a Catawba College political science professor and researcher who specializes in North Carolina races. “But when you have mid-term election years — and even worse, what we call ‘odd year’ elections for local government — turnout just plummets. And if you’re one voter out of 30,000 — as compared to 300,000 or 3,000,000 — that vote speaks exponentially louder than people’s who don’t vote, in terms of engagement.”

Not just in terms of percentages — but in steering politics as a whole. Turns out the most frequent voters are also the most fervent ideologues. Without the full spectrum of views to dilute the diehards, parties only move further apart — especially as campaign managers and politicians court the most reliable voters to win elections — leading to increasingly extreme candidates who most people feel less comfortable supporting.

The good news? According to Bitzer, our political make-up is getting more diverse — and looking a little less lazy. We asked the good doctor for a check-up on our county and state’s current voter profile, and what each citizen can do to keep our democracy healthy. — Matt Walker

This article appears in the 7.3 issue of Milepost, which printed Fall 2018.

MILEPOST: How does NC compare with the rest of the U.S. when it comes to turnout? Are we as lazy as I think?
DR. MICHAEL BITZER: We’re pretty typical. Two-thirds of registered voters show up for presidential years. That’s the norm for the nation as a whole. When it comes to midterms, that typically drops to the low- and mid-40 percent. But for odd years, which is the level of government that affects citizens on a day-to-day basis, very few people participate. In the city of Charlotte, last year’s mayoral election had maybe 15 percent voter turnout.

What about state trends overall?
North Carolina has trended left significantly. In 2000 and 2004, we were 13-point Republican favorites. Meaning George W. Bush won this state by 13 percentage points. In 2008, Barack Obama won by less than half a point. And that’s when North Carolina started to become more competitive. We still lean slightly to the Republican side — Trump won by three-and-a-half points — but it is much closer than those 13-point blowouts.

But at the same time, we have a staunchly Republican state legislature. Is that because of gerrymandering? Or something different?
That certainly plays into it. What we tend to see is that we voters have sorted ourselves into likeminded communities. And there’s more and more polarized voting going on at the local level. But certainly, gerrymandering doesn’t help matters. So when we have districts so heavily drawn one way or the other, it does make a difference.

That’s interesting, because the Outer Banks is pretty much half and half, while our inland counties are more right. I think that’s partially because we get so many people moving in from other areas. Is that normal for coastal communities where you get these hodgepodges of people?
I think. Certainly, North Carolina has been influenced by in-migration. Certainly, retirees in that area would play a pretty significant influence. Rural areas are going to be more Republican. Urban North Carolina is trending much more democratic. But actually, if you isolate suburban counties around Raleigh and Charlotte, they are the most Republican counties.

We definitely occupy a more suburban socio-economic demographic. When you look at Dare County numbers, do you see any revelations that bear that out? Or any insights as we compare to the rest of the state?
Right now, if you break down the state numbers, it’s 38 percent registered Democrats, 31 percent Unaffiliated, and 30 percent Republican. In Dare County, Unaffiliated is 39 percent. Registered Republican is 31 percent. And registered Democrat is 29 percent. You have more registered unaffiliated voters than Democrats or Republicans. And that’s kind of where things are headed in the state.

What about on the age breakdown? Are we younger, older, the same?
In the state, we’ve had a pretty significant change — we’ve got about 6.9 million registered voters. Right now, voters under the age of 37 — what we would call Millennials and Generation Z — they’re now a plurality. Their numbers tend to be 32 percent of the total statewide. Baby Boomers are 31 percent. The generation in-between — Gen X — is about a quarter, at 26 percent.

Dare County is a little bit older than the state: 23 percent of the voters are Millennial or Gen Z; 41 percent are Baby Boomers, with 25 percent Gen X. So, statewide, that Gen X and Millennial group is more than Boomers. But while they may be the plurality as registered voters, they do not show up as much. Baby Boomers tend to be a plurality of votes among those who cast votes.

Why do you think that is?
It’s a common dynamic. When you’re young, you haven’t established real roots, perhaps, in a community. But as you grow older, you become more invested in your community. You become more aware of the issues. And you tend to vote more frequently.

So the group with the most political power right now is also the least likely to use it?
That’s the great question for this year’s election: will that trend be bucked by younger voters who seem to have awakened? In terms of the dynamics, with Millennials almost reaching 40, this could be a kind of transition election. But it will be interesting to see if the energy and enthusiasm among young voters is still there this fall. Because midterms are traditionally an older electorate than what we see in presidential years. And the Baby Boom generation tends to lean more Republican.

We keep talking about Democrats and Republicans — but then you say we’re one-third unaffiliated.
Well that is a very common misperception about unaffiliated voters. If you ask the standard three questions — “Are you Democrat, Republican or Independent?” — a significant plurality will say, “I’m an Independent.” And this is particularly true among young voters. The following question that has to be asked is, “Do you lean to one party or the other?” And if someone leans to one party, they will vote in a partisan way just as much as people who identify with that political party. If we look back to 2012 and 2016, less than ten percent of the national electorate were pure Independents who split their votes pretty evenly. If you go to an Independent who leans more Democratic or leans Republican, they’re voting for their party 80 percent of the time or more. So they may eschew the party label, but they are pretty reliable party voters.

It does feel like people vote party over country more. And that disillusionment must drive even more people to say, “I don’t want to vote,” because it feels useless. Right?
The parties have become more ideologically coherent. There is party loyalty and a sense of tribalism on both sides. Among voters, it has become a sense of, “I’m not voting for my party as much as I’m voting against the other party.” But folks who are registered partisan in the state have higher turnout than registered Unaffiliateds. So, if you’re a candidate or a campaign manager, and you’re talking about 80 percent-plus reliable voters — or a shrinking pool of Independents who may or may not necessarily show up — who are you going to go after? You’re going to go after the reliable vote. And particularly when you get into legislative districts that are drawn in favor of one party or the other, the election that matters isn’t the general election. It’s the primary election. Because if you survive your primary, 85 percent of voters [will vote straight down the ticket.]

And by not voting, people send a bad message to the candidates themselves. You’re doing yourself a disservice. Because even a losing vote represents a potential change in policy stance.
Yes. Very much so.

So every vote really does count. Even if it feels like you’re not having an impact. In fact, it’s almost a reverse scenario — the less important an election feels, the more important it probably is.
Yup. But all elections have consequences. Look at the recent uproar over Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and the opportunity for Republicans to add a fifth member to the Supreme Court. Or issues on the local level, decisions that get made by local communities [that impact daily life]. This is a democratic republic. We rely on citizens to not just voice their concerns but to engage in electing their leaders. And I think for the average citizen, if they complain about the decisions being made, they need to engage themselves. And even if they’re on the losing side, at least their voice is heard.


What’s wrong with bland? Nothing, if you’re a communion wafer — or a cardboard box. Bland is safe. Bland is consistent. Easy. But in our modern economy, just being safe and consistent can mean being ignored. And no business can afford that — especially when tastes are constantly changing, and so many more choices are clamoring for attention.

“People always have to be looking at their brand to see what needs to change to fit what people’s priorities and desires are,” says Karen Brown, president and CEO of Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. “Even we as a group have had to change the way we deliver our services and how we do our fundraising and programming.”

For retailers, that might mean serving champagne with shopping. For restaurants, it could be an interactive cooking night — or just going gluten-free. For the chamber, it’s not just upgrading their own events; it also includes creating a brand initiative for the products born right here on the Outer Banks. We sat down with Brown to get her take on today’s tougher issues, and what folks can do to cook up more business. — Matt Walker

So, first things first: what’s your name and title?
Karen Brown, president and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.

How long have you been with the chamber?
Five and a half years.

What were you doing before that?
I was a chamber president. I’ve been a chamber president for the past 18 years. I was in the middle of Georgia. I was the economic developer and the chamber president there. And I was in Bonita Springs, Florida for 7 years. I wasn’t the president though. I was the Training and Development Director.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Millsville, NJ, which is near Ocean City. In 2000, my husband and I moved to Florida to be near his mother. My mother in law had a small business and wanted to join the chamber. So I went with her and they had a job opening – and the rest is history. [laughs]

So what does the chamber do?
In a nut shell, I like to say we provide the opportunity for business success. We provide a lot of tools to the business community. We have the network opportunity, certainly. People like to do business with people they know. So the networking is important, building relationships with other businesses so you know who you need to call for services or refer people to for services. We also offer training and development for the business community. We offer connections to business resources — I’ve had 3 call this week like that — where people need help. They need financial help or they’re looking to expand or they need some work force. And we have all kinds of partners we can refer them to: NC Works, the workforce development board, the small business center. There’s all sorts of resources at the state level we can refer them to. We also provide legislative advocacy, to make sure the community stays business friendly and to respond to those issues that affect our business community. Which are many, because everything has that dotted line back to business. Even — say – the plastic bag issue because if it impacts the tourist experience its’ going to impact our business community. So advocacy is a big one for us. So is economic development. We now do economic development for Dare County. As a chamber we cover Currituck, Dare and Ocracoke. Economic Development we just do Dare County. The other counties have their own, but we work together. We do a lot of things that people don’t realize. A lot of the things that people think just happen, the chamber does it — or gets it started or helps it along.

It’s more than just ribbon cuttings.
Yeah. And we’re a non-profit. We’re a 501 C-6. We’re not a part of the government or funded by the government. Everything we do is funded by our members. It’s membership, investment and our non-dues revenue. So those fun things like the reverse raffle or the golf tournament, we do those to get that non-dues revenue in.

Sounds like you’re a resource, too. If you’re a member and have a question and don’t know what to do next, you can tell them who to talk to.
That’s why our tagline is “simply connect.” Because we help connect businesses with who they need. Sometimes we have the answer. Sometimes it’s somebody else.

And you’re not affiliated with the US Chamber?
We’re not a member. I like to say we have the same last name but we’re not related. Just like having the last name “Brown.” [laughs] They’re a membership organization and they enjoy having Chambers of Commerce as their members. We’ve elected not to be members. I don’t feel they’re really representative of our small business community. By definition, small business is 500 employees or less. That’s the national definition. I don’t think they’re in tune with what happens in coastal communities. A lot of times I’ll hear from them, and I’ll say “that’ why we’re not a member because you don’t listen to us. We are a member of the NC chamber. We don’t always agree with them either, for sure, and we go up there and let them know that. But we want a seat at the table. Especially for state issues. If we’re not a member they don’t have to listen to us. But if we are a member, then I can be a squeaky wheel. They may not change their mind, but I can at least make an argument.

And you can say, “they didn’t listen.” What were Bonita Springs and Pike County like?
Bonita springs is a lot like here. It started as a little fishing village on the road between Fort Myers and Naples, Florida. And it’s grown in to a tourism destination. It’s not out-and-out island, so it has some differences, culturally. Like, they have an international airport pretty close by. They definitely have more retail. More corporate economic development. They just had Hertz open a corporate center because of the airport. So similar, but different. Members have a lot of the similar issues and challenges that we have here. Pike County, GA, is a small inland county. Very, very rural. Like, one traffic light in the whole county. It’s made up of small towns with incorporated areas. Membership is always similar in that it’s small businesses with 50 and under employees — that’s typical. And I did economic development there, trying to recruit businesses. And that was in the area of Georgia where there used to be old mills. Cotton mills. They made a lot of fabric. One company there made the Nomex material for the Army , the digital camo. And then racing suits from NASCAR. Totally not a tourism destination. Totally opposite from Florida. So it was wonderful to come here. I grew up on the Jersey Shore , so I missed being near the water. It gets in our blood.

And the brand is there. It’s very identifiable. And our beach sells itself, you don’t have to tell people.
It’s so unique here. I loved the Jersey shore, too. You have the boardwalk and the retail development right there. And it’s so different here, because you don’t have that. And I think that’s what makes it so unique and special. I feel like people come here to take a breath and relax. And they feel like they can do that. And you don’t come on vacation here if you want to go every day.

I’m sure that can be tough because there’s always pressure to create more business opportunity. To add more people or more things that could generate more foot traffic. There has to be a segment of the business community that says, “We would love to have a boardwalk.” And you always hear people say, “I don’t want to be VB.’ But somewhere out there is a person who sees VB and says, “I want that.”
[laughs] Well, if you look at Duck, we do have a little boardwalk — on the soundside. But I don’t hear a lot of that. What I hear more is “We don’t have town centers.” Manteo is walkable. And people are looking for that walkable experience. That’s one thing I hear people say they wish we had a little more of.

That makes sense. And I don’t think that’s necessarily contradicting, either. Manteo is not Atlantic City. And neither the Duck Boardwalk.
No. It’s not lined with bars and restaurants and amusements where you go at night and tell the kids, “Go have a ball.” And when I got here I was reminded of that. And I do think that makes unique. But sometimes people come here looking for that.

Well, people do get nostalgic over Dowdy’s and the Foosball Palace. And the carnival was well received. And even the Atlantis, for adult fun. I think we’re going to miss Kelly’s because it was a reliable night life for people who came into town.
Yeah. I think the one thing we lack here — good bad or whatever — is a large event space. Not like a 2000-seat place, just a 500-seat place. You think about the non-profits who do annual meetings, we’re very limited. I have the Governor coming, I can get 200 people in that room, that’s it. And I’m sold out and it’s a month away. That I hear as more of desire than anything. It could bring more conventions here if we had more meeting space. Do we want that? I don’t know. There are some people who do. But I wouldn’t mind having a large venue for the wedding expo or the hospital gala — all those things need a larger indoor venue.

Especially in winter. But even in summer the weather is an ex factor. So how would you describe this economy. What are its strengths? What are it’s challenges?
It’s strengths are certainly our culture and our people. People feel very welcome here. You don’t always get that through social media [laughs] but for the most part we’re a pretty welcoming community. Again, people like to come here and relax. And they find they can do that. The challenges for our business community continue to be — and we’re in the middle of our annual survey — but they continue to be workforce and housing, which go hand in hand. Housing has hit a crisis level now. And part of it’s because we have the two bridge companies here taking up a lot of seasonal and year round housing. And we started a community housing initiative group to see what can we do. But what we need is more inventory in the market for more year-round rental properties. The hospital lost a couple of professional staff because they couldn’t find a place to rent. The college was all lined up to do a new program and the instructors got here, couldn’t find a place to rent ,and turned around and left. We don’t have that program. That’s the crises level that we’re hitting now. That’s a real problem.

And that’s a tough one, too. Because how do you solve it? It’s not so much the lack of housing as the cost of real estate and wages and everything else. It’s not so much you can’t find a place, you can’t afford it.
But if we get more inventory, the prices would come down. And we do have a couple of developers that are certainly interested in trying to help, but the dollars have to work.

And that’s what’s hard. And I don’t even know how you can control that. I’ve sat in those meetings. But who’s to dictate that a higher density condo won’t just turn it more expensive beach rentals? It would take a lot of inventory to depress our prices. So how do you do that?
We’re looking into some things. A non-profit could own the development and get some grant money to keep costs down. There’s ways to do it. but we have to be open minded and visionary. And when you have land that has high value for other purpose it’s hard to sell that.

It is. I don’t blame anyone for making a buck. But when I lived here the first time, I washed dishes and still lived here. I don’t know how people can do that anymore unless they’re grandfathered in. if you don’t have an affordable rent or mortgage right now, you’re not gonna get it. Beach boxes are $250,000.
We just bought a house 3 years ago and I’m still in sticker shock. We probably could’ve bought 3 houses for the same amount in New Jersey where I was living. But it’s the price you pay for living at the beach, fine, but I don’t know how our service workers and entry level people can afford it. It really has to be difficult. And we’re seeing that: how many “help wanted” signs are we seeing? It’s terrible. And it was bad last summer, but I think it’s going to be worse this summer.

And it’s sort of a self-feeding cycle. Like the Air BNB thing. I know a lot of people who need that income to survive, but it makes it harder for other people. And I think people underestimate how interconnected it is. I’m not worried about work force housing, but a lot of our advertisers are. And some are mom-and-pops; they may not need people or houses, but their clients do.
And if they’re spending all their money on rent every month, they don’t have the disposable income to support other stuff that’s here. The retail, the restaurants, even the mechanics, they just don’t get that done. But we have some out of the box ideas, and we’ll see where they go.

Is it helpful to get input on this stuff?
Like housing? Yes, it’s helpful. But I’m not sure who much more input we need. I guess it depends on the kind of input. We know it’s a crisis. We know where the market needs to be where people can afford it. We’ve collected all the ordinances from the towns and we’re just getting started looking at those things. And we’ve hired a housing consultant to see what sort of solutions or programs might be. But we don’t need a housing consultant to tell us what the problem is. We know what the problem is [laughs]

So, looking at Dare County, our tourism economy alone went up 40% between 2008 and 2016. Less than 10 years. That’s not normal right?
That’s very fast. Very fast. Abnormally fast, I would say.

Is that part of the problem?
Sure. Any time you grow that fast and haven’t had time to react to that type of growth, whether it’s through land use plans or overlay districts or whatever it is, development just happens. And then all of a sudden we go, “We should’ve done this instead.” And it happens everywhere; but here it happened extremely fast.

And I don’t think every restaurant’s up 40% either.
That’s because there’s probably 40% more restaurants.

Is that what it is?
Yeah! Look at the grocery stores. There are 3 new grocery stores or chains that are competing with the Food lion. And now Publix is here

That is a lot.
And they’ll do their research on traffic counts and making sure there is enough of a market to support them knowing that all these other grocers are out there. They do their homework. And I’m certain this summer every grocery store will be jam packed. They won’t have to worry. It’s more the offseason.

I feel like we’re at a crossroads of becoming a bigger beach town than we used to be. And a lot of what’s going on is people figuring out: how does that work? But some is positive for sure. We have more options than ever.
It’s positive for sure. But it puts a strain on that part of the economy that struggles to find a place to live. You need more service people but we can’t house them, so it’s a conundrum.

Someone was saying that Publix should’ve put some apartments on top.
They could’ve done something. Not that anyone brought it to their attention. But I think that’s part of the conversation we need to start having with these big boxes — if we get them — any bigger company, we should say, “Have you thought about housing for your employees?” Why couldn’t they have just bought a couple of houses and put employees in.

That’s what some restaurants have done.
In Publix’s defense, I’m not sure anyone brought it to their attention. And they may not have trouble finding people but, they’ll take it from other grocery stores. It all comes down to housing.

But, one of my biggest beefs, is people move places — just people – and don’t do any research. All those people needed to do was go into Food Lion and seen the poster board saying, “our summer employees need housing.” Or Lidl. How could they submit plans without checking building codes first?
Well, I talked to them, and I said, “Have you thought about housing?” And they said, “Well, we’re not here to fix your problem.” And I said, “well, it’s going to be your problem if you can’t get workers because they can’t live here.” I wasn’t trying to be smart; I was just saying they should think. But the grocery stores know they can make big money because we have big houses and people shop for a big part of their vacation.

And then the restaurants get mad….

Explain this: it seems like you’ll get two different takes at any given time. Retail people will say, “It’s killer’ and restaurant say “it’s not.” Or the other way around. Why? Is there a pattern?
I don’t know, but it’s always one or the other.

The other one you hear is bad weather is great for restaurants.
Well everything here is weather-related. We’ve been lucky with the Seafood Festival to have great weather every year.

You mentioned options. It feels now like we’re almost a city of 250,000 people. Not really, the options we have are here because of those people. Trio wouldn’t have exited here 20 years ago. You would’ve been able to buy wine, but…
That experience would not have been here.

Even the type of people who would want to have that experience would not have been here.
So what do you think is the most unique business you’ve seen come along then?

We have people in this area making sunblock products and lip balms. Skeeter Beater is making mosquito spray. All these things that are happening because we’re this great tourism economy. We did a bubble chart that tried to captures all the industries in Dare County. We couldn’t do it all, but tourism drives all these other things The boat building, the charter fishing, which then drives cabinet making and electrical and painters. All that stuff. It’s all a big trickle down.

What I’ve seen is more business that are creating an experience. Like the Escape Rooms or Grand Staff and Stein recreating speak easy. Instead of just doing something, they get engaged in activity. I had a guy in here last year who ended up in Myrtle Beach who wants to do water bikes. So you’re engaged in an activity instead of sitting and watching a dolphin tour — although I love dolphin tours. That’s the difference to me. Even Publix is trying to create an experience. I walked in the other night and they handed me a paper; it’s ‘Meet your management night’ and I need to get each manager to sign a coupon and if you bring it back you get an even bigger coupon.

The other thing I’ve noticed is the level of detail. We don’t just have a Pet Smart — we have a Holistic Pet Store. The layers of options and boutique-ness that never existed. There’s also more competition And there’s new ideas.
Well, the Adventure Park is another experience.

Exactly. It’s not Dowdy’s. But it’s a version of it.
It’s a version that people really get engaged in. They physically get engaged in it. Versus going to a movie theater and watching it.

Or sitting in a tilt-a-whirl and just holding on.
I think it’s just the way people want to do thing snow. They want to be a part of it. But there are still people like me too. I love the movies! I’m not getting on that Adventure Park Thing. [laughs]

It’s an interesting point. Because you might make the argument that the holistic a pet store is an experience, because you’re going to see other organic pet friends.
It makes people feel good. And people like to feel good. Is it good or the environment? Is it good for my pet? Is it good for me? Even Dr. Bowen is now a holistic doctor instead of a doctor who writes a bunch of prescriptions. I think people are looking for alternatives.

Medicine is definitely an example. We have way more options now. It’s almost like a city experience. I mean, there might have been one or two chiropractors 20 years ago, but there’s a bunch now. Or yoga studios. Or fitness in general. It’s not just the gym or the Y. You can go to yoga. You can go to boot camp. You can go to yoga boot camp…
You can go to yoga on the beach, you can go t to hot yoga. [laughs]

And the people who go to yoga in March may not be tourists, but they wouldn’t have the studio in the offseason if they didn’t have a tourist market. So the foundation is still the same. And that make every challenge everyone’s challenge.
Even the chamber has to adapt. This is a weird example, but we used to do a sit down ‘rubber chicken’ dinner where we gave a few awards. Last year, we said “Enough. No more rubber chicken dinners. We need to change what we’re doing.” So we made it more of an experience. We did a heavy hors d’oeuvre cocktail reception out at Festival Park, then went into the theatre and made it more of an awards show. Even we’re looking at how can we engage people better. People aren’t looking to go to those rubber chicken dinners any more. They want something different. Chamber people call it rubber chicken because every time you go to a banquet you get chicken. You always get chicken.

Because a rubber chicken would be a great award.
[laughs] Maybe. But even we’ve had to change the way we deliver our services and how we do our fundraising and programming to make sure people want to come to it.

That’s an interesting point. I think it’s a challenge for any business to reinvent themselves. Especially if you’ve been here for 50 years, doing the same thing. I mean, if you’re John’s Drive in, you don’t have to touch a thing. But you can see if you’re fried fish restaurant whose done it one way forever to look down the street and see something totally new — that could be scary.
Yes. Well you always have shave to be looking at your brand to see what needs to change to fit what peoples priorities and desires are. I mean, everyone’s into gluten-free and low- carb, healthy eating, so you have to make sure you’re appealing to that group. Whereas us baby boomers eat as much meat and potatoes you can put in front of us.

Well, tastes are getting more refined, too. A buddy of mine owns a pizza place, and they joke about their wine selection being basically Barefoot. But it might not hurt o have a couple nicer bottles on hand for the occasional wine snob.
Look at the craft beer industry. Heck, 10 years ago, it was Bud or Bug Light. Now everyone wants a craft beer.

And you can see that same level of choosiness in everything. Only don’t you not have traditional restaurants and hotels or rentals; it’s the variety of options. It’s Air BNB. It’s sushi. It’s chefs for hire. It’s killer for the consumer. But it’s scary for any business owner who may never have had to compete on that level.
We have a great business community. And a very successful business community. But I’m surprised by how many don’t have a business plan. Or they haven’t dusted it off in a while to see where they need to widen their view a little.

So, manufacturing: what are people making.
We cover Currituck, Dare and Ocracoke. So, in Currituck you have Carolina Casual Wholesale furniture—he’s up there manufacturing outdoor furniture out of recycled plastic bottles. He’s selling in catalogs and Bed, Bath and Beyond now. You have a kite manufacturer in Currituck. Island Experteez has national contracts. And of course, the boat building in Wanchese, and the cabinet makers — that’s all manufacturing. And a lot of little guys do small manufacturing. In Manteo, there’s a guy who does engraving and trophies and glass etching. And surfboard builders. And then of course you’ve got the service industry; HVAC guys, and electricians and plumbing. But those guys are all heavily tourism dependent, too. The boatbuilders might be the exception, they might be there anywhere, but tourism introduces a lot of people to the fact they’re here.

Or they go fishing and go “wow!”
Yes. And there’s a guy called OBX Deck Dining. And he makes a bar top for outdoors, and it has bar stools that fold up into it, so it’s a table that fits on your deck, but it becomes a table, and he’s making it his house! And I found a woman the other day on Facebook who makes beach-glass jewelry and ships it all over the country. So there are lots of little things you don’t know what’s happening.

So describe OBXMADE then.
OBXMADE is to really celebrate things that are made here locally. We started with products, specifically, because to get the trademark we had to be specific. We’ll probably expand out more to include even, say, houses that are made by local builders. But right now it’s products. So I’ll use the Outer Banks Distilling guys as an example. They would apply for the trademark we have. And then we have an advisory board look over the application, and say, “Yes you can use that.” And our hope is they would put that on their label. And that just broadens our reach out into the world. And we’ll have a website and other ways to promote OBXMADE so people who come here and experience being here, get home and say, “I’d really like to have whatever that product is” and find it. And not that they can’t get it now, but they know it’s OBX made. It’s sort of like the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

So it’s basically a branding effort.
It’s definitely a branding effort. When Dare County did the economic strategic plan last year, we had already started this process, but in there they identified that the county should do a creative branding initiative. And it so happens we had already started one.

So you might get a surfboard with OBXMADE on it. Or a hot sauce…
Yeah! It can be hot sauce, surfboards, jewelry, shirts. Anything that’s OBX MADE. We’re not gonna open a storefront or anything. It’s just promoting and branding our area that much more than we already are.

Does it cost?
There’s an application fee. And it’s $150 annually. But all chamber members get $100 credit so it’s $50 a year for members. And once you’re approved we send the logo and you can use it.

I’ve always thought telecommuting is the answer for our year-round economy. It might not help the housing crisis, but…
It’s happening already. And that’s another area we’re going to start marketing as well. If you can work anywhere, ‘Why not work from the beach?” We have the connectivity. So why not?

It makes total sense. So how aware do you think people are that we’re this interconnected. I feel like in general, we’re a community that supports each other. But I also think people re kind of clueless on how interconnected we are. If people can’t find housing, it sucks for everyone. Are people aware?
I don’t think enough of them are aware of that. If a company closes up or lays folks off, it affects everything: it affects the grocery store, it affects health care, it affects the gas station. I saw an article one time that tracked a dollar as it grows and goes out into the economy. You can also do that in the opposite direction: what happens when that dollar’s taken out of the economy? I think people try to be in tune with everyone else is doing, but at the end of the day, we’re worried about our own checkbook. That’s true of most of us. I’m probably guilty about it too. And I probably care more than most people about this business community. But I will say out here there’s more of an effort to shop and do business with local people. You have to go to Food Lion and Publix, but if there’s a local business people do try hard to support the local guys. If I want a steak, I’m not going to go to — well, I can’t say, because they’re members — but let’s say I’m going go to a local person first.

Or, if you want a burger, you’re not going to do McDonald’s, Maybe. Or are they members, too.
Yeah, they’re members.

Wow. You can’t hate on anybody!
[laughs] Yeah, something like 50% of our businesses are members, which is huge. Most chambers have under 20%.

So what’s the membership then?
We have about 1000 and in our service area there’s about 2200.

Are there any big difference between Currituck and Ocracoke and here, as far as changes? I’m assuming Corolla’s had the biggest jump in the past 20 years but are there other trends?
Well, Ocracoke is struggling because the ferry route’s so long now. Hopefully the new passenger ferry will help them in the summer time. I think July’s their target date. And they’ll do four trips a day, which should be cool. I can’t imagine they won’t do more because I think there will be a high demand. But the Ocracoke businesses are obviously very supportive of each other. Currituck is interesting. I feel like Currituck is like Jersey — you have the south and the north. Because Moyock is so close to Chesapeake, they’re more in tune with that. And that’s a struggle sometimes. And now they’re really trying to promote a mega-site, Currituck Station. I think they’re hoping to get people from Virginia to come move over. But we really don’t have many members above Shortcut Road because it’s hard to service them. And we travel to Ocracoke two or three times a year to meet with members.

It’s always seemed weird to me that Corolla’s Currituck. But that’s where they get all the money, so it’s not going anywhere.
Yeah, they’re not going to give it up.

So, challenges. We talked bout year round housing. What are the other threats?
Work force is another. Like, the average age of an HVAC worker is 56. They’re all going to start retiring, and we’re not backfilling. So it’s the whole educational career technical fields that we need to open up. For a long time, it’s been “You have to go to a four-year college.” We’ve been forgetting those technical trades. And now we’re going to start feeling the impacts. And that’s happening everywhere but we’re gonna feel it here.

There are a lot of HVAC systems here, that’s for sure.
Uh, yeah. And it’s electricians and plumbing — it’s all of that. And I think our new superintendent and COA are working hard to get some that stuff into place and promote it more. Because you can make a good living with a certificate or two year technical degree.

Well, the blacksmith of today is your mechanic. And your computer tech guy. And your HVAC, too – you’ll make that AC work if it’s summer time. And it makes a difference. Because you can’t open a rental or restaurant if that AC is broken. And a lot of people say “I can’t get anyone over here.”
I guess the hospital tracks their stuff all the time. And the birth rate at the hospital went down and they figured out it was because the people having babies are out of that age bracket. And there aren’t new young people coming into the community. That’s interesting . And that scares me a little bit. And again it comes down to housing, and cost of living and can I find a professional job? The tourism industry is great but it doesn’t provide a lot of 40- 50k a year jobs. Or a career job. And those technical careers could provide that kind of salary.

But those are two different skill sets, too. You say this and I think, “I should get my HVAC!” But I can barely screw in a light job.
I know. But hairdressers make a lot of money, too. A good bartender will make a lot of money. A good plumber. A nurse. A phlebotomist, there’s a lot of those jobs we don’t necessarily introduce to the kids. I mean in 8th grade I was going to be a banker, a teacher or nurse — because that was my frame of reference. So you have to find ways to open those horizons.

Most people don’t know what they want to do. But it seems like a lot of these issues just come down to general income inequality. Cost of living. Stuff. What’s the answer there?
Yes. And I guess that’s part of what we’re charged with as an economic developer for Dare County is to try and diversify and bring in some more professional jobs. But that doesn’t happen overnight.

And it doesn’t help the dishwasher or house keeper.

To me, it feels like there’s a lot of people grandfathered in, and they’re older, too.
There will always be some disconnect. But it would be great to get some good jobs where a kid coming out of college could come here and make a decent salary. But we’re always going to need dishwashers and service industry people. We just have to figure out a way to house them. I know there’s a push to pay , what, $15 an hour, but then your room rate’s going to go up…

Well, there are no free lunches, that’s for sure. All those years people went on unemployment, that kept vacations cheaper. Because the alternative was raising prices. But that just goes to show everyone’s connected. And people like to say, “It’s not my problem.”
But it’s going to be your problem. And it may take a couple years, but it will impact you at some point. Of course a lot of people worry about the housing bubble bursting again.

I would say $300k for a beach box sounds inflated. Whether that’s a bubble, I don’t know. I don’t want to see another burst though. What are some other threats? We’ve talked offshore drilling before. That would be horrible.

What about water quality?
I don’t hear a lot about water quality. But certainly insurance is always a big one, everything from health care to property tax, to flood to wind and hail, there are big challenges out there.

And flood gets all the attention, but wind and hail is what kills you.
I know, right? Our flood’s like $500 a year. It’s nothing. I’m happy to write that check. It’s the other one. And there are opportunities to comment to the state on rate hikes. And if they hear form a lot of people out here, hopefully they listen. But insurance is always on the top of business owner’s mind. And a lot is providing health care for their employees. And the chambers used to be able to offer small group insurance, but that all got taken away about 10 years ago. So there’s not a lot of options, especially out here.

What about infrastructure stuff?
Infrastructure is always an issue because we don’t have central sewer for the most part. And a lot of those septic systems are getting old. And we need to start looking at the newest latest ideas to replace those. But when companies want to come in, a lot of them want infrastructure in place. And sometimes county commissioners think we can bring in a 100-person company or call center. But they’re not coming here. The things we’re looking for are smaller employers that might be able to locate here and deal with septic and even a well if they had to.

It is a tiny piece of sand. It can’t be everything to everyone. That’s where telecommuting works.
And our internet access is really good for where we are. So that infrastructure is good. Transportation infrastructure? Our bridges are getting better. But we don’t have any public transportation to think of.

Here’s a threatened species: the taxi. They used to be synonymous with the outer banks. Uber is killing them. And it’s not just people here. It’s people from VB. They need a GPS to get around!
I still think there’s an opportunity to do some sort of trolley service or something. It won’t ever be something that the county does, but there’s an opportunity for a private business. Ocean city NJ had a trolley that only ran in summer. And it only ran on their version of the beach road. But I was really inexpensive. And it was the wedding guys who did it.

It would be a great nighttime idea for drunks like me. Traffic is one you see a lot of people complaining about.
I think that’s getting better. Not volume wise, but we’re better about directing people through Elizabeth City. And they’re done a better job at policing stuff up there. I don’t get as many complaints as two or three years ago. It’s not an outer banks problem. I went home to the Jersey Shore two summers ago, and they’re backed up 30 miles from Ocean City. Bumper to bumper. So more people are just wanting to get where they want to get and everyone wants to drive their own car. And it causes those issues. I don’t know how you can fix that. And I don’t know the latest on the Currituck Bridge. But to me that’s another result of us growing so fast. We didn’t think about getting people through Duck. Planning wise, because it’s 25. Which it should be.

What about the internet? I know retailers are feeling that pinch. But there also seems to be more boutique thing opening.
Well, that’s where I want to shop. Places that are different. And I think they fit the tourist market, too. But those businesses are going online, and that’s how they survive all year, is through their online sales. But that’s impacting everybody everywhere. I mean, Amazon, you can’ t stop that freight train. It’s so easy. A couple clicks and it’s at your house the next day. I mean, how do you compete with that?

Some even give you terms. Break big purchase into payments. So how do you compete with that?
They have to create experiences to get people in there. A wine night, a ladies night, a men’s night….

Are we still growing? Have you noticed businesses leaving?
I’ve seen businesses leave, but I feel like everyone that does two more open up. I don’t think we’ve stopped growing. I’m not sure where we’ll put everyone at some point. Certainly businesses close because they weren’t successful. And a lot of people come here with a dream and they want to live here and they want to own their own business, but they’re just not prepared for the year or two it takes to become profitable – if then.

And overhead here is huge. Probably worse for a business than it is for a person.
And when first got here it was so seasonal. I see fewer places close in the offseason over the past five years. They close to clean or remodel. But more businesses coming in are year round, because they know they need to be to make it work.

So moving forward what’s the ideal solution or grand plan?
To solve all our problems? If we could put a real dent in our housing issues, some of the other issues would ease a little bit. Because if we could get more inventory of rental housing that would drive prices down and experienced workers could afford to live here. That’s a place to start to ease some of the pain we’re experiencing. Our concern is if we don’t fix housing and get some of those help wanted signs to come down, it will start impacting the tourist experience. If they’re at a restaurant, and you’re not getting the best service, are you going to come back? Or if you can’t get in your rental house until 5 instead of 3. We want people to come here and be here. And those thing could impact our reputation and our economy.

I feel like we’re at a crossroads. I think for the longest time, you didn’t come here to make money — you made money in order to be here. A lot of people came here and then figured out a way to make it work — very seat of the pants. What they did was almost secondary to how they got here. And now, there’s clear money to be had. And there’s an influx of businesses coming in to get some. And you are competing with people who are probably coming here make a buck. Lord knows Publix didn’t come here to fish and surf.
That’s a good way of putting it. That’ s a really good point. Because it is a dream. You come with a dream, and it’s “I’ve got to make a living. I’ve got to do something.” And they figure it out. and that’s great. But at some point, you might want to step back and take a look and write it down and say, “How did I end up being successful? And how can I continue to be successful.

So, it may feel like it’s a slacker community, but you can’t be a slacker businesses anymore.
No. You have to work at it. Constantly.


It’s been nearly 60 years since Oregon Inlet teemed with so much activity. PCL Construction’s Sean Bush describes what’s going down – or, rather, up.

Since 1963, crossing Bonner Bridge has been among the Outer Banks’ more sublime experiences. A soaring opportunity to survey the natural bounty below. For the past two years, however, Mother Nature’s had to fight for drivers’ attentions, as PCL puts together the semi-trusty span’s brand new replacement. Workers north and south of the inlet creep toward the center, laying down giant girders. In the middle, floating cranes assemble precast segments of concrete to create monstrous T-shapes. And every day is a new demonstration in masterful engineering, sparking fresh questions, like, “How does everything fit together?” And, “What if one of those curved, concrete pieces falls?”

“It may look like it’s going to fall off,” says PCL construction manager Sean Bush. “But the same process is happening on both platforms, so you’re always in balance.”

One obvious difference? Size and shape. The new bridge has ten cantilevers and 11 spans, nine of which are high enough to let ships pass underneath if necessary. It’s also longer – 2.8 miles vs. 2.4 – and wider and higher, with a 100-year lifespan. (The old bridge was designed to last 30.) As the new structure takes shape, the old bridge looks more and more like the little brother who never grew up. Yet, despite a couple of weather delays and last summer’s electrical mishap, this massive effort remains largely on schedule, with a ribbon cutting due in November of 2018 – and demolition of the old bridge finishing up by September of 2019.

With the whole process roughly two-thirds complete, we sat down with Mr. Bush to get some insight on how the new bridge is stacking up. – Kip Tabb w/ Matt Walker

The following interview took place in Feb. of 2018. The edited version appears in Milepost 7.1

MILEPOST: First thing that hit me when I saw this photo is they started from that side and went across. And it was like, “Well, maybe it’s because there was no bridge in place to get to the south side and start working your way back.”
SEAN BUSH: I wasn’t there. I don’t know how they were delivering everything. But, probably, quite simply, they started on that side because there’s no bridge to drive across, so they went from point A to point B, which doesn’t’ sound too sexy but it makes sense now. This photo seems to be floating around. But it looks a lot different, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more sand and marsh on the north side now. Because there’s fishing catwalks on both sides, and the north is all dry land now. But at one point so someone was fishing.

Crazy, huh? So let’s start with the basics: name and age.
Sean Bush. I’m 46.

What’s your exact title and what’s it entail?
Construction Manager for PCL. Basically, I have the overall job responsibility. But we’re all a team, right. It takes a whole bunch of people to build a bridge. But I have responsibility of managing the day to day business. I work for PCL’s transportation group- bridges and roads. We get some support from Raleigh. So it’s a big construction job, but it’s a mini company in away, too.

So if this were a construction company, you’d be like the contractor, deciding what gets done each day and paying bills.
Yeah, the administration side isn’t as exciting as putting stuff in the ground, but there is that aspect, too. I’m paying one of our vendors right now who’s producing our precast for us. The bill for this is for $1.8 million bucks. And dealing with the client as well. But we broke the project into two major sections. One we call “the approaches”…

The flat stuff.
The flat stuff and the transitions. That’s the non-floating work. What’s over the sand and marshy water that’s not deep enough to be floating, but not dry enough to be land. And that’s where we have a temporary bridge – what we call “the trestle” – between the two bridges for construction access in between. That’s one whole management group. I has its own project manager that manages the day-to-day work and has his own corresponding field superintendent who oversees day to day operations with the craft workers and hour hourly workers getting stuff built on a daily basis. And there’s that corresponding same team over the marine span. And that’s all the stuff that’s “floating”.

You say, “floating,” The structure’s not floating, right? You’re working on something floating to build with. Like barges.
Yes, so we divide it between the marine team and the approaches team.

So in this photo, they would’ve started with an approach style then transition into marine team.
Maybe. And they might’ve been floating for quite a bit. When you look at how much sand has shifted. I don’t know how deep that water was.

But you oversee both teams.
Yes, and then we have a general superintendent on the project who looks at overall operations in the field. He’s the boots-on-the-ground guy. And we work as a team. And we have other support, too, that shares tasks. We have a controls manager who looks after costing and scheduling. Are we gaining time or losing time? And of course payroll people and an office manager. Safety team. We have three safety guys who are on-site full time. And a full time quality control manager.

It’s a large group.
Yeah, right now we have, I think, 145 managers and then I think we have 45 staff: the approach team, the marine team, support team and administrative team, that are all full-time salaried people.

And y’all go from place to place right? Is it divided by skill type?
Different skills. And who’s available at the time. Who’s the right fit? June will be 23 years for me at PCL, so you cross paths a lot. You become a pretty tight family in a way, because you work so many hours together. And then you might have worked on previous jobs. This job will probably be a three-year job – three-year plus job for some people. Last job, Beth and I were in Connecticut, and that was 6 years. It was a bridge.

Are you pretty much just bridges?
Yup. That’ what I’ve been doing for the past bunch of years. And we built two bridges parallel, it was basically I-95, in New Haven, Connecticut. So the phasing of it made for a long process. We average three years. And you just kind of move around from project to project.

So how does this bridge compare to others? How difficult is it in general – just from your personal experience?
My personal experience is it’s one of the more challenging ones. They all have their unique challenges. What’s challenging with Bonner is the weather and some logistics, just given the whole length and scale and being about 3 miles long. But I always call Bonner a little bit of bridge a within bridge. You have the high level – what we call the navigation spans. That’s the most visible, eye catching part. And that’s almost a bridge in itself. And we call that a pre-cast segmental bridge. And it’s built in a balanced-lever fashion where it looks like a big ‘t’. And we build it in balance, where you put a segment on each side. And we call it “up” and “down” – not to get too technical — you put one up, then you put one down. Then two up, two down. Three up three down. So it’s always in balance.

So what would up be?
Up is a surveying turn: Up station and down station. Here, ‘Up’ is what you’d call north. And down is south. So we’ll just add one to each side. And I’ve done a couple of jobs like that. But you start with a foot in in the water, and you drive piles to create that footing. And then we build a pier up, that’s made of precast pieces. And then we stand two skinny pieces on top of that pier, and connect them. And then we attach segments to each side. So you put one up, and then one down. And there’s something called “post tension” where we run a cable of high strength steel that’s anchored on each side that squeezes the segments together – like beads on a string. And then we put on a number 2 on each side, and run another cable from 2 to 2 and that locks together. And we put those up with aa crane. And then we put on lifters on each side, and they pull up the rest of the segments from the water. And we put on umber 3, then 4, then all the way to 12. And every time you had a segment to each side, you put a cable through. All the way to a 12. And then you have a whole new piling and cantilever that you’re connecting with – and that has 12 pieces on each side too. And you connect those with concrete that’s cast in place. So, all told you have 24 of these 14-foot segments between each piling.

Yeah. So one big difference is the old bridge had one, big singular navigation span. And anyone who lives here, who’s familiar with Oregon inlet, knows the sand’s all shifting and shoaling. And that’s why you see the new bridge looks so much bigger, which it is. Because it’s longer spans. But the DOT planned ahead for that natural channel migrating around. So there’ nine spans in that higher level area that the channel can naturally shift around, and then they’ll just move the navigation lights to each span . So if the channel moves, you have 9 different spans to choose from. And they can move the lights. And those navigation channels are what make it looks so much higher. And it’s probably only 10 feet higher, clearance wise, but it’s higher for longer because of those nine channels.

From a profile, it looks like a boa constrictor that swallowed something – it really bulges in the middle – then it tapers down t that low and flat again.
That’s what I was saying about the challenges before that tangent. This precast segment section is almost a bridge within a bridge – its’ 3500, 3600 feet. It’s a decent sized bridge on its own. In terms of challenges, that piece is pretty challenging in itself. But every project as its own challenges – that’s sort of a non-answer. But here, the weather and the inlet are pretty obvious challenges. And working with big heavy structures, takes big heavy pieces of machinery to build them, so we have an enormous equipment fleet.

This photo has four cranes. How many do you have?
Right now? Counting anything that’ll lift, I think we’ll have 19. Given that amount of equipment, every day something is breaking down. And it’s not because of abuse or maintenance, it’s just the probability of having that many moving parts on something. So we have a whole mechanics team. We have six guys who are basically assigned full time to keep things running.

And that’s probably every project.
Some are not as equipment-intensive or fewer barges. And with this many barges, you have a whole lot of tugs and things that can move barges around. I think we have five tugs, and one crew boat, and another little boat. And it’s just more stuff to keep moving.

This bridge on your wall, did you build it as well?
Yes, this bridge is down in Sarasota, Florida. And looking at it its very similar. The difference is it’s very wide structure. Bonner is 42 feet wide, about. This one is 100 feet wide because it has four lanes and a median and shoulders where Bonner is two -lanes. Bu the new structure will be nice; it’ll have eight foot shoulders, so it’ll be nice. But this structure itself is probably equal to the navigation span on the Bonner bridge. This bridge is 65 feet clearance. And the new Bonner Bridge is basically 65 at minimum clearance.

That sounds high.
Not really. That one is a job I did in Blacksburg and we were 180 feet at the middle. We crossed a valley. So that was a 100 feet higher at its very highest. And of course it touches down at the two ends.

Are they similar?
Somewhat. Specifically, my background is in segmental bridges. So you can have a pre-cast segmental bridge, where the concrete comes ready to roll. So you see the big pieces coming down the road. And our pre-caster is up in Chesapeake. But if it’s part of the marine bridge, it comes by water through the Intracoastal Waterway. If it’s part of the approaches it comes by land.

So those giant girders, those are for either side.
Yeah, those were for the approaches. But you can also cast concrete in place. And it’s built the same way, you have a piece of equipment that holds the form that you put on either side, then you pour the concrete in place. And that’ called ‘cast in place,’ because the concrete is cast in its final position. And you still build it the same way, one on each side, keeping it balance. So that’s how we built the bridge over the valley. And that type of bridge good for longer spans. And if you’re crossing a valley or rivers, they have also have less of a footprint when you build them.

What other projects have you done?
When I first got out of school I worked for PCL on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel. And I moved around. I was in Virginia for six years. And the Florida for nine years. Connecticut for six years.

But it’s bridges
Yeah, it’s bridges. And, generally speaking it’s over water. Even that one valley had a creek running through it. [laughs]

Going over the bridge, you see the T-shape thing, and you think it’s gonna fall. How does that work?
Well, the piece in the middle is actually two pieces. And they’re smaller. But they’re solid. So they’re heavy. And they’re set up on top with a crane. And they’re resting on a bearing that’s up underneath. And then these number 1s sit on the jacks and they give it stability. You’re always heavy one side or the other. And it comes down on a bearing in the middle. And it has a curve shape. And it sits on a bridge bearing that allows it to slide for temperature.

So it’s meant to be adjustable.
Yes, and there’s four big 800-ton metal jacks that let you position. So when we put on the 1s and 2s, we adjust the middle so we’re pointing in the right direction so everything meets up well. And then we lock everything in. And then we start up with the 3s. But it’s all engineered. And its’ll common for this type of bridge. It might look precarious, but there’s a lot of engineering behind it. And these things stake into consideration wind load, and storms, and everything else.

Eight-hundred tons.? That’s huge! What’s that mean….?
It means they can lift 800 tons; and there’s four of them.

How much does each segment weigh?
Each one of these segments is hollow. Because it would be too heavy if it was solid but. But they vary in height. So the bigger ones, the one closest to the pier, they’d be a little over 110 tons. And the small ones get under 100 tons. So that’s an average of 100 tons – so, 200,000 pounds. Which is why we have such huge equipment.

Wow. So when you line it all up, are you using like GPS or is it all engineering formulas or is it a mix?
There’s survey equipment. It might not as be as sophisticated as you may think. There’s quite a bit of math behind it. But when they build the segments, they build them one at a time. And they call it “match-cast.” So they’re poured against each other. So let’s say they’re building number 3, the number 2 is already made, sitting right next to it.

So they basically build the each piece, off site, ready to connect. They know it fits before it ships. It sounds like Legos or something.

It’s a lot like Legos. But if 3 is wet concrete, then 2 is already made. Soo it’s a perfect, Lego fit. So where this fit up becomes critical is when they’re made. And it’s done in a controlled environment. And it’s surveyed to within 1/32nd of an inch. And there a whole spread sheet behind that, because the bridge curves and each segment is slightly different. There’s pie-shaped pieces and everything. So when they comes to us, we’ll use some regular survey equipment and spreadsheets to make sure we point them in the right direction. And so far its’ been really good. But these thing s have a life of their own sometimes. So we precast all of them then put them in storage. They’re made together off-site. And if we’re in a curve – and the bridge has nice curve to it – they’re pie-shaped so that’ll be all calculated when they’re made together.

It’s like a spine of vertebrae is being cast off-site in pieces. And then it comes here, and y’all hoist it up and assemble it.
Yup. And we adjust it and make sure it all fits together. And they’re tight. When we get them here we glue the faces – there’s an epoxy compound that goes on when we squeeze together . And it serves two purposes: the epoxy makes a water tight joint. But it’s also a lubricant before it cures. So you can get that adjustment when you do that post-tensioning. And that post-tension really gives the spine it’s strength. So we pull piece “Up 3” with a lifter, we glue the face, then we hang it the piece temporarily until we can get the “Down 3” piece on. And then you fine tune and adjust, and you run the cable and lock it up.. And these post tensioning cables are high performance steel. So concrete is very strong in compression – it’s hard to crush – but it’s weak in tension. Like chalk. You can crack chalk easily but it’s hard to crush. Steel is really strong in tension. So you combine the high strength steel with the concrete And you put the cables in and pull them tight. And when you’re pulling it tight with these big hydraulic rams, you’re actually stretching the steel like an elastic – as much as steel can stretch – but we just pull the really hard. And if you stretch from 3 to 3, an and then lock it off, it wants to spring back. And that cable compresses the pieces – from 3 , to 2 to 1. And as you add pieces it gets stronger and stronger. So picture a cable goes from 12 to 12, and 11 to 11 – at the cantilever, you have maximum strength. There’s 12 cables going through it. And all that pressure gets transferred down the piling and into the ground.

So that’s clearly different than the last bridge. That’s a whole lot of pilings with spans and concrete on the top.
Yes, that’s what we call a conventional “beam and girder” bridge, with a cast in place deck. So you have a beam, that’s supported by a pier on each end, and then it spans across, and then you cast the deck on it.

Sounds like you’re basically putting down a foundation then icing the cake with concrete.
Yeah, you’re icing the cake. And that’s the conventional bridge. Make one span at a time, just like foot bridge. And then you make multiple spans and connect them.

So starting at the middle and both ends at once, is that just efficiency? Get it done fast?
Yes. It’s faster. The construction schedule is pretty tight. And these days, you never have the luxury to build something in five years. So just given the construction time and the constraints of the schedule. Driving across you see lots of people working in a bunch of different spots. But eventually it all ties in. And we actually did start on the north side – on land. So we have that in common. [laughs] But this whole structure is built off a temporary bridge, what we call at trestle. And it starts connected to land, then we leap frog it along away from land while we build. Once we disconnect, we can continue to use the new as access. And when we’re done, we’ll come out on the water or out of the new bridge.

So we started a the north side and the water, simultaneously. And then we started on the south end. So, there’s 10 cantilevers; 11 spans. And the middle is between 23 and 24. So we started right at the middle, and worked to the south, and now we heave 1, 2, 3 of the 10 left on that segmental bridge. So, it’s basically just scheduling.

How long does it take to put a whole section together? Because it seemed like forever there was just one or two, and now every time it seems like more?
A good day, like no weather – which is a very good day – we can hang two pieces, one on each side. In one day. So you have 12 of those, segments. In theory, you build a whole section in 12 working days. But that never happens, because you have weather or some delay of some kind. So it’s usually a month for each one. Right now we have three to go; I’d expect by may we’ll be finished up with that portion of the bridge.

And then is it all downhill from here? Does it go faster?
The heat will still be on. The pressures stays on until the bridge is all connected. The pressure’s on until the first car goes across.

If it’s super windy do you hold off?
Yes. For a couple of reasons. If it’s super windy, it doesn’t help when you try to lift things and it also kicks up the water. Or you get swells coming in. So we’re very in tune with the weather. A lot of the field guys meteorologists in their own right. They look at all the fronts coming through and predict as much as they can.

How big of a buzz kill were those winter blasts?
Oh yeah. Those were, uh, not fun.

Speaking of delays, how bad was that electrical issue this summer?
Yes, as you know, two transmission lines were damaged, disrupting power to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. PCL immediately addressed the issue and established a claim site for the individuals and business that were impacted. Further than that, it’s company policy not to comment on matters of prospective litigation.

All I know is, every time I cross the bridge with my contractor buddy, I go: “You think you’ve got headaches.” How stressful is this job?
I mean, it comes with the territory. All construction has deadlines. And of course, safety at the front of everything we do – it sounds cliché – but our motto is that everyone goes home the same way they came in. But all jobs have stress. How stressful is open heart surgery? I don’t want to do that job.

Has anyone got hurt?
People have. Our goal is zero, but we’ve had some minor injuries. And you deal with that as they come up.

Are people strapped in up there, I assume?
Oh yeah. People wear safety harness if they’re exposed to a fall or a life vest if they could fall in the water – or both.

When did you start? And is it finished then?
We got moved out here in January of 2016 . first piece of equipment came in march 2016. We really got going about May of 16. Our contractual date is early November of this year. So we have a lot to do. And when you first come out of the ground, there’s a of activity – but maybe not a lot to show for it. And that’s kind o the nature of our business. There’s a lot of prep work . And then at one point you drive across and there’s a cantilever on the north side, or one span. And then there’s two. And a month later, there’s five. So things come together sometimes quickly. So there’s a lot of bridge to go; and there’s a lot of bridge that’s been built. But we’re done fall, November of this year.

That’s fast. like 2.5 years
That’s the tight schedule. That’s why we work in a couple places at the same time. And we have some detailed scheduling that keeps the whole orchestra moving properly. And we also demolish the old bridge, so we’ll use it for that as well. We’re gonna keep 1200 feet of the old bridge as a fishing pier, so it stays behind.

It’s like a restaurant. You can prep all day for five hours of service.
That’s just how some of these things take shape. Not all pieces take an equal amount of time. Sometimes the foundations take more time, and then what’s above it will go faster. We may be in the ground for a long time, driving piles, making the foundation, and then when you get out of a more difficult area it takes shape quicker.

How does has pile driving part changed?
That piece is pretty conventional. There might be eight pieces we modified on the job to account for different conditions. A lot of these guys on the job who can McGyver things pretty good. But we’re still driving pilings into the ground. Some things in construction haven’t changed that much. Segmental bridges – at least in the US – are relatively new. The first one was in Texas in 1973. So that’s 45 years.

Why not a suspension bridge?
That’s more for making long span bridges. Our spans our 350 feet, so a little miniature suspension wouldn’t make any sense. It’s expensive to build that small. So this fits our project. Golden Gate’s side spans are like 1000 feet – that’s still huge compared to us.

What’s the most rewarding part of doing this stuff?
Probably the integration with all the people. It sounds corny, but assembling a team from different backgrounds and different part so the country. All the men and women with different trades, skills and specialties. And at the end of the day you assemble a team and build something tangible. Something you can see that has longevity. The bridge design life here is 100 years. It’ll be around longer than we’ll be around. So it’s getting that team together to put something in the ground, and you can really be proud of what you built because it’s serving the community. It’s got function. And you get to see something for all the hard effort.

So is there a general feeling when you’re done? Is there sense of relief? Can you compare it to something?
If there’s a sense of any great relief – it’s the ribbon cutting. Not sure I can compare it to anything. It’s definitely a relief, because you get so focused on the finish line – and the finish line is getting the first car across. Of course, we’ll have been driving across for a while by then. But getting those first official cars across and turning it over to the DOT? That’s the finish line. I don’t know what to compare it to, but it definitely feels good. It has that sense of getting it turned over, and I’m not responsible anymore It’s a big relief, a big sense of accomplishment. Sometimes you get transferred out beforehand, to kick off another job, but you always get the chance go come back for the big celebration.

Is there a fight over who gets to cross first?
There can be. [laugh] Some of the old timers definitely like to be first across when we connect it. But it usually comes down to whoever’s in the right place at the right time. Nobody really lines up for it. But when we turn it over to the public, we’ve had bridges where people knew the set date and time and line up 12 hours early so he could be the first guy across. He was still behind somebody -a politician or someone else that’s part of the ceremony. But he was the first average citizen.

But even before the Governor, or whoever, there’s some average guy, a worker, going across.
Yeah, and it’s just an internal thing. But the way it’s built, guys north side are parking all over it already because it’s not that much space. But once it’s connected form one end to the other, we’ll see who goes.

It feels like a big contractor gig. You get the framers, then the plumbers trim guys – you just time it.
There’s guys in the field doing this stuff who have a particular set of skills – like Liam Neeson [laughs]. And they’re artisans in their own right. It’s just a larger scale. Then it’s breaking down these big pieces into more manageable pieces. But we’re all one team.

And you have a lot more clients. It’s like the DOT, the whole outer banks and then some.
Yeah. I guess so. [laughs]


Darrell Collins is more than a history buff. He’s a history strongman. Able to crack open major milestones from our collective past, pick out the most important details, then squeeze it all back together into some pressurized gem of revelatory insight, always with a surprisingly personal connection.

A born-and-raised Roanoke Islander, the 62-year-old’s family tree includes members of the original Freedmen’s Colony — the Civil War’s first refuge for slaves on the run — and Pea Island surfmen, the all-black lifesaving crew that saved countless men and women. But Collins is best known for his work as a National Park Service historian at Wright Brothers Memorial. For nearly four decades, he brought to life the birth of aviation for thousands of visitors, earning awards such as North Carolina’s Order of the Longleaf Pine, the state’s highest honor. Not that he saw it coming.

“It was just a job at the beginning,” Collins says. “But the more I read, the more I fell in love with the story of the Wright Brothers. The characteristics of perseverance, determination, courage, and persistence. And the events set in motion that morning are never-ending. They will profoundly change the world until there’s no one else in this world. It’s still happening today.”

Even for Collins. While he retired last January, he still travels to airshows and expos around the country, giving presentations under the title, “A Legacy of Greatness.” In-between, as president of Pea Island Preservation Society, he promotes African American’s long-standing influence on Outer Banks life — including working diligently to ensure the new Pea Island interim bridge will be named after the legendary Richard B. Etheridge, the first and only black keeper to command a U.S. Life Serving Station. And as a long-time Manteo commissioner and Mayor Pro-Tem, Collins continually promotes preserving our long-standing traditions and environment for generations to come.

With the 114th First Flight celebration set for December 17 and Black History Month on the horizon, we sat down with Collins at Manteo’s historic Pea Island Cookhouse to discuss the role our past will play in the future — and how our present influences our take on the past. — Matt Walker

Ed. Note: What follows is a full-transcript of the edited interview that appeared in Issue 6.4 and took place in October of 2017

MILEPOST: You grew up here, correct?
DARRELL COLLINS: Yes. Born and raised here on the Outer Banks. My family’s been here since 1862. So, I’m a descendant of the Freedman’s Colony. My grandmother and her husband, Edna Wise and Frank Wise, their parents were actually members of the Freedman’s Colony.

Were you born a history buff by nature?
Well, I was a geology major — which is the history of the earth — but history was one of my favorite subjects in high school in college. I had a minor in history.

Do you think that was partially due to having all this in your family?
Probably so. My grandmother used to tell me all these stories. She lived to be 92 years old. And she would tell me stories of living in Bowsertown — and there’s Bowsertown Road right over there. And that’s where the family was raised. And she had nine sisters. And she would tell us stories of how they grew up. And she was an amazing woman. What she could do with her hands and her mind, [she could take nothing and make something out of it.] My father died when I was 5 years old. When Hurricane Donna hit the Outer Banks, he and three other Coast Guard men died that day just five miles from the house. He was crossing the little bridge on the causeway; their car got washed over. Back in those days, they didn’t have all the news we do. So, the eye of the storm came up the sound. And they were in the eye. They saw the sun shining, bird’s chirping, they thought they were safe to drive back to Norfolk. By the time they got to that bridge, all the water that had been washed out of the sound came back because the wind shifted back around, and washed their car over. So, I was raised by my mother and my grandmother.

So you grew up hearing stories of what it was like in the early 1900s. What would she tell you?
She mostly told family history — about her children. She had seven children. And one, her oldest daughter, died from drinking too much. Her oldest son, John Grant, was killed by a jealous woman, right here at this site. There used to be gyp joint her, Lucy’s Corner — like a place where you come and buy whiskey and beer and dance. Like a nightclub. Well, it used to be right here on this site. And he was shot and killed right here, by a jealous woman. And another son went off joyriding and got in a car wreck and his leg got messed up. And back then, there weren’t too many doctors around, so he got gangrene and septic shock and he died. Her husband, Frank Wise, lost his leg, too. Back in those days, people would leave the south and go up north to find employment. So his mother, left him here with a leg he was supposed to take care of it. And she forced him to go out and chop wood and wouldn’t buy him clothes and he got gangrene and they cut it off. So she would tell us all these family stories.

Do you think that helped cultivate your love of the past, because you had this personal connection — and because things were so different?
Yes. And as a kid you’re fascinated by these stories your grandmother tells you. And you’ll sit for hours and listen to these tales from back in the day. And her sisters would tell us stories too — about the Civil War or how Bowsertown was haunted — and how their grandfather was walking down the street and a Civil War soldier walked by. And he grinned at him, and his teeth was gold. And he turned around, and the soldier was gone [laughs]. So I’ve always loved a good mystery story, a scary story. [laughs] And we grew up with all that.

And those are the stories that catch your interest. Now was this during segregation, I assume. Was this gyp joint, like a segregation type of thing?
It was segregated here at that time in history. But there was another one over here called Leveda’s just down to the right of the cookhouse. It was there all during my childhood and as a young adult. When I was in the first grade I would stop there on my way to school and buy penny candy. It was also after hours place where people would come to dance and drink after 2 am when all the other places closed. And the whites would come. Because after two in the morning you couldn’t buy liquor. But she was a bootlegger. It was a party joint. And the whites would come and three or four o’clock in the morning.

Well, if you look at the history of jazz, a lot of desegregation happened that way. Everyone loves a party, I guess. So, it must’ve been significantly different from when you grew up in Manteo 50 years ago.
Once the Union captured Roanoke Island in February of 1862, word spread across the sound to mainland North Carolina that runaway slaves would find safe haven if they crossed the creek to Roanoke Island. And that’s when slaves started to come to Roanoke Island. At one time, there was over 3500 freedmen that came to Roanoke Island. And they formed the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was a department of the United States Government, and they were in charge of the all the Freedmen Colonies. So, this island has always been a safe haven for African Americans. Even during the Jim Crow era. And they had slaves on Roanoke Island, but it wasn’t as bad — slavery’s always bad. Slavery is slavery. The first thing a slave wants is freedom. But it wasn’t as bad as say further south in Georgia and South Carolina and all that. I don’t know if it had to do with the environment. The Outer Banks was a hard place to live; people scratched and clawed just to survive, and I think that played a part in how people treated each other.

It’s the same today, I’d argue: people sacrifice to live here, and that adversity bonds people together. So, is this all history you picked up before you went to the Park Service, or stuff you picked up since?
It was kind of a mix. My mother was very into preserving history — African American history, but also the history of Roanoke Island. So my mother [Dellerva Collins] was a commissioner of the town of Manteo for 26 years, from 1979 until she died in 2005. She was very active in the community. She loved to help people from the community with her problems.

When you were coming up in school, was there a focus on the history of the Outer Banks? You had to get the Wright Brothers.
The main history was the Wright Brothers and the Lost Colony because you were born and raised, right here. I never thought I would work there and become the historian; I worked there almost 40 years. I started there in 1977 and retired this past January. I became a ranger just out of college. But the Wright Brothers history changed the world. And coming from an odd place like the Outer Banks, for something to impact the world the way they did is almost unbelievable. [laughs]

We have a couple of big events for a tiny area. The first failed English settlement and the birth of controlled flight.
The birth of our nation started here.

Why do you think that is?
A lot of people don’t believe in fate, but I think fate a had a lot to do with it. The English could’ve come farther north, which was the Chesapeake Bay, which was where Jamestown ended up. And that was the idea: deeper waters for ships to transfer to the bays. There was a sequence of events that led up to the discovery of Roanoke Island. Because English and Spain were at war so they needed a place to hide away from the Spanish. So Roanoke Island was a place they could hide; and that’s one of the reasons they chose Roanoke Island. Then the friendly Indians who lived here, probably clinched it for them. Until everything disintegrated when you start to bring in things like greed and feelings of superiority. And English were small, and the Indians were over six feet tall. [laughs]

So I’m sure there was some fear involved in there, too.
But it failed. And Jamestown came along 22 years after.

I do feel like there’s a bit of magic that draws people here. Whether or not that’s being superstitious…
I was just contacted by National Geographic. They’re doing a story about trying to trace the descendants of the Lost Colony. And their theory is that the Colony intermixed with the native culture and was absorbed by the native American culture. That’s why in Lumberton you have blue-eyed blonde Indians. But they’re doing a story on this man here — Joseph Hall Berry — who think was maybe… our ancestors, on my father’s side of the family, has Native American traits. And this man right here, our great grandfather, Joseph Hall Berry, was the man who was the first into the United States Lifesaving Service. Twenty-one of his descendants followed in his footsteps. So our family — the Berry family, the Collins family — have almost 400 years of combined service, from the Lifesaving Service up to the Coast Guard. So National Geographic is doing a story and they think he might be part of the English and the Native Americans on Roanoke Island.

Well, that’s three different cultures right there. So, when you were coming up in school, did they talk about the lifesaving history at all?
No. I didn’t hear black history until I went to college in the late 70s. But I went to two black colleges — Norfolk State University and Elizabeth City State University.

So, in high school, were you in class thinking: ‘why is nobody talking about my great grandfather?”
Well, you know how it is when you’re young, you’ve got other things on your mind. For some reason, young people aren’t really into history. It seems like when you get older, you get more into history and how history changed America — changed the world. When you’re young, you don’t think about history. You live in that moment. [laughs]

When you finally did hear black history, were you like, “Hold on professor, I can tell some stories.” Was there an awakening of sorts?
In college, you had certain classes and you’d do reports on personal history, so I’d talk about the Freedmen Colony or the Native Americans on Roanoke Island. But, other than that, it’s local history.

I think everyone has this sort of sense of personal history — if you’re lucky. I’m sure there are people who have zero idea of what their grandparents or great grand parents did. But I know my great-grandfather was Asst. Post Master General under FDR and wrote speeches for him. But my great-grandmother said she was relate to Pocahontas, too. So history gets clouded pretty fast.
And that’s everywhere, too. Even the Wright Brothers story has misconceptions. The famous photograph was taken by John Daniels. And there was another man somewhere up north named John Daniels. And his whole life he told his family he took that picture. So when he died, the family found out it wasn’t true. And they realized for many, many years he fabricated the story. Why? [laughs] I don’t know. But people always want to be part of history. But the misconceptions of history are everywhere. Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

And they say, history was written by the victors.
Certainly with the history of the Native Americans.

And it can change real fast: did Columbus come here first. Or did the Vikings com here first. And what is it now: Connecticut says one of their citizens flew first.
Well, everybody wants to be first. [laughs]

So you spent 40 years focusing on the Wright Brothers. Were you a fan going in?
It was just a job at the beginning. The more I read, the more I fell in love with the story of the Wright Brothers. The characteristics of the Wright Brothers: perseverance, determination, courage, persistence. All that was part of what made their first flight a reality.

It’s hard to find a moment that’s that tangible – and had so much impact so quickly. The amount of time that transpired between 1903 and 1969 moon landing. That’s a short period of time.

The most unique thing about that is that the events set in motion that morning, that first flight, are never-ending. It’s still happening today. The events that happened that morning will profoundly change the world until there’s no one else in this world.

That’s true. It’s like a ripple effect. When you read David McCullough’s book, you realize how it wasn’t immediate. There was a period of several years where people didn’t believe it happened and they had to prove it to the world. Going to Europe and showing different countries. And multiple people were trying at the same time…
Oh, people all over the world were trying. And to have it happen in such an isolated area, in a place unknown to the world. In 1900, Kitty Hawk was almost the end of the world. the landscape was almost nothing but sand. It’s kind of ironic that it almost looks like the moon landscape, too. [laughs] It’s kind of…. [sighs] I don’t know. People don’t believe in fate and destiny and all that, but I think the Wrights were destined to do what they did. They were born at the right time in history. And curiosity is one of the reasons they solved the problem of flight. They were born and raised up in a family setting that encouraged them to pursue whatever aroused their curiosity. Even to the point they didn’t have to go to school; if had something they were interested in something they could stay at home and work on it. The mother and father encouraged the children to be independent thinkers. Not to go with the flow.

Very much so.
And that’s the hardest thing for a college professor in college. You’ve got all these standards now. And you want kids to think out and beyond those standards; to see the other way. You’ve been doing it this way for so many years, is there another way?

And when you think about the Lost Colony and the Wright Brothers, both are tales of pioneering. Pioneering flight, pioneering a country. Even the Freedmen Colony required people to take a risk and do something they’d never done. It’s not a safe route.
And these are the fundamentals of life. And the reason why they came from Europe, is they wanted freedom: either religious or political freedom. Which is a fundamental belief of any individual. People don’t want to be slaves. The first thing a slave wants is to be free. To think independently. To live the way that you want to live. The Wright Brothers invention is a fundamental thing, because flight has always been here. The mechanism of flight was here 100 years before the Wrights were born. But somebody had to discover those principles and put them all together to make it a reality. That’s what the Wrights did. So how many other things in this world are already in place? The discovery of a cure for cancer — or a discovery to make peace in this world — it may already be here. [laughs]

You have to have the right combo of all these factors: the right people, the right place, the right time. And you also have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. And not make the same mistakes.
One of my heroes, Neil Armstrong, one of his quotes was, “History is like a mirror and it can only look back. But there is great value in pausing to look back. Because only with a great appreciation of where we have been, can we ever hope to understand where we are headed.”

Do you think some of that awareness has been lost nowadays?
Yes. Especially with the climate of America now. But it will straighten out; it goes in cycles.

I think technology plays an interesting role, too. People are so distracted and obsessed with what’s happening right this second — and possibly with themselves right this second. And then misinformation or assumptions can take hold. I’m just as guilty. I was flabbergasted that our capital is Raleigh, NC and Sir Walter Raleigh never came here.
You know what happened to him, don’t you?

The queen beheaded him right?
The queen’s brother beheaded him. But beheading in those days was only for royalty. The rest of ‘em were drawn-and-quartered! [laughs] but his wife kept his head for many, many years. Probably kept it on the mantel. [laughs]

But stories like that keep your attention. That’s what gets people interested. But I think history also gets sanitized at times, too.
Well, I’m president of the Pea Island Preservation Society, which runs this place here. And we have been presenting, since April, a program called “Freedmen, Surfmen, Heroes.” And we have myself, my cousin – the boathouse is named after her father, Herbert Collins, who was the last surfman stationed at Pea Island, when this station closed in 1947. He closed the door and locked it with a key. And he spent 34 years in the Coast Guard. And then we have two costumed interpreters — one dressed as a keeper; the other in a period piece. And we tell the story of unity as it related to the Pea Island crew. Because when wrecks occurred on the Outer Banks, more than once station would come to that wreck. So these men worked right beside the other white crews performing rescues. They respected each other. They learned from each other. And they worked in harmony with each other. So our program talks about racism. It talks about slavery. It also talks about unity — blacks and whites working together. And we presented that program all summer at the aquarium. And with mixed emotions, too, now. We had people walk out of the program because they couldn’t take it.

Really!? That’s hard to imagine.
Oh yeah. But most people love it. We involved the kids in the audience. And it’s a really powerful presentation.

Have you taken it to schools at all?
We took it to once school in April, Kitty Hawk Elementary. Then we also got the kids to writhe the governor about naming the bridge after Richard B. Etheridge. And last week I gave a presentation to the board of the directors of the North Carolina DOT, when they read the resolution to name the bridge after Richard Etheridge, a 15-minute presentation about the life and times of Richard Etheridge.

That’s interesting about history: because you hear about the resistance to that all-black crew, but you don’t hear about the resolution.
Well, once he took over, the station burned to the ground.

Do you think it was arson?
It had to be. Because when he came in charge of the crew, all the white crewmen walked away. And that’s how he ended up with an all-black crew. And during that program, he we ask< “Why do you think that station burned down?” And most of the time kids jump in! They say, “They didn’t like it” or “they were prejudiced” or whatever. And these are white kids, now. [laughs] But he didn’t become a keeper — he was the only black keeper in the whole service. So, you know he had to have other white people who were behind him. He had superintendents, he had district men who were in charge of the lifesaving station – white men – who recommended him. And they said stuff like, “He was the best surfman on the coast, white or black.” It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Back in those days, you had to have other people who saw your potential and believed in what you had accomplished at that time.

These are stories that are now being told now – at least locally. Do you think black history gets more attention now.
I think that’s more local. There’s been a few documentaries. But it’s a story that needed to be told. Especially in this day and time. And this unity thing we do, as far as blacks and whites working together for a common cause, I think that’s going to have to happen in America here: working together for a common cause. And hopefully it’s not a war. And the war we talk about these days, it’s nothing to be taken light.

Well, it’s hard to hate somebody who you work with side-by-side. A lot of it’s fear of the other.
And over time, it will change. I think it will.

But it does take time. And then the other thing is people are impatient. It’s almost like two opposing forces. What’s your take on the statues then. That Charlottesville situation is almost impossible to comprehend. I see both sides of the argument to some degree. I understand the argument of “Why pay tribute to someone who’s on the wrong side of history?” but I also see people who say, ‘you can’t erase history.”
Well, you can’t erase history. And to a certain degree, you shouldn’t. But I think it’s the context of how these statues were put in. Most were put in during the Jim Crow era of total racism in America against blacks. That’s when most of these monuments were put up to honor Civil War soldiers. So, I think that’s the issue. But you shouldn’t want to erase history. That should be a symbol of America that we never want to return to. So that symbol should be there. Just not everywhere. Maybe one or tow. But its’ a symbol of how America was. And you can’t change history now. You can’. But what was happening in America at the time those statues were put up. That’s the issue.

Some people probably don’t realize how bad it was. It’s only been 100 years. But I bet a lot of people don’t realize how bad it was in 1960-something.
And ’64 was when the Civil Rights Act was ratified in America. So I started with the federal government in 1977. And I remember a few things. I remember I had a government car and I was somewhere in Virginia getting gas. And this black man came up to me and said, “You know, ten years ago, you wouldn’t never have this job.” And that makes you want to do better everywhere. And when you work at the Wright Brothers memorial, you have more than 500,000 visitors per year. And I would say maybe 5% were black. So, the majority are not. I remember earlier in my career, I would give the talk in the flight room where the airplane is. So, you give the talk in the 70s, and the place is filled with 250 white people, and a black man comes in [laughs] — and you could look at their faces and tell who was with you and who wasn’t. I’m serious! [laughs] I had one night I was closing the gate there, and I guy came up to me and said, “You look just like Sammy Davis Jr.” [laughs] Do I look like Sammy Davis Jr.?! So, it was there in the 70s. But it got better, as time went on.

But it’s just like the revolution didn’t happen and everything changed, the Civil Rights Act didn’t happen and everything changed. But if you’re not impacted by it, it’s hard to tell. And it’s hard to see it get worse.
We still have a long way to go. It’ll take time.

Are we lucky here in terms of Civil Rights history and Civil War history? It feels like we don’t have same types of moments or long term oppression to become issues.
Well, there was a big push to get the Virginia Dare bridge named after Richard Etheridge. That was kind of disappointing.

It is ironic that Virginia Dare is basically the first anchor baby. And it does feel like the rules change or perceptions change. But a lot of history is hypocritical. But I guess it all depends on the perspective of the person telling it.
Even battles in the civil war. You can see the differences in what people say. Richard Etheridge? was a sergeant in the 2nd Colored troop of the 36th regiment of North Carolina. And a regiment at full strength is over 1000 men. So imagine 1000 black men with guns, dressed in their Union blue uniforms. And one of the first battles they proved themselves was the battle of New Market Heights, which was eight-and-a-half miles southeast of Richmond. And the heights were a fortified high ground that was protecting that sector of Richmond. Twice before they tried to capture the heights and failed, costing the death 1000 men. But on September 29, 1864, 41,000 Union troops were poised to capture the Heights that day. It was determined that the colored troops would lead the charge. There were 6 regiments of black troops – 6000 black men. Right at the beginning more than 1000 were killed. Half that many were wounded. But they captured the Heights that day. And the orders that were given before they did this were, “Do not surrender and do not be captured.’ Because when whites were captured or surrendered, they were put in prison camps. The blacks – and even the white officers who commanded the black units — they were executed right on site. That was a rule, a law passed by the confederate government.

So, those were direct orders…
And right off the bat, all the white officers were killed, because they were on the front lines. So the sergeants would take up command. So, they captured the Heights that day and opened the road to Richmond. During the Civil War, there were over 1500 Medal of Honor awarded to Union Soldiers. Sixteen went to colored troops. Fourteen were awarded during the Battle of New Market Heights. So, that give you an example of how important that battle was. But, say, a southerner who’s into Confederate history, he tells it completely differently. He’ll say the Confederacy retreated — he’ll say they let them take it.

So occasionally losers get to write history, too.
So that’s an example of people telling a history that suits themselves – or whatever agenda they might have.

I guess people are predisposed to thinking better about themselves. Maybe that’s why people get riled up, because they’re being undermined. And I don’t have a dog in the Civil War fight, but to me, the situation in Charlottesville is troubling because of the emotions it stirs. That blanket hatred of “the other.”
Yeah, I don’t know who could sympathize with Hitler or a Nazi. I mean, the Greatest Generation of Americans fought that war. They sacrificed their lives to stop that — to defend America against that. To see it come back up again, what the hell? How could any world War II veteran stomach that?

Or anyone who has a sense of history. To me, a known fact would be “World War II, we fought the Nazis.” But then again, we also had segregated troops and Japanese Internment camps. So I don’t think anyone has squeaky clean hands. So how do you navigate those issues when you know there’s a gray area?
The best way to tell history is as true as you know it. But you need to know a lot about your subject in order to tell it truthfully.

I was anthropology minor. You’d read ethnographies and one of the rules is you don’t judge a culture by your values. I think it’s hard to find a perfect culture in history.
No. Nowhere.

So, form a Civil Rights perspective, how does Manteo fare?
Well, I’ve always had friends of different colors. Some of my best friends are my high school classmates, most are white. And to this day we interact with each other, and are very had a respectful of each other. I think probably because we’ve grown up together, worked together, played together, and mourned together, the death of our classmates and sisters and brothers.

Do you think the community is more diverse?
Oh yes. Manteo’’ completely changed. The diversity of Dare County is completey changed. We’ve seen an influx of Latinos now, which I think is good. And diversity will keep changing as time goes on.

I wish there was more diversity on these town boards. I’ll sit down sometimes and go, “What year is this?” I will say that women seem better represented. Not for Dare County right now, but many towns are…
Manteo has myself and three ladies on the board. So that’s pretty diverse. But the municipality of Manteo is completely different from any other town on the Outer Banks. Most of the people on our board are born and raised in Mantep. So we have a personal stake in what happens here. And we really have a deep down caring for preserving our history and traditions in Manteo. And I feel that reflects on the board.

I’d agree. That “Mayberry” reputation happens for a reason. And it’s probably the best example of preservation.
And we do a lot to try and preserve our environment, too. Our stormwater project, we’re trying to clean up the bay. We’re trying to filter the water before it goes into the bay. One of our main goals is to try to restore Shallowbag Bay to the point where it will sustain shellfish again. We have a big oyster project we do, we put oyster shells along the marsh area. We are very into preservation of history but also our natural resources.

So, as our community grows, what doest that mean moving forward. We probably have more ‘natives’ born here than ever, but they’re being born into a starkly different community. How do we maintain those values when we get father and far from the root source?
Hopefully this is where history will take its course. When people look back to see what previous leaders have done to preserve history to preserve the environment, I think they can look back and see where we were trying go. So history we make today, will be the history that determine the future — for the county as well as Manteo.

I guess that’s where this buildings come into play. Or the Richard Etheridge bridge.
Yes. These are the places that hopefully arouse some curiosity for people to learn more about history: Why is this bridge named after Richard Etheridge? Or who is Richard Etheridge? Someone might ask that question and look into it. And if we eventually clean up Shallowbag Bay and bring back oystering and other stuff like that, that’s good for everybody. And I think the younger generation are environmentally aware anyway. Even though the political climate is changing, this is a government of the people and by the people.

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I think Blackbeard is just a good campfire tale to scare kids or whatever. When he died, that was the end of piracy in America. By that time, all the other pirates were killed or out of business. So it’s an era of American history. But it makes a good tale. And it happened. You can’t change it. Kids are inspired by stories like that. Even though they were criminals. [laughs]</b<so,>

Well, kids do love violence — gunslingers and everything else. But maybe you’re right. The most engaging history involves some sense of the grand. Saving Lives. Lost colonies. Flight. Freedom.
Those are the stories that make up the world. And the world’s a dangerous place. And people should be aware of that. There are places you don’t want to go. There are people you don’t want to associate with.

Well, we are lucky. Your grandmother told stories of people getting shot and losing legs. We’ve gotten really accustomed to the idea as safety as a right. And history is one place where danger still lives.
And that’s one of its draws, too. There’s always excitement. You know the outcome because it’s history. [laughs] You know what happened at the end – they all died or they all disappeared. It’s how it happened that’s exciting.

It makes us sound tame. Which is kind of depressing. What will they say about us 100 years from now? Will it still be Wright Brothers, Lost Colony, Blackbeard, etc. Or will we have something else to offer?
Well, history’s being made every day, so there will be other things to talk about. I believe some of the events that occurred, not only in Charlottesville but elsewhere, will be part of told history as well.

Well, hopefully it comes out the right way.
I don’t know who’s writing history down, hopefully somebody is [laughs] But we have all the documentary stuff now — the news and such — that’ historically preserved.

It’s almost too much.
you have instant news now. Wihtin an hour it’s covered. And it ‘shappening so much, yo don’t have time to absorb and process it. And it changes with the push of a button.

So, you retired. What now?
Well, I have a business called ALOG – A Legacy of Greatness. You can check out the website A Legacy of Greatness. Com. I still tell the story of the Wright Brothers. Since I retired I’ve had four different speaking engagements around the country. A week after I retired I went to Sebring, Florida for the Sports Aviation Expo. Light sports aviation is a movement all over the world. These are light sport aircraft, where the restriction are a lot different from a regular pilot’s license. They have a week -long celebration. Then I went to Chicago and gave a presentation for an air club up there. The Billy Mitchell. Then I was in Cedar Rapids Iowa in June – that’s where the Wright Bros were kids at 7 and 11 years old. And that’s where they got the toy flying machine their father bought at the Iowa State Fair that inspired them. And they referred to that toy all though their life. That’s how the seed of flight was planted. And then I went to OshKosh, which is home to the biggest airshow in the world. A weeklong event; 18,000 airplanes on the ground. So, I was giving programs therefor 400-500 people at a time.

Are you a pilot?
I’m not a pilot. But I talk to a lot of people who are, and I’m very interested in their stories.

Do the Wright Brothers have any skeletons in their closet? History does seem to paint people in stark terms: good and evil. But it’s not always that case. Was one of ‘em a horrible drunk or anything?Guess that just goes to show what you were saying about fate. If someone had gone in and looked at the document, what would that have done?
They would’ve ended up in court probably – that’ what happened to them anyway. But when people ask why they never married, one of the reasons was they had two older brothers who had four kids each. And they saw how hard life was for them trying to support their families. And another reason is they were geniuses.

And they were super close. And how much time and energy they spent obsessing on flight, they didn’t have tie for a family. They might not have done it. How could they spend so much time on the Outer Banks with a family at home? The other irony is that if they were gay, even 20 years ago that might have been something ot be ashamed of. Now, they’d be heroes to a whole community.
Yes. And then you have another segment that asks if they were dyslexic or had some type of autism — which they might have. But it would’ve been a highly functioning form of autism.

Well, people look at history and hope to see themselves.
That’s it. A woman who wrote a book on that subject, her child had autism. She was looking for something in history to hold on to and to understand what was going on with her child.

Goes back to that mirror quote of Armstrong’s: people want to see themselves. And if they don’t, they may change the picture.
Yes, it is. Yes, they will. [laughs]


On the Outer Banks, everyone’s a weather expert. Or at least they think they are. Salty captains spit data on sea surface temps and ancient storms. Tropical Young Turks track systems ten days in advance. Old wives’ tales fill the gaps, predicting winter freezes by squirrel activity and wooly worms. And yet, many of these lifelong fanatics are just as likely to dismiss decades of data, seeing scientists as pushy outsiders in lab coats, full of vague predictions but no real answers. The irony? Some of those scientists live right here in Dare County.

Between Duck’s Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility and Skyco’s Coastal Scientist Institute, dozens of coastal researchers pass through, spending summers, semesters and decades diligently documenting our dynamic coastline, running the models and sharing the results with the world. Four years ago, the planet’s leading private wave forecaster, California-based, opened a Nags Head office, adding three full-time meteorologists to the mix. And while all of our professional expert agree that there’s no better place to study the weather, they’re also the first to say that nobody can ever fully understands every process. In fact, that’s their job: to constantly question every finding.

“Some people see not having a decisive answer as not being committal,” says Dr. Reide Corbett, a CSI marine chemist. “But you may not have a definitive conclusion. Until you have additional data the best answer is, ‘Maybe.’ And people hate to hear “maybe.”

Yet, people love to offer their own unverified observations. Whether it’s naming a short-term coastal formation, “Shelly Island.” (It’s really more of a giant sandbar.) Or blaming it on beach nourishment. (Not likely.) Or linking it to climate change. (Wrong again.) Throw in some social media, political biases, and the occasional bad model run, and it’s easy to see how people’s trust in science can erode — even as their own neighbors are doing real research with global impacts.

We sat down with Dr. Corbett, FRF research oceanographer Dr. Katherine Brodie, and Surfline meteorologist Mark Willis to discuss what makes the Outer Banks such a hotbed for data — and debate. And to find out how we can all help advance scientific discussion in a modern climate where everyone’s a weatherman — and nobody’s perfect. — Matt Walker

MILEPOST: The Outer Banks has a pretty strong lineage of scientific study. The Park Service has letters from 1870s that are the precursor to the National Weather Service. Why here? And do we rate on the world stage of research?
MARK WILLIS: If you’re looking at me, from an operational standpoint, it sticks out. So, it’s exposed to everything you can imagine. And as a meteorologist, we get every kind of weather you can imagine, from snow storms to nor’easters to hurricanes. It’s kind of a meteorologist’s dream come true: it’s challenging. It’s not Southern California where you get the same winds every day. Or Central America where you get this diurnal wind pattern that’s easy to predict. It keeps you on your toes. So just being exposed and the variety and the different challenges keep it exciting for weather nerds.

KATE BRODIE: I agree. From a scientist’s perspective, you like to go where the signal is large and you know you’re going to get good data. And we can pretty much guarantee every fall we’ll have some set of tropical systems come through and every winter we’re going to get a whole big string of nor’easters. And so if you want to study wave impacts on the beach, it’s a great place to be from that standpoint. I think the all facilities associated with all of the institutes on the Outer Banks are great. The history of doing research in the surf zone here [at the FRF] — it’s our 40th anniversary — we’ve got the infrastructure and the facilities and the knowledge and the equipment to put stuff in the surf zone and help ensure you can get it back and get good data. We have scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic who come here every fall, and have been doing so since the place opened, because they know what they can get. And they know they can keep building on the same basic research principles and not have to worry if they’re going to get the right conditions.

REIDE CORBETT: You see, I would say there’s plusses and minuses. What’s good about it is the location — location, location, location, right? — it sticks out, it’s the closest point to the Gulf Stream, almost, depends on where it is in Florida. It’s extremely energetic. It has currents coming from two different directions. But because it is so energetic, it’s a struggle to keep instruments working in the system, and things like that. And those dynamics are what brought some of the scientists here. And as the scientists are here, more scientists want to be here. But it’s also challenging because it’s pretty energetic and out of the way, so it’s hard to get scientists her because it’s hard to be here. Just finding a place for the summer can be hard. But the coastal dynamics happen on time scales on anywhere from minutes to months to years, and so I think that poses a challenge of whether you can keep scientists here. So that’s the challenge of this area. But if you’re interested in coastal dynamics, we live in a perfect lab.

Remoteness has always been the blessing and curse — for everyone really. Woods Hole has Boston. It has an airport.
RC: So, to take it even broader than that: we’ve got this incredible dynamic system on the front side but we also have the second largest estuarine system on the back side. And being able to study the exchange between the two — with FRF getting into the research, with CSI sitting on the estuary — it opens up some additional doors for better monitoring and understanding the connection between the two.

Just like kiteboarders say: we have the sound and the ocean.
KB: [laughs]Exactly! Scientists say the same thing. We have both environments less than a kilometer apart in some places.

So you brought up instruments. One of the funny entries in the old log, the observers writes about the arms being blown off his anemometer mid-hurricane. And he sends his assistant out to fix it. Is it a constant issue maintaining equipment?
KB: We still do that! When people evacuate, we stay here and I have it so I can check all the gauges on my phone. And if I see something go down, I am up here no matter what the conditions are and we’re out there fixing it. Because that’s the data set we live for. We were on the pier during Hermine and there were hurricane gusts. The whole thing was shaking.

MW: Gosh. For us it’s cams. After every storm, cams go down….

RC: I was gonna say something… [laughs]

MW: Yeah, they’re hard to maintain, especially 360 of them around the world. And it’s not just weather. With First Street, we can only get in between 2 and 3pm on Saturday because of the rental company. [laughs] But you bring up the anemometer. When I worked at the Morehead Weather Service office, they still call Alligator River Bridge to get wind reports. As digital as the world we live in, they call, and ask “what’s the wind like?” and they look at the Davis Weather Instrument sitting right there — it reminds you of how somethings haven’t changed that much.

Well it goes back to the whole reliability thing. One of the bigger issues. Weather’s tougher than other issues. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s a hero, but there’s no one on Mars to go “I’ve been here for six generations…” Is there another science, with the exception of gravity, where the average person has a) an opinion and can push back?

MW: Well, you have to have thick skin. And now everyone is a meteorologist, because of social media. So they see we weather chart 350 hours out that has something cool. So they post it and get likes, and we get blamed for it. [laughs].

RC: But I think we’re probably seeing this in most disciplines. Because of the digital age, anyone can become an expert – or think they’ve become an expert – because they can google it. Whether it’s weather, broader climate, sea level rise – there’s all this interesting info out there. Whether it’s based in fact, we can continue to argue, but there’s so much of this information out there, whether they’re actually observing it or reading facts — or false facts – online, they all think they’re experts. So it creates a challenge for making sure the broader public has the correct information. The best science. Because they feel like they’ve getting the best science in whatever blurb they read.

KB: And it’s really the difference between what your gut or intuition is telling you and what the data is telling you. And you can influence your gut and intuition really quickly. Marketing people have been taking advantage of that forever. And when you plot these longer time series and thing like that and get the data, you’re like, “this is different than what my intuition was saying.’ And that’s the scientific process. That’s’ the part we get to do. But it’s not he part that everyone else is doing. But! On the flip side, one of the cool parts is, there are efforts within the scientific community to make use of citizen science. And with all these people taking pictures and making observations, how can we use that in your own research. And that’s’ cool: because it’s scientists saying, “how can we take advantage of this digital age?” this new information. And you have to be careful with sources and quality control, for sure, but that’s the flip side.

RC: Weather Underground, right?

MW: Weather Underground and then Mping. The[ NOAA] National Severe Storms Laboratory has a system where anyone can go onto this interface and submit precipitation type. And it’s actually incredible. It’s a great way to see where the rain snow line is. Or if you’ve got mixed precipitation, and it has a great map interface…

So, I could be saying it’s raining here, and two blocks away someone says it’s snowing, and this documents it.
MW: Yes. And to me it’s the best use of crowdsource data I’ve ever seen. It’s helpful to the scientific community. That’s positive. But the other side, our biggest challenge is dealing with so called experts on social media. Because, for us, there are athletes with huge audiences. And they’ll post a Surfline chart that we don’t want them to post. It’s a computer model that’s working way far out and nobody’s verified.

KB: and no matter how many disclaimers you put on it, it doesn’t’ matter. [laughs[

MW: And no matter what our forecast says, if Kelly or whoever posts something 240 hours that has a hurricane that looks like it’s going to produce a big swell. And we’re saying, “No! It’s not gonna happen.” But we still get blamed. So it’s a challenge.

So you all grew up at least near the coast. Is that normal? If you’re a lava guy , did you grow up on Hawaii? And how does it impact your research and work?
RC: That’s an interesting question. I think it would be hard to brush that stroke so wide. Stan Riggs is a perfect example. He grew up in Montana.

KB: we have a guy here, Pat, who grew up in Minnesota and is a great coastal scientist. I guess I can say, for myself, I was always drawn back to the coast. I grew up in Massachusetts and we had a little town beach, this little narrow barrier of sand. And it would always break through during hurricanes and nor’easters. And that was always my dad’s thing to do: the eye would come over and get calm and we’d drive out to the beach so he could go see it. Did that influence the direction my career took? Maybe. I think we all love what we do which is study the coast. And the best way to study the coast is to live and be at the coast and see it every day.

RC: Yeah, it certainly influenced the direction in the work that I’ve done. When I came back to North Carolina the first project I had funded, I set up a site behind my old house and that’s where I was coring. And that’s what brought me back. And a lot of my early work was on the Neuse River where I grew up sailing and swimming and doing everything. So it guided some of my work early on. And my love for the coast started early and that’s clearly driven a lot work I’ve done. And why I’ve stayed so close. And it’s a lot easier I if you live in the environment, if you’re surrounded by the environment, it’s a lot easier to study it. You can just go down and check your instruments. But from a more social science point of view, especially with this community out here that’s so engaged, they can sometimes have a chip on their shoulder when someone from outside comes in and starts telling them what’s changing on this island. I start a lot of my talks out here with, “I live in Kill Devil Hills. What happens here matters to me.” I think that helps with relating with an audience when they don’t want someone coming in and saying, “You shouldn’t lie on this pile of sand.’ Not that I’ve ever said that —, because I live on this pile of sand. But it does make a difference when you’re trying to present your science out here.

I’m sure you have the same experience. In surfing, a poseur’s the worst you can be. I’m assuming a meteorological poseur is even worse.
MW:I have some unique perspective on this because we just hired a new junior forecaster. And we had like 400 applicants. All meteorologists. And I would say 80% of them were severe weather buffs from Oklahoma or the mid-west. And there’s a huge population of weather people out there who are very, very smart. But they got into it for tornados and thunder storms. And honestly, it was hard to even consider them. But you have much smaller pool of people who are passionate about the ocean and have a little bit of a marine and coastal background to combine with the academic background. And that’s who we end up looking at. But everyone on the Surfline team surfs. And you need that part of it to tie everything together from an academic to a recreational standpoint.

KB:Well it makes a lot of sense. Part of our organization is based down at our lab in Vicksburg Mississippi. And there’s a lot of coastal engineers are down there. Some of our best, coastal numerical modelers running the wave models, running our morphology evolution models, are down in Vicksburg. And I love getting them up here for a week and throwing them in the field. Especially in the fall when we’re doing big experiments nd getting some of our bigger waves. And for some of them, living their life inside a computer predicting all these processes, they’ve never experience in real life. And it’s eye-opening.

MW: I found that in the Weather Service. Marine forecasting in the weather service, you have all these weather buffs and you put ‘em on the marine desk and it’s like “What’s this wave period thing?” [laughs]but when you grow up around it and you’re in the water it helps.

Well, there are people in surf forecasting who are laymen anyway. Sean Collins was a layman. That’s different. I doubt anyone at the Army Corps went, “I’m just really into coastal engineering.”
KB: But some of our best technicians here, who are programming the instruments and designing the mounts we deploy in the surf zone, they don’t have masters and PhDs in science. We hired them because they have experience working in the surf zone. So there is a little bit of that.

Well, there is this friction. Especially here, where local fishermen or laymen say, “I don’t want some egghead in some desk telling me what’s up, I’m out there living it.” But not every scientist is in a desk. And the guy at the desk can be looking at data from across the planet and tell you things you never knew. So I’d argue you want to listen to both. The guy who’s studying white sharks in the Farallon Islands might be just as informed as the abalone diver. They’re not mutually exclusive. That divide does a disservice.
RC: Just last weekend, I happened to be listing to Marty’s show on 104 and one of their guests said that exact line. He brought up all the sharks that are taking a lot of their tuna. And he said, “Some needlehead scientist shouldn’t tell me what to do.”

So how informed is our community? I’ve lived in few places where the Weather Channel is require viewing. Are we more aware? Less aware? Do we just think we’re aware?
KB: I’ve always had really positive experiences interacting with most people in the community. Mostly people are really inquisitive. They want to know. They want to understand better, “Why does the beach look like this today and this the next day?” I personally haven’t had any antagonistic responses to the research we’re doing. So maybe I‘m lucky in that regard. I gave a talk at Waverider’s — the Green Drinks group – and that may be a more receptive crowd, but there were 65 people in attendance and everyone was super interested in wanting to understand he processes going on. So I thought that was really cool to see that level of engagement.

RC: I think that’s true for the most part. This community is different than most. It is very engaged. They want the information. Nags Head in particular is extremely progressive and they really want the scientific data to consider and include in their management plans.

KB: Yes. we’ve had a great working relationship with one of CSI’s grad students working with the town with the some of the research we’ve been doing. Ian’s been using some of our equipment to make measurements of how the dune’s evolving near where the beach nourishment area is north of Jennette’s. And the town is really excited to see the results and assimilate that info as quick as we can ‘what can we do better?’

I’m not necessarily pro-nourishment, but I’ll give Nags Head credit for doing it the right way. Let’s find matching sand. Let’s not talk hardened structures.

RC: And I would contrast that with 2010’s sea level rise report and that experience I had. I was on that original panel that wrote the first draft. And I was called names publicly at meetings. And Dare County was part of the coalition fighting that report — though they were fighting what the report might impose, not so much the science. But I think that’s a real frustration aspect of being a scientist, trying to do the work, there’s a disconnect sometimes between what we’re trying to do with getting our message out and the public thinking we’re try to manage them. That’s not what we do as scientists. I want to provide the information; what they do with it is up to them.

KB: Yup. Exactly.

RC: But to attack the scientist and say, ‘they just want more funding” or something crazy is really frustrating.

I love it when an oil lobbyist says that climate change scientists are just in it for the money.

MW: Try being in a for-profit business. You’ll hear it a lot more.

You’re also in the business of being a wave expert. So, if anyone hears it, it’s you. Because everyday someone wants to go surfing. And everyone’s a surfing expert. And you’re also the messenger. For most science reports, I’m the messenger – the media. If I distort it, it comes back on the science.

MW: But there’s a good part. And it goes back to the fact, once people know you’re here, and on the island, and you’re their neighbor, they’re going to trust you more. That happened when we put a camera at the Kill Devil Hills bath house. Dave Elder and I worked together when I was at the Morehead Weather Service Office and we reconnected here. And he said internally it was a hard sell because people are like, “What do they want? Do they want money?” And it’s like, no we just want to help. I mean, we’ll get we want through the traffic and subscriptions. But we’ll pay for the cam, put it up, and you can use it for monitoring conditions for lifeguards, or whatever. But it led to some positive things for us, especially with our reputation with different stakeholders like lifeguards. But the other part is we get blamed every time we put a cam up for crowding surf spots. But I’ve got a cam up at the end of my street, so… and there’s more uses for surf cams than supporting Surfline’s business. We archive stuff for a variety, of different reasons. But, yeah, we do get blamed a lot.

Well everyone hates the weatherman. It’s the most common thing ever.
KB: But on the flip side, once you start providing it, a soon as that cam is down — or for us, one of our instruments — boom! We get calls. We get email; “Why isn’t the sea surface temperature working? Because people come to rely on it and expect it.

But there is money to consider. And all of you have a different funding scheme, but we know fed funding is down. And so is education. Reide, I’m sure 50% of what you do is finding grant money…
RC: at least 50%.

So what is at stake if funding disappears? If NOAA disappears, the state keeps going or – in Surfline’s case – subs go down?
RC: Well, what’s at stake is good science, right? Now there’s my official statement. But also 3 months of my salary, right? [laughs]

MW: well, everyone has a lot mouths to feed, so there is a financial interest.

RC: But seriously, I approach my funding like I would my retirement plan. You have to diversify. I get funding from state funds, different federal agencies, I work with NGOs, and I typically have anywhere from five to eight grants at one time from a diversity of agencies. Now some of that is not the most exciting scientific work, because some of it you need to fund your lab. And monitoring and data that needs to be collected. So I balance what I consider to be more mundane science with what I consider to be exciting more exploratory science. And funding goes up and down. And you’re constantly on the lookout for that next project. And I Just got something funded, but I’m still looing two years down the road.

Just like any business that depends on clients.

KB: It’s the same thing. Diversification is the answer. On our side, a lot of our funding comes internally through the corps, but within that there are different pots of money. So I like to make sure I have basic research projects, like the fun science. And then more applied science. The third piece for us is that transitionable science and that’s where you transition a piece back to our corps engineering districts that they can actually put into use operationally. And if you never make the leap from basic research to the transition it’s hard to justify why you need to do basic research. So diversify your portfolio; and if some administration isn’t as excited about basic physics research they might be more inteersted in applied tools. And you shift back and forth and try to make it work.

MW: For us, we’re diversified, but I’ll admit: subscriptions is a really safe business. And that’s heart. But we just got grant from NOOS, so we’re trying to diversify to install some cams for different use cases in the southeast U.S. And I’m excited, we’re really good at cams, we’re pretty good at waves, and we have a huge audience we can tap into for more than just business and recreational surfing. And I’m excited about starting to diversify through this federal money to help different people through different research projects by using some of our assets and expertise.

You guys are almost time frames. Reide looks at what happened 1000 years ago. Mark forecast what’s to come. And Kate’s documenting as it happens. In case of storms at least. Is that accurate? And is that a metaphor for all science: you look at the past and the present to predict the future?
KB: Yeah. That’s it, you hit on the head. You can’t predict the future unless you understand what’s going on right now And you can’t understand what’s going on right now unless you fit it in what’s the bigger picture of what has been going on.

Is what’s it called. Hindcasting? Verification?
KB: Hindcasting. Validation. Verification. We try and do a lot of that here with our data sets. So, we collect them, but a lot of the research then happens going back and trying to understand what happened using that data set. And you probably model that time period and see how it did. We just got into a little bit of now-casting. So not trying to predict anything but running our numerical models in real time, using all the data we get in real time and validating them in real time. And what’s really cool about that is you build up this long-time series that runs automatically, and you don’t have to do anything. And the model is constantly validating and verifying itself. And then you have all your statistics to look back and say, “When did we do a good job? When didn’t we? And when we didn’t, why? And let’ see if we can improve the model.
RC: Mark, how much your Surfline model is integrated across the models that university researcher or federal researchers or NOAA use.
MW: We work at Bill O’Reilly. He’s the Scripps modeler. And he’s been our wave modeler for 20 years. And he runs a model that we’ve put our own special sauce on. So a version of bill’s model that’s out there, but we put tweaks on it internally to add value.

But you guys have meteorologists interpreting, right? It’s not just wave watch 3 plus an interface.
MW: Right.

I think what people think: it’s just some computer. But there’s a lot of humans checking on these computers — at least ideally. Certainly, in the case of y’all’s 3 operations. There are humans making sure these computers aren’t’ spitting out bullshit.
MW: I’ve seen the need for that evolve in my field. For a while there, especially when I was getting out of college, I was worried I might not even have a job in a few years. Because the models were getting good. And I wondered, “Can I beat this?” it’s changed now. There are spot forecasts for every surf spot in the world. There’s a lot of people that do it. We have a lot of competition out there doing it. And you can output every 15 minutes. That’s a lot of info to sort through. Where we’ve found value in humans is dumbing it down to give you, “is the surf going to be good or bad in the next few days?”

RC: Green, yellow, blue.

MW: [laughs] exactly. And also just providing real time, value added narrative on observations. If a buoy changes we can put out a post really quick and put it behind a pay wall. That’s valuable information we can provide our premium users. And our next version of Surfline in August, it’s just a feed of human, value added information combine with our modeling products. But yeah, there’s still a place for the human in my field.

But all of this, the messaging is tough because, people want specific answers. And y’all’s job is to give probabilities and percentages without going too far.

KB: Yes! How do you communicate uncertainty? That’s a huge thing for us in our field. If I could tell you exactly what was going to happen to the beach tomorrow — or in three days from now — I might as well go find another career. There’s still so much uncertainty even inside of these computer models right now. You know, they’re parameterizing a lot of really complicated physics that we don’t fully understand. So how do you communicate the uncertainty associated with those approximations that are happening inside those models to the general public? We know something. And sometimes we even have a good idea of how well we know it — which is starting to be the cool part I think. But how do you communicate that in an intuitive way.

MW:To me, this is a massive problem with storm surge forecast. The tiniest track change makes a real big difference.

But doesn’t it say “cone of uncertainty: right on the graphic?
KB: Take Matthew. I think Matthew was a huge surprise for so many people because that center storm track kept it offshore and everyone was like, “We’re good, don’t even worry about it.” But we were still in that cone of uncertainty. And things changed a little bit. And all of a sudden that cone of uncertainty really mattered for where the severe impacts were going to be.

MW: That and that skinny black line you know? The threats of a tropical cyclone can be widespread. The windfall is displaced to the northwest. And you see the track go offshore, but the rainfall doesn’t care about the track. And we saw that happen with Matthew.

RC: But certainly — and this is getting back to the social science part — the Weather Service and other organizations are bringing social scientists in to figure out how to do the messaging and best demonstrate the error associated with some of these predictions. Sea level rise is a perfect example, the IPCC report is trying to do a better job of demonstrating what the error in some of these projections are. Because it is a real problem. As scientists, we understand the average versus the predicted value and the error bars but the general public has a real problem with understanding what that means. Or they see it as we just don’ t know what we’re talking about.

Then, you have guys like me, who are gonna deliver the message ultimately. And I might hype it up anyway. Let’s face it, a lot of what people get upset about isn’t your decision. The Weather Channel’s naming winter storms, not NOAA. And you guys are trying to quell expectations and say “let’s not overreact.” But the Weather Channel wants eyeballs. And they do weird shit. The other day, they had a chalkboard out. And I couldn’t tell if they were trying to dumb it down, or just introducing a gimmick for entertainment value and to change things up. That’s not straight data. When people say, “Scientists don’t’ know what they’re talking about.’ What they’re really saying is “newscasters don’t know what they’re talking about.”

KB: And what’s cool is, in some of today’s graduate programs, you see more of an emphasis in training the graduate students — as they learn the scientific process — they’re learning how to communicate those scientific results both in the scientific community and peer-reviewed journals, but also talk to someone with a non-science background. And we’re seeing more emphasis placed on that. Because if we as scientists can’t figure out how to communicate our important findings in a meaningful, interpretable way, then — so what? — it gets hidden in some journal some place.

RC:Certainly more of the federal agencies, the funding agencies, are pushing that a lot more. NOAA is requiring that. NSF, less so. But they still want to see the message getting out beyond peer reviews publications

MW:But if you talk to some of the meteorologist at the Weather Channel, they’ll say, it’s a lot easier trying to find something hashtagged “Winter Storm Jonas’ than it is navigating the Weather Service’s home page.

Except they name them after Greek gods and Rottweilers: it’s always Mars or Ajax or Helena something super hyped up. And WS 1 and WS 2 would work just as well.

MW: Totally. But they’ll still tell you, “Well, you can find information, can’t you?”

KB: And having to say “The nor’easter that occurred from February 4 thorough February 8 is a mouthful:” so maybe there’s some positives. Maybe. [laughs] See! We’re scientists, we look at things from all sides, right?

I think the motivations are clear. This is what all weather media does. It’s just the latest evolution of Jim making sure he has a flapping street sign behind him when he goes live. It’s what we do. Find a shot of a flooded road from another town in another time of year, and call it a sea level rise shot from here. But it undermines your message. And y’all take the brunt.

KB: It’s called ethics

And there’s a lot of backlash on media these days. But media’s a big term. The New York Times has staff that’s trained in the concept of ethics and has policies in place. Blogs and Facebook don’t. One post can unravel a century of accepted scientific history with an iPhone and a single emoji. What’s that mean for science moving forward?
RC: That’s where we are, right? That’s climate change under our current federal government. That’s our current EPA. That’s reality. And it’s almost like you have to re-educate everybody over and over again.

KB: With the data. That’s all you can do is go back to the data and figure out a more clear way to communicate it.

So, Reide, I heard there was a meeting where someone asked you, “do you believe in climate change?” And you kind of snapped. You said…

MW/RC/KB: [simultaneously] It’s not a belief!
KB: That’s my biggest pet peeve! I get that question all the time. And it’s not a belief. it’s a fact.

But what’s interesting, is some of these same people will come to the same conclusions themselves — they’ll not differences — but they don’t want to be told it by someone else. They don’t trust scientists.

RC: And I wonder why. Where is it born from? Is it some sort of legacy of land being usurped.

Well Audubon did us no favors in Hatteras. That was a catalyst down there: the idea they distorted the science, that they used the issue to fundraise, that’s made it hard for science and environmental action ever since. But at the same time, the long-standing philosophy has always been: this place ain’t gonna last long. So they know that, they just don’t want to be told that. Simultaneously, there’s a whole group of new people moving here who don’t seem to know that. And they’re like “what do you mean? That dune in front of my house is a good thing? I want it gone I can see the ocean.”
KB: We had a big meeting on dune management challenges and developed coastlines. It was really interesting because we brought the scientists doing state-of-the-art research on dunes, and we put them in the same room with a lot of coastal managers. And for some scientists it was the first time they heard direct feedback on a lot of the things coastal managers deal with. And it was really eye-opening. I had two scientists, we were down in Nags Head, and were getting a tour and he was explaining that they nourished the beach and they had this wide beach and the result was they grew a huge dune. And all the scientists are like, “this is great! Look at this dune! Look at this coastal protection.’ And then he went on to explain how some of the homeowners were upset because they no longer had an ocean view from the first level. It was only from the second level.

MW: Geez.

KB: But living here I’ve been exposed to some of those concerns and I can understand the economic importance of having an ocean view. That gets it rented. That’s really important. But some of the scientist were shocked. They had no idea it could be thought of as a bad thing.

But I will argue whoever owned that house, did not grow up here.

KB: I don’t know. And I’m not going to pass judgment. Everybody has different motivations and the options to make their own judgment based on what’s important to them. As long as they’re going through that process, and they understand the pros and cons.

RC: I also think there are people who’ve been here a long time who are only recently accepting the changes that are taking place. And do think that sea level is influencing some of the changes we’ve seen or the past several decades and that dynamics are difficult to control. Riggs has been out here for better than 40 years, talking to the people — sometimes yelling at the people [laughs] — and he made a lot of enemies doing that. But I spoke to him a few months ago and he was surprised. He said people had contacted and thanked him and apologized for how they acted in the past, and basically said, “you were right.” I don’t know how many people, but I think for him it’s a little bit of redemption.

MW: Well maybe it’s the road at black pelican washing out repeatedly. But we even see surfers crossing over dunes that they just built and put sea oats on at S-Turns. It’s like “No! don’t do that.” It’s just a continuous fight. We put it in our reports: don’t go over h dunes where they’re planting this stuff. But as scientist, part of your job is you have to educate people over and over again.

So this is stuff you’ve seen, right? But just because you see it, doesn’t mean your interpretation is correct. Correlation is not causation. So how do you thread that needle? Are people just prone to self-corroborating their beliefs? I know I do. I mean, I think I’m right — even as I tell myself, “what you see is not necessarily reality.” Is all science just asking that question? I’m looking at it, but don’t’ be too sure. And how do you keep going when you can’t trust your own instincts.

KB: You use the best scientific methods and tools that you can to try and make sense of the data. It is a continuous problem. Correlation versus causation. And I think when we write up our results and our findings, the words we use are often very specific and chosen to communicate the very most we do know – and hopefully nothing more. And if we are going steps further than what we know, then hopefully you’re saying “This is hypothesis.” I think sometimes the nuance in language that gets used in scientific publications gets lost when it goes beyond that.

RC: That is right. But some people see that as we’re not being committal on any of our data. That we don’t’ want to come up with a decisive answer. But it’s because this is what the data tells us and you may not have a definitive conclusion. The best answer is ‘Maybe’ until you have additional data. And people hate to hear that, right? We need more time, ew need more data.

MW:You just have to stick to the data. And for me, when am I questioning, I don’t’ talk about the why part. I just talk about what you see as it relate to the observation.

Well, sometimes there’s two opposing answers, too. I’ve seen reports suggesting we may see a greater number of intense hurricanes because of climate change — but then it also may lead to more El Nino years, which means a shearing pattern. So, its’ two opposing theories, either one is possible.

KB: And anything in between. [laughs]

RC: Yes. And?! What’s wrong with that?! [laughs] But that’s how complex our world is. Think about the human body and how complex the world is.

So, on that note, I want you to make me feel better. Here’s what I’ve noticed: water temps haven’t gotten under 40 the past few winters — that scares me. Sandbars are moving less. S-Turns hasn’t had a sandbar in years, but other stretches have been here for several. I feel like seasons are disappearing — or mingling — we had a week of fall in May. But I know it’s easy to see the boogie man everywhere. But tell me I’m right, or make me feel better dammit!

KB: I guess I would say, “These are things that are in your recent memory.” And seem a little a different. But what’s cool about the data set we have here is we have a 30-year record of waves, and water levels, and winds — and the morphologic response of the sandbars and the beach. And one thing that jumps out at you when you look at this 30-year record is there are trends of erosion and accretion. And they go up and down in time scales of a few years. So there’s all these big climactic patterns that we have influencing the weather right here, and the weather right here is influencing what the waves are doing, and the waves are influencing what the sandbars are doing, and so you see the last little piece and that’s clear in you recent memory. But do you remember 15 years ago what the sandbars look like?

I do. Maybe. But you’re right on a 100-year scale that’s still a blip.

KB: It’s hard to look at the last year and say, “Things are changing.” You have to look at these longer timescales. And that’s where the now observations start to fit in the bigger puzzle of what’s been happening over the longer time scales.

RC: And that plays into many things: whether it’s sandbars or sea level or temperatures or storm seasons. There’s all sorts of different time scales that things are changing. And that’s why long records are important. Because just a shift in the Gulf Stream is going to influence water levels, and that doesn’t’ necessarily have anything to do with sea level rise. So that’s why we need these data records. That’s why it is important to put money into science — and I’m not asking for money here — but these records are important. Because things are changing. We see them changing. And it’s the time scales that they change on that’ important, whether it’s going to influence next week  —or 20 years down the road.

But that’s kind of a mixed message: we hear you loud and clear that climate change is real. At the same time, this sounds like, ‘Don’t worry about what you see right now.” So when do you sound the alarm? And how do you motivate people to make changes?

MW: Well, NOAA’s already kind of sounding the alarm. And the science side of me says, “Yeah, we need long records.” But when NOAA comes out and says 10 out of the last 12 years were the warmest years on record. What are people supposed to think? I’m even like “oh shit’ So long term records are impart but it’s hard to ignore some of the data over the past 10 years.

Especially when it has real impacts. You read about how the Viking’s left Greenland forever because of climate issues. That’s fine when you’re talking about 500 years ago and 30,000 people. But we’re looking at hundreds of millions of people on the coast around the world…
RC: Or two years of drought. It can wipe out things for along time.

MW: The sandbar thing is complicated though. It might be that way in your observations here, but look at Shackelford Banks: that surf spot is gone. Waves are breaking into the trees right now. But it happened around 1940, too. So that place is dynamic.

That’s a good point. And we also have an island of Hatteras. Caused by beach nourishment apparently — just kidding. And I know the coastal scientist community sees the “Shelly Island” as publicity anomaly than anything. But it is a new sandbar. And people are already making calls on social media about why it formed. How do you deal with that?
RC: I had someone ask me if it was caused by climate change.

KB: Oh boy. Well, one thing here that’s cool is for 30 years we’ve been going out and doing monthly water depth surveys. Last year we put out three what we call altimeters, and it’s an instrument on a pipe in the surf zone. And it measures the seafloor every minute continuously over the whole year. And now we know at that one location, all the seafloor changes continuously over the whole year. Not just one elevation once a month. And if we looked over the past 30 years and looked at the range of water depths, it was maybe a little over a meter. And that was our complete range. And it only hit the extremes once or twice over that 30 years. Last year, we spanned the whole distance, plus some. So being able to observe at that higher resolution, we’re learning more and more how much change is actually going on. Because we’re measuring every minute instead of monthly. And whoa! It’s a lot more than we were expecting.

Moving forward then, if we know things are changing, when do you make decisions. There was a discussion that said people really only make major changes after the disaster.
RC: Well that’s when it’s easier to make the change — after an event like that. At least to set the stage for making a change. Ideally, what you would do, I put policies on the books so when you have the next storm, you make changes — you can’t rebuild on the first line, or whatever the policy might be — so you’re not disrupting the community now, but when the community is disrupted because of an event, there’s policies in place to make the changes.

But there’s no political will to do that.
RC: Because everything’s still fine.

How do politics play into this. It seems like, in many cases, the science will suggest making one decision that’s smarter over the long-term, but the politics are only concerned with short term. What’s the solution there?
RC: In my position, that’ where things are separated. As I scientist, I provide the data. I certainly interact with town managers and things like that, but I’m not there to provide the answer. I’m there to provide the data for them to base their answer on. And from there it becomes political. But I try to separate myself from that.

But, you brought up the sea level report. That was a great example of the data being immediately politicized, by some of the same people who would say “We need beach nourishment or we won’t survive.” Ignore this report though. So which one is it? That’s where I get frustrated.

RC: But I still stand by the data. And I can stand up in front of any audience and argue the data. Whatever policies they want to put in place is up to them. But that’s not the message I’m trying to drive home. My message is: this is what sea level is currently doing, this is what the predictions are, so in 50 years this is what sea level could be – with this error. But the problem with that report is we were asked by a CRC to put the report together. And we were asked by the CRC to give one number for the state. They didn’t want a range. So they put us in a situation to fail. And once it became political, they didn’t stand behind us. So it was interesting to be involved. And I never thought it would go that direction. I was shocked.

Well, you expect people to want to know the truth.
RC: It was pretty shocking. But I don’t think they expected the backlash either.

Is the Weather Service prone to that type of stuff, too?
MW: Oh gosh, yeah. That discussion reminds me totally of storm surge projections. Because the state of the science tells you that you need to do a probabilistic forecast — 10% chance of exceedance, 20%, whatever — the mayor of New York City doesn’t want to to hear that. They want a number so they don’t get blamed. To me, what you said, is parallel to the storm surge industry. The scientific community says probabilities but everybody wants one number.

And if the number doesn’t work, the scientists get blamed.
MW: And I’m not sure that’s the motivation. There are users out there that just want an answer. And I can understand that. They want to make a decision off an answer, regardless of the scientific integrity of that number. It’s just easier sometimes for people to make a decisions.

RC: Yeah. You can draw an evacuation line, or a building line, or setbacks — it’s just easier.

It’s funny because there’s this whole obsession with certainty that our culture’s gone through. Years ago, you weren’t certain you weren’t going to get typhoid fever. Or that a mountain lion won’t attack your wagon train. This is the curse of becoming so secure. My house being here is foregone conclusion.
RC: You’re paying for a 30 year mortgage; it better be here for 30 years.

At the same time, don’t tell me if it’s not. Or at least let me sell first…
KB: Well, at the same time, maybe that’s the scientist’s fault in how we communicated risk. Calling something a 100-year storm event, is not an intuitive way to actually explain the actual risk associated with that event happening again to somebody.

It could happen next year.

KB: Right! You have that probably every year. And then over the 30 years of your mortgage, you have that chance very year, and you multiply that together and the number becomes way bigger than once every 100 years. So that’s where maybe we can do better as scientists. You’re right: the data is what we stand by and the data is what you go back to, but figuring out more intuitive ways to communicate the results and uncertainty in the data. That’s something we’re going to have to do. You would hope that maybe happens at the next level but it seems like there’s a disconnect there. So I think we need to tack that part onto what we’re doing.

RC: Well, messaging is key. And even more so now. I think back to when I started grad school, research wans tin the mainstream. And now it is.

KB: It totally is! What’s that Facebook page, “I fucking love science?” I mean, you can follow that. And some of their stuff is great. And some of their stuff is totally wacky. And you’re like, “That is not correct!’

RC: Yeah, they did something on Shelly Island, as well. [laughs]

Perfect example: you said CBS was here covering the formation of the island, but from a science perspective it’s not that important. What did you say?

RC: I said, you’re studying this small island — which is not even an island.  — that’s developed, and Louisiana’s losing ten times that amount of shoreline every day, and you’re not doing a story on that yet.

It’s complex, too. Because it’s complex world. And information is just as complex.
RC: And again, this story became news because a pretty picture went viral. That’s what started this whole thing! And now it’s CBS News and every other channel.

MW: I hate to say it, but it’s all about money. Engagement drives ads, which drives dollars.

KB: And It’s summer. People want to be at the beach.

So our coastal communities, are we the canaries? Are we the frontlines of weather change stuff, shoreline stuff, and if so, what’s our responsibility? We’re now recipients of information and distributors of information, what is our responsibility as coastal citizens? We’re usually the ones that aren’t ‘supposed to panic, what’s our responsibility in this?
RC: That’s tough.

KB: Good questions.

MW: To me, I look at is as an opportunity for Surfline. We have 1.2 million followers on Instagram. So we have a massive audience. And that’s an opportunity to be an authority in our field — prediction, surf culture, whatever — we can be an authority and not jump on everything that goes viral. But it’s tough. Because clickbait turns ads. But it comes back to that whole authoritative voice. Get good info out; that’s our responsibility.

So I get your info. If you think about it, people are programmed to want to share stuff. Everyone wants to be first more than they want to be informed. That’s certainly what’s changed media. But we could be giving you a precipitation gauge, what else can we do to be more responsible
KB: Focus on your observations. Focus on what happened, where it happened, and maybe not on the why part of it. Because none of us know. Maybe that’s the best advice for any citizen in a coastal community: just open your eyes, observe what’s happening, and communicate what’s happening, but try not to take it that step further and into the why part of it. And that’s hard to do. As humans we see something and want to know, “why did this happen? I think it was this. I think it was that.” Maybe try to not go there? I don’t know.

MW: That’ the best thing I learned in grad school: don’t try to answer why part.

RC: One thing that I would like for more of the coastal community to do is be open to the observations. Be open to the data. Not consider whether it’s good for them or bad for them, but at least consider the data that’s being presented — or the observations you’re seeing for yourself. One thing I thought was interesting with that sea level report, and I keep coming back to it because it really was an eye opener. But several people weren’t arguing the data, they weren’t arguing the message, they were arguing that it would be difficult to do anything about it. And that was the approach that they took. And so they blocked everything they could because sea level’s going to be hard. So what?! Right? Yes, its’ going to be hard. And it’s going to be tough for a whole lot of people. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything about it. You don’t ignore it. And it shut down a lot of people. They weren’t twilling to consider the data because they weren’t separating what it might change and what it might do with just the observations and the data. And if more people would look at the data and be open to it — as well as what’s happening around — the message would be easier to provide. That we could demonstrate to a broader audience that things are changing and this is how its changing’ and we need to consider the trajectory it’s on.

KBSeparate the implications.

RC: And, again, you can ignore the why — but at some point making projections, you need to the know the why.

KB: for sure, 100%.

That’s interesting. But we do get obsessed with what’ going to happen next. And that’s where the anxiety comes from. And the I told you so comes form. And then it undermines everything you try to do from the start. Biggest pet peeve. What do you hate more than anything? I’ll go first: naming winter storms.

MW: Mine might be 240 hour forecasts on social media. Super long range stuff, really gets me. And overhyping stuff. It makes our job harder for sure.

RC: Mine has become the ‘belief’ system. People ask weather or not you believe in something. As a scientist, it’s not belief, it’s data. To where the past time, I snapped ,”Look buddy!” and that’s not the right approach either.

KB: I don’t know if this is a pet peeve, but it’s a question I get a lot that’s difficult to answer. And it’s what should we do, and is beach nourishment going to work. I get that question all the time “is beach nourishment going to fix the problem.” And “what should we do?” Any beach nourishment is never meant to be a fix. It’s a stopgap. It will have some effect for some amount of time. And the magnitude of that effect and the amount of time it will help solve the problem varies with a lot of different things. And it’s a hard answer for people to hear. But as I scientist, I don’t study what we should do. I try to understand what’s happening right now. And why it’s happening. And hopefully someone smarter figures out what we should do.

But the towns and county don’t sell it that way. There’s radio ads saying, “We’re saving our precious beaches.” But the project’s just beginning. And in another year or so, the sand will go away, and people are going to be like “what?” Nags Head’s already lining up for more, but they issue reports like 70% is in tact – even thought the section they were trying to save is gone. And where it’s not needed is still there. So they spin it. But if the town was smart, they’d undersell expectations and say, “Look guys, it’s a shot.”
KB: Well, that’s what it is. It’s giving us a shot at trying to put a Band-Aid over something and hope it lasts for some amount of time, until you have enough money to do it again.

RC: And those are going be the hard decisions, right? Right now there’s enough money, but now all the towns are involved, so there’s less money. And the band aids going to have to be pulled off and put on more often.

And long-term, there’s sand resource issues. It is a limited supply of matching sand. And right now, they pull it off wimble shoals, but they’re taking the offshore barrier and putting it on the beach. So even the solution is causing its own set of problems.

RC: Well there’s plenty of sand out there. There’s lots of borrow sites. But it’s also habitat. So we’re creating habitat we can lay our towels on, but we’re taking that habitat from someplace else.

So what’s our scientific future: is there a future Woods Hole happening here maybe? Y’all coordinate already.
RC: A future Woods Hole might be a bit of a stretch. I see ECU beginning to invest in CSI. In fact, Wednesday night the provost was down for Nancy’s retirement party, and he said, “In two years you’ll see the number of faculty double; and the amount of money those faculty bring in double.” I was like, “huh?” But the fact he said the number of faculty was doubling was very encouraging. Because I think that’s one thing that’s prevented us from better establishing the amount of science being done out here. CSI hasn’t grown at all since I arrived 5 years ago. In fact, we had a scientist retire. So it sounds like they want to invest. And that the UNC system wants to continue to have coastal science as one of its’ primary initiatives in trying to get the universities to work together. I think there’s real interest in re-establishing and strengthening in our partnership with the FRF. So I think those opportunities are there.

KB: I’m really excited in where the FRF is headed. We’re in a growing phase. In the past 2 or 3 years hired six new, young PhD level researchers who have moved to the Outer Banks and who are growing the research program here. And as scientists, that’s exciting, because I have lots of people to collaborate with and lunch time discussions – that’s’ where the best brainstorming happens. Or grabbing a beer at the Tap Shack after work. We’ve been doing that once or twice a week. And we’re the dorks that sit at the bar and talk science. But that’s where the cool research ideas happen. And I’m really excited to see where things are going. And I think the opportunities for collaboration are immense. And at the federal agency level we’re seeing a renewed commitment toward collaboration in nearshore research. So I know that the corps, USGS and NOAA have been working toward bringing a lot of agencies together that study the coastal zone and et them to tackle these problem together. So it’s exciting to see where it goes.

MW:I’m obviously biased, but I think there’s an opportunity for the private sector to get involved in these collaborations. We’ve got our big audience and we can get the great work in front of people. And I think we have expertise and assets, as well. The grant we got from NOS and IOOS is something we’ve ever done before. And we hope it will be a building block to help the bigger scientific community in ways we never have before. And we’ve don ework with the USGS on their run-up modeling. And plus, if we do that, it protects us; it protects our business, too. And the fact is, we have mouths to feed. And if we find new ways to support our business and help the scientific community, we want that to happen.

RC: and the other thing we’ve done in the past, working with Surfline and other entities around town, is we’re trying to increase the number of students we have — both undergrad and graduate. And being able to place them in internships – we placed two with Surfline for one spring. And so trying to integrate more with the community. And that’s something CSI has tried to do. And we don’t have a lot of students now. And we’re trying to expand that and look for ways to attract students — and not everyone wants to go to the beach — but thinking about from a career perspective.

MW: we need to do that again by the way. [laughs]

KB: Interns are great. And we’ve had Ian up here interning with me for 2 years now. And the last piece I think we’re seeing is the resurgence of ASBPA (American Shore Beach Preservation Association.) They’ve been doing a great job in the past few years of bringing scientists into the local community. They have a lot of grassroots connections. And Nicole Elko has a lot of connections at the scientist level and bringing us altogether and putting us in the same room, only more positive things can happen. We need more efforts like that; whether it’s me giving more individual personalized talks in the community or someone like the ASBPA providing a more formalized gathering, that can only help.

Well, if a dynamic time, and we’re a dynamic place, why wouldn’t you want to be in a dynamic area if you study dynamic stuff?
RC: And whether they move here or not. It’s great to have people come here for a few weeks a few days a few months and take all the info — as well as what they gained from being in this community — back to where they came from. Because ultimately it gets more people to come here and study, too. Maybe they’ll buy an OBX shirt while they’re at it. [laughs]


Litter is not an easy thing to document. Especially on a place like the Outer Banks. Wind blows wrappers from bypass to beach road. Seas swallow native fishing lines and spit up foreign balloons. Even on the days when the sand is pristine, there’s no way of knowing if it started that way — or if some Good Samaritan just picked it clean. Until now.

Thanks to a new app called Litterati, all you need is an iPhone and the inclination to take a photo. Upload the image of that pile of butts — or lonely straw wrapper — and the back-end does the rest: from recording what you found, to where and when, to exactly what it looks like, right down to the logo, whether it’s a filter fuming Camel, a sauce pack pimping Taco Bell, or a plastic bag screaming “Food Lion.” And for an emotional pick-up, just flip through the feed for an endless stream of evidence that you’re not the only do-gooder on the planet.

“We’re really focusing on two things,” says Litterati founder, Jeff Kirschner. “Collecting data — because that’s how we solve today’s problems, by first understanding them — and building a community. Because while there’s an intrinsic reward for cleaning our individual neighborhoods, it can also feel overwhelming. This technology takes that isolated act and makes it both social and shareable, and that changes that feeling of being overwhelmed to one of empowerment.”

Sometimes even victory. In fact, Kirschner’s idea actually helped stop Big Tobacco from snuffing out San Francisco’s cigarette tax. With beach stroll season upon us, an Android version in the works — and a local plastic bag ban under attack — we asked Kirschner to discuss how shooting your trash pile can help kill litter for good. — Matt Walker

What follows is the complete transcript of the edited interview that ran in Issue 6.2 (Summer 2017.) The original conversation took place March 2017.

MILEPOST: I’m assuming your app is more popular in urban centers — I could be wrong — but it hit me that it could be really applicable here where we have thousands of visitors every summer coming and going, and they could help us keep track. But you tell me: how’d this app start?
JEFF KIRSCHNER: The App launched on Earth Day [2016]. And we’re intending to launch the Android version this Earth Day this year. We’ll see — you know how technology goes — but I’ll hold my breath. But we’re psyched. And frankly the outpouring of love from around the world has just been overwhelmingly positive and inspiring. We’ve already had 3,000 people sign up for the Android release, which is really exciting. So, the community is building.

But, back to your question. I was walking through the Oakland woods with my two little kids. My daughter, who was four at the time, noticed this plastic tub of cat litter in the creek. And she goes, “Daddy…that doesn’t go there.” And it was this eye-opening moment. And Northern California prides itself on being environmentally responsible and ecologically progressive, and yet everywhere you look, there’s litter. You can’t go anywhere. So, when she said that it was this eye-opening moment. The way a four-year-old can see the world will really open your eyes in a way they weren’t before. And she reminded me of going to summer camp in upstate New York. Because on visiting day, right before our parents would come in, the camp director would say, “Quick! Everyone go out and pick up five pieces of litter.” And you get a couple hundred of us picking up 5 pieces, and within a few minutes you have a much cleaner camp. And that idea led to this inspiration of, “Why not mimic this crowdsourced clean-up model and apply it to the entire planet.”

So that’s the inspiration for how Litterati started. What happened next, I like to describe as weird. I just happened to take a photograph of a cigarette of using Instagram. There was no big idea. There was no rhyme or reason. I just did it. And, from that process, taking a another photo and another photo, I noticed two things happening to me: one was litter did become artistic, and that was clearly because of Instagram; and the second was — and I think the two are related — was that it became approachable. So suddenly I found myself looking at the environment in a way I hadn’t before. And for some context: I was never an active environmentalist. I mean, yes, I recycle and I compost because that’s what we do in Northern California. We have the infrastructure in place that allows for that. But I never considered myself an environmentalist.

But I started taking these photographs and adding the hashtag, “litterati” and telling people what I was doing. And that’s how this community really was born. And at first it started with friends and family. As you might imagine, it was me telling my wife and then some friends and then people are like, “What the hell am I seeing in your Instagram feed? It’s like a Snicker’s wrapper and a cigarette and a bottle cap. What are you doing?” So that’s how it organically began. And then people started noticing this random word roaming around the internet and it was attached to all these different items. Items that were typically littered on the ground. And that’s when I realized the community thing was happening.

And then my brother-in-law started getting involved. And he was in China, and he took a photo of this beef jerky rapper in the foreground and the Great Wall in the background. And I didn’t know it was him. I just thought it was someone taking a photograph and tagging it with “litterati.” And I said to my wife, “My God! We made it to China!’ And she’s like, “Take it easy pal. That’s my brother” But it was that moment where I was like, what if we could plot all the points. Is there data? But that’s when I discovered each photo tells a story: it’s telling us what, where and when. So, I put together a Google map and started plotting points where I was picking up litter and others were doing it and slowly it started to grow. And that one cigarette has turned into — right this second — 364,000 pieces. And one place in northern California is now 113 countries. And it sounds like a lot, but we have a lot of work to do.

It’s not. But it is. And litter’s not an easy thing to document. It moves around. And just because it’s gone, doesn’t mean it wasn’t’ there. And it’s hard to give it scientific purchase because once you pick it up it’s gone. And people say “the beach is clean.” And it’s like “How do you know it wasn’t dirty yesterday.” Maybe the ocean swept it overnight. So: you transferred it to app form. How many users do you have? Do you know how big the community tit is?
It’s tough know from Instagram. At this point, we have just over 10,000 users. So it’s still pretty small.

But that’s still pretty good. Do you know who all’s engaging? Are there groups involved? Have you noticed any symbiosis?
Absolutely. And we’re now baking in those analytics to understand more about individual habits and how we can continue to get people to care. How do you get people to continually engage in something that is not their responsibility or is dirty or is somebody else’s job? Or they’re indifferent, like “What difference could it possibly make if I pick up this bottle cap?” And that for us is really the key. We’re focused on really two things: one is building a community.

Where are you seeing engagement?
If you look at our site, we have a list of the most active countries and states in the US. We’ve had a great impact by a group in the Netherlands. So, there’s a bunch of people in Amsterdam – and outside Amsterdam – who are super engaged. The UK, Australia, and since the TED talk, Norway is showing impact, Belgum — we feel that for just getting out of the gates, we’ve clearly struck an emotional chord with people. Now it’s up to us to deliver on the promise of a simple technological tool that keeps people engaged and connected.

Looking at the list now, I see Virginia is number 5. NY and CA both have coasts.
Do you have any sense of stats between coastal areas and urban centers?

We recently put together a user-profile study. Just to start to understand who is part of this community. And the reason is so we can try to understand what their needs and wants are so that we can build toward that. And we’re finding that there are both people who are members of environmental groups — and a range of groups have reached out, like Surfrider chapters in LA and Hawaii — but there’s also a ton of people who live in inner city Oakland or New Jersey or Philadelphia, which is an hour and a half from the coast. And I think that what’s interesting is — and most of this data is anecdotal, more than actual — clearly people who are connect to their coastline tend to be more in touch with nature than those who are in the major cities. And that goes for people who live in the mountain area or any beautiful natural area. They are inclined to live in areas where nature is more integrated into their daily lives than someone who lives in Manhattan. So, a lot of our usage is around those people so far. And that would make sense as far as the early adopter target, if you will. But, we’re also getting a ton of traction with schools. And though I haven’t done a geographic profile of the schools or individuals, they’re clearly not all on the coast.

What about causes. Where we are, plastic is the number one trash item. And your site shows that as well.
It does. And that’s just because there’s so many things made out of plastic. It’s so prolific.

And cigarette butts for us are huge. An what’s strange is people don’t equate cigarettes to litter. They throw ‘em right out their car windows.
Yeah. It is interesting. It’s as if cigarettes live by their own rules. Because, other than cigarette butts, when was the last time you saw somebody throw something on the ground. It doesn’t happen that often. But if you were to look at the ground, it looks as if people were tossing them all day long. I don’t know what the psychological boundary there is around cigarettes that protects them from this idea of littering — whether it’s standing outside a bar or restaurant to driving in your car — people just don’t seem to think twice about it. Yet, at the same time there’s tons of coffee cups, candy wrappers, gum wrappers and potato chip bags all over the ground. So, my opinion on the littering problem –and I’m putting quotes around ‘littering’ – is it’s a lot more complex than people tossing things on the ground. You’re dealing with system infrastructure issues, as well. And whether that is poorly designed trash cans, or poorly designed trash trucks or people just forgetting and leaving things — you’re dealing with a whole range of issues that’s causing the problem to be as complex and as big as it is. And if we think we have a shot at starting to rectify the problem, we better first understand it.

It’s funny you say. Because North Carolina had one of the earliest bag bans in the whole U.S. It only covers the barrier islands on the northern part of the coast, but it happened in 2008. And we recently had some push to reverse it. And some said enforcing litter was the answer. But is it litter if it flies out of the can? And isn’t it smarter regulation to stop it at its source instead of asking cops to chase litter bugs?

In your case, the app helped defend a cigarette tax in San Francisco, correct?
Defend it and double it. What happened was the city wanted to understand what level of litter was cigarette related. And they did it to inform a tax. But, at the time, long before we existed they did it using pencils and clipboards. They literally walked around and visually spot-checked litter — that’s a cigarette, that’s not. That’s what created the percentage. That’s what created the tax. That’s what led to Big Tobacco to being like, “You must be joking.” And I don’t blame the tobacco industry. It’s sort of like “Prove we’re responsible for the percentage you’re saying we are.” Which, at the time, the city couldn’t do. So that’s what led the city to engage with us. But we didn’t have the app at that point. We just had my Instagram account. And to me, this led to one of the the funniest moments in our history. Because the city said, “Can your technology help us understand the percentage of cigarette litter?” And I knew in the back of my mind, it would be really difficult. But I knew if we worked it out, we could. So I was like “Yes we can.” And we did a 32-site project, randomly selected, with Department of Environment. And we used Instagram to create this data. And it worked. And that’s’ when I learned that we needed to build an app.

Have any other cities or groups used your data for similar reason since?
We’ve been approached by other organizations in the environmental space to use our data to help shape public policy, specifically around extended producer responsibility. So, that means, McDonalds or Starbucks, as a producer, has to take extended responsibility for their packaging. Things like that. We have not gone down that rote yet, frankly because we thought it was too early. And the specific group that approached us, really wanted to go after the brands antagonistically. And my position was, “That’s not the way we think will provide the most impact. Because you’re immediately putting these people on their heels and on the defensive. Maybe a better first approach is to all come together to the table and see if can collaborate in a way that aligns everyone’s interests with the environment. Let’s at least travel down that path first. And I know there’s plenty of organizations that would disagree with me and feel you have to go right after the brand. And maybe at some point you do. But we think there’s a better way to start. So, we’ve already started engaging in a way that allows for that. And I’m all too familiar with green washing and begin very careful of the fact, if you were taking capital from organization what that might look like. So, we’ll be very shrewd about who we potentially work with. But it’s still early for that discussion. Right now, we’re focused on two things: building the community and creating a tool that allows data to be collected simply, quickly and at scale.

It’s funny. With our bag ban, one thing that happened as the NC retailers crated a list that said, “impacted” and some businesses got upset because they were never notified and they don’t want the ban reversed. But if you start with a venomous attitude, things can get nasty pretty fast.
Venomous is a good word. Because it does feel that way. I guess the bottom line is I personally don’t want to live my life that way. To me that’s not fun. If there’s a better way, our intention is to explore that first.

And it safe to say, if you’re trying to build a community, it might help. Our Adopt the Beach program here is basically a volunteer program and the adopters clean the beach six times a year. And then once a year we do Big Sweep, where a couple hundred people clean a range of spots. But it seems like this is a more accurate way since it allows for an ongoing look — a a few people every day — and there’s a level of documentation. Or even that constant message. I know you’re not a statistician but it seems like an army of people — especially in a community where we go from 35,000 year round people in winter, to 250,000 new people each week — is that more accurate? Is this the answer? Is this better?
Absolutely. And it’s better for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s much greater levels of specificity. You can get brand specific, you can get sub-brand specific. For example, in the Ted Talk — and I don’t mention the brand, but it’s very clear since we show a Chihuahua wearing a sombrero — but we don’t just document the brand, but the sub-packaging of that brand to make it really clear what’s the root cause of the problem. And once you have the root cause of the problem, it provides a path to the solution. So that’s one thing — specificity is much greater. And that not only goes for what you’re picking up, but where. Geotags are automatically places on every photograph, to 7 o r 8 decimal points. And there’s a time stamp, to the second. And then there’s the who — you’re able to understand who’s’ impacting the planet. And maybe you start to inspire those people with digital rewards, badges, coupons from local sustainable brands. There’s a whole way to engage those individuals.

Then, you’re also not dealing with the problem of correlating and uploading by hand manually all those data cards, where there’s tons of room for user error. Granted, there’s room for user error in an app. Whenever you input data, there’s room for user error. But it’s a lot easier for us to correct on the back end. And you don’t deal with things like data loss. If those cards go missing, that data’s lost. With us ,the moment that photo’s snapped, it’s saved and stored in the cloud and can be correlated with all the other literati data around the world. So those are a few reason why we think it’s a much better solution. Plus, to your point, it’s every day. You carry your phone with you every single place you go. You don’ t need to have a data card and a pencil. And that leads to behavioral change. Because you don’t need to pick up 1000 pieces of trash in one sweep to be an environmentalist. You can be an environmentalist —  or just a normal human being- and pick up one piece a day and you’re a part of this community and making a difference.

Well, we’re a disposable culture. But what’s cool about the photo, is you take a picture, you’re not necessarily calling out the brand —  the litter’s the target – but if the target says “Taco bell” it’s hard for them to say, “We don’t bear some responsibility.”
That’s exactly right.

Is this the future of environmentalism? It’s scary when you watch the news. The EPA is gets weaker. Water protections are begin canceled. Keystone’s leaking. Is this the way we’ll out people for infractions? People will shoot photos of spills and impacts?
Clearly, we’re dealing with some political stuff that makes things more challenging. But I think we’re at a point now where, because of technology, people can be part of the solution individually. We no longer need to wait or rely on the larger institutions or powers that be. We can take matter into our own hands and be part of the solution. And I think Litterati is a good example. Because this is one global pandemic that impacts our economy, it affects the environment, it degrades communities, kills wildlife, and is now poisoning the food system. I can very quickly start to make a difference. And not just clean up but gather data. Because we think data is the key to solving the problem. Because that’s how we solve today’s problems — by first understanding them. And we better empower people to be part of that differnce and part of that solution. And I think that’s what Litterati is just starting to do.

Because if you pick up a bottle cap on the Outer Banks and I pick up one in Oakland, traditionally, those are two separate acts. I don’t know you exist, and you don’t know I exist. But while there’s an intrinsic reward for cleaning our individual neighborhoods, it can feel overwhelming: “Geez, hers so much!” What Litterati is starting to do is serve as this unifying umbrella. The technology takes that individual, isolated act and makes it both social and shareable, and that changes that feeling of being overwhelmed to one of empowerment. Now, you and I both know each other exist, in addition to all these other thousands of people — and hopefully one day, millions of people — and we’re all contributing to the same greater good. And that makes people feel hopeful and inspired.


NCSU’s Rex Raiford discusses the shining possibilities for economic diversity on the Outer Banks.

“Land of Beginnings.”

It’s the motto that graces the top of Dare County’s meeting agendas. It’s also the guiding principle behind the Dare County 2020 Economic Development & Diversification Strategic Plan — at least according to its architects. On a sunny morning last December, experts from NC State University, the Research Triangle Institute and Economic Leadership, LLC presented the report. Throughout 2016, they surveyed nearly 900 citizens. Prodded professionals. And, of course, they got plenty of input from The Powers That Be. (Read: the Chamber of Commerce, town officials and major industries who tend to pull strings in these parts.) No surprise then, some of these ideas we’ve heard before. (Push COA and CSI; make sure Wanchese stays afloat.) Others sound refreshingly 21st century. (Finally, telecommuting’s getting the same attention as brick-and-mortar.) What’s next? Well, that’s up to the people making the decisions.

“The chamber, travel and tourism, the marine industry park — they are all doing good things,” says Rex Raiford, Northeast Regional Manager for NC State’s Industry Expansion Solutions. “What we recommend is that the county get involved and pull all the different groups together. These aren’t things that happen overnight. They take coordinated strategies.”

We asked Mr. Raiford to discuss some of the brighter ideas we might choose to pursue. — Matt Walker

What follows is the complete transcript of the edited interview that ran in Issue 6.1 (Spring 2017.) The original conversation took place Dec. 2016 with a brief follow-up for clarification in Jan. 2017.

MILEPOST: What’s the name of the study and what was your role?
REX RAIFORD: I’m the Northeast Regional Manager for the Northeast Region. I cover 19 counties in North Carolina. I live in Williamston. That’s where my home office is.

Can you tell us about the study and its purpose. Was it basically the idea we have these existing, robust economies and seeing what’s out there that can expand on and add to it?
The study is called the Dare County 2020 Economic Development & Diversification Strategic Plan. Actually, the county commissioners gave us a two-part charge. And that was to look at ways to expand existing industries and to look for ways to diversify the economy. Everybody knows that in Dare county, tourism is the big deal and we recognized that going into the study. So when you’re looking at tourism in Dare County, the peak season, everybody’s pretty much going as hard as they can. So, the tourism bureau does a good job there. The effort is to increase employment opportunities in the shoulder season and the offseason and to increase revenues into existing industries during that period.

And at the same time see what ideas or industries might add to that.
That’s correct. Let’s look at some things that could be expanded and some new things that we can explore that would improve jobs.

Is there a challenge there? I can see where ides that would be good for expanding certain industries would be bad for tourism or existing industries. And vice versa. Is there a balance there? How do you thread that needle?
Well our view is tourism is the big deal and its always going to be a big deal. So, there’s not going to be a balance in my opinion. It’s always going to be weighted toward the tourism economy. But we are trying to find ways to balance that to some degree by finding some other opportunities that are different or they complement he tourism economy.

In the presentation, you described some things as ”glimmers of hope.” Can you describe what you discovered?
That’s right. We did a lot of research by talking to many people in Dare County. We also did research through Research Triangle International on looking at some similar communities throughout the country and what they’d done. So there was some interesting things that came out of that. And then Ted Abnerathy is looking at trends. So, his research toward the Dare County project was looking at what are the economic trends the US telling us.

And what did you discover, particularly with the trends?
As far as the trending —  and this is more than what’s going on in the southeastern United States, but also the research we did talking with people in Dare County — when you look at Dare County, a lot of the population is retirement age. We talked to people at Outer Banks Hospital, Sentara and others, and we looked at how the US population is aging, the Dare County population is aging and we feel like there’s a good opportunity to expand the health care industry in Dare County. To be more of a go-to location for health care. It seems when people get up to their 80s they start thinking, “Maybe I need to go to Norfolk or Greenville.” And so it’s looking at what can we do to satisfy seniors’ health care needs in Dare County. And I know Outer Banks Hospital is looking at that and they have expanded. But as the population ages, there are going to be more needs in that area. And we feel like that’s an opportunity for growth in Dare County and one that could supply more year-round jobs, like nursing for example. And when I say health care, I’m not just talking about specialists, like orthopedics or cardiologists, that kind of thing. I’m thinking about assisted living facilities and nursing home type facilities. There seems to be an opportunity for growth in those areas that needs to be explored.

So, when I hear that, it scares me. Because I lived in Florida for a long time. And retirees are often on fixed incomes, they don’t like spending. They feel they’ve paid their share on schools and other taxes. Meanwhile, part of the study suggests preparing kids for careers. Can those two coincide? And are these questions for the study — or is that for the county to consider?
Well, when you look at heath care jobs. It’s not just the retirees that could hopefully staying because it would be for them — and it’s not just health care, it’s recreational opportunities for seniors, too — but they bring tax revenue in. And that goes to education and schools. So, they are bringing revenue that goes for many county services. But it’s also the creation for the jobs that support those things. And those can be good-paying, year-round jobs. So, it’s not only providing for their needs, but it’s the job revenues and tax revenues.

Some other ideas were CSI and COA. How might those come into play then?
Well, CSI is a beautiful educational facility that has a lot of potential. Because you look at other similar organizations in other areas of the country – and even the state of North Carolina — they can bring a lot to the community. For instance, development of seafood opportunities. CMAST in Morehad City has worked on assisting companies with developing processed seafood. And that’s just one example of what a place like CSI can do. And in the meeting, one of the commissioners [Danny Couch] brought up the maritime history of Dare County. And CSI has already done a lot of work on that, so how can you take that work they’ve done and use that on the tourism side to bring more people in the shoulder season. One of the things we mention in the report is the music highway in Southwestern Virginia. Over time, that has grown to be a big deal as far as bringing tourists in. People in North Carolina, Virginia and other places look to highway 12, so how can you take highway 12 and turn it into an economic development strategy. Could it be a maritime history highway or something like that?

It’s funny you say that, but 12 just become on national scenic byway and it runs from Ocracoke to Manteo.
Something like that, over years — it takes time to develop these things — but the one in Virginia is a good example of one working. And it’s about building on what you have instead of trying to create something new. That’s one of our recommendations.

That seems to be a common theme. It’s almost like planting seeds, but working with existing assets. Whether it’s the road. The hospital. SCI. is that a standard philosophy?
Yeah, it is. Part of our strategy is called ‘assets to action.’ So, you look at the assets of a community and see how you can build those assets into things that can create more wealth for a community.

COA is another one.
Well, CSI is bringing the UNC system into development for Dare County. And you know, one thing is unusual, is it’s not just one university. The other marine science facilities I’m familiar with in NC are affiliated with one university. CSI is affiliated with many, even though for administrative purposes it’s tied with ECU. But it’s also affiliated with Chapel Hill, NC State, others. That’s a good opportunity for bringing the university system to Dare County. It’s already there, but how do you build on that.

College of the Albemarle is a little different Again, it’s how you’re building existing industries to help existing industries. So, it’s all about looking at what are the needs of existing industries. Or if you did create something different or bring something different into the community, it’s how do you tie COA into that? And it’s all about what are your needs? Sitting down and talking about the existing industries understanding their needs. And you have to get support from those existing industries.

I’s easy to sit down — this happens a lot — people sit down and have a meeting with a community college and they say, “here’s what we need” and then they walk away. This takes an ongoing relationship. And that ongoing relationship and support from the industry needs to be there with COA to get the most out of COA for the community.

It probably has to come down to some dollar, too. I’m sure all this stuff takes funding to some degree. Is that one of the challenges?
Not so much for COA. They have funding — but they don’t have an unlimited source of funds. So if COA commits to working with industries, those industries need to support it. Because COA can’t just go set up a program and spend money of it and then have it not be supported. If you’re really going to have a good program, it’s a two-way street. COA has to support the programs and so does industry . And that needs to be understood up front.

What are some examples of those industries?
Boatbuilding is a good example. If you’re a boat builde and you need training, you need to support that training when the community college brings it to you. Send people to the training. I’ve seen other counties where companies or a cluster of industries say they want training, and when the community college does, the companies don’t’ send people to do it. It needs to be a two way street between the educator and the industry. Or it could be the hospitality industry coming up with specialized training program.

But you don’t want empty desks.
Absolutely. But it does happen. I’ve certainly seen it.

The sailing center was sort of a new idea that was brought up.
We really like that idea. Bob Peele at the marine industrial park has been looking at that. We spoke on three or four different occasions, we looked at land that’s’ available — that’s been identified — and we like the idea of building and developing that into a national sailing center. And we feel like the county, tourism, chamber, needs to look at that and really get behind that as something to develop and grow in Dare County. Dare County certainly has the water resources. And we heard during the community research, a lot of people would say, the water’s too shallow. But there’s a lot of sailing that does not require deep water. A lot of boats have retractable rudders, like catamarans, that are growing in popularity. And the events a national sailing center would hold are for smaller boats. And if you really promote it, people can trailer smaller boats to Dare County or even sail from other counties in the region. So, that’s’ why we don’t look as being just a Dare County opportunity for growth but a regional opportunity for growth. And dare County could be the hub of that as a national sailing center. It would be great thing to sail from Dare County to Edenton to Washington to Oriental to Bath and do a circuit like that.

And I know there’s also tie-ins with more boat building there, too.
And if you do make it a sailing center. A destination for sailing. And there’s some of that already there, but then you can really help people like Bob Peele attract more marine industry and jobs with sailing. And other supplies to that industry.

So, now I’m going to play Mr. Cynical. Because, when you look at what we’ve discussed and what’s being proposed— marine industries, CSI, hospitals, COA – these are all larger, existting local industries. How much influence these power-players have in the document compared to someone who may not be 600 pound gorillas?
Well, I think we did a pretty good job of getting input from all over Dare County. Like Hatteras Island, for example. I met with the electric cooperative there and we discussed opportunities. We also found out there was some funding available for Hatteras Island through the electric cooperative for economic development that we were not aware of. So we did get a lot of input from all over.

I understand that, but even the cooperative is another power player  — no pun intended  — like the board or CSI. In some cases, these are the same mechanisms that have driven our decision-making forever. Were there any individuals or entities that you spoke with who weren’t part of these existing groups. I can think of entrepreneurs that been hugely successful in the online and digital world, even down south. I wonder if they were heard at all.
Well, when you’re doing a project like this, it’s difficult to find everybody in the time you have to do the project. We did talk to Eric Kaplan, at the Hatteras Island Ocean Center. So we tried to find people who were really leaders and who were innovative in their way of thinking. But you can’t find everybody. And you have to start with existing contacts. And then you ask, “Who are some other people I’d suggest you talk to?” and that’s how we got Eric Kaplan. And we did get nearly 900 responses to our county-wide survey.

Eric’s got big plans, for sure. But it’s still a brick-and-mortar approach. I was thinking of Real Watersports, which is much an online entity as anything else. Do you know if theu participated?
Oh yeah. I’ve seen them. I don’t know if they participated in the web survey, but they may have. How we did the web survey is we worked with the associations who already had email lists they work with, so we cooperated with the county public information officer, and said, “How do we get this message out to lots of different types of people?” And there’s a list of all the organizations in our report. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get everybody. But we offered a lot of opportunity for people from all over the county to participate. And you cast he net as broad as you can. And we were very pleased with the response we got from the across the county.

What was the response like demographically?
That’s all available. We didn’t see any real surprises. We were pleased with distribution across the county and the industries. The demographics were what you expect: a typical histogram.

A lot of my interest comes from the idea of telecommuting. It seems like a lot of people coming are working from home. Some might be the only people working for the company. I’m wondering how much of that was represeted in the survey response. And did you speak to any telecommuters directly?
Well, we got responses from people who worked from home and live here. And we’ve got a pretty good information on demographics of the web survey. It’s all in there. Check with Dorothy. And that’ s an important point. That was one of our recommendations that came out of looking at national trends: work anywhere people. And our suggestion was to market that to people who are coming from Outer Banks on vacation: you can work here. I work out of a home office on a cell phone and a laptop. I don’t go to a central office in Raleigh but once or twice a month. And we see that as a trend in the US and it’s something that Dare County can look at to bring full–time jobs to Dare county. It’s very attractive. If you can work in such a beautiful place, why wouldn’t you? So let’s promote that.

I agree it’s a great selling point. But I sort of wince at the idea of promoting it. I think people organically want to live here already. When Jack Shea suggest sending letters to CEO’s in New York and Philadelphia, it misses the point…
But I think his point was you have to get to the decision-makers. And there’s a lot of recommendations in our report. You’re not going to all fo them. But once you do decide what to do, you need to get to the decision makers.

I understand why he’s suggesting it, but it seems backwards. As a company moves toward a remote work force, those people who want to live here will come here organically. They don’t need to be convinced. And if you’re pushing for that, you’ll get people who discover they don’t like it here. And more selfishly, my concern is that culturally, people move here with different values that contradict the current way of life. People live here because they dn’t like the city; bring city people in, there might be friction.
What we heard loud and clear is that people in Dare County want to keep the scenic beauty and clean environment. And I don’t know hoe much control you can have over who you attract exactly. But I do see your point. But that’s’ out of our control.

But I’d argue with 300,000 people rolling through every week in summer, there’s enough organic exposure that people who already want to move here will make the leap.
And I think that’s the people you’ll attract with a ‘work from anywhere’ approach: people with a love for the area. Some people like what I refer to as a ‘circus beach.’ I don’t like that. But I don’t think that that’ the type of people who want to live in Dare County.

Looking at that list of what companies look for, there are a lot of things we’ll never have: like an urban center or an airport. But we do have quality of life things we do have.
Absolutely. There’s a quality of life that is very desirable to a whole lot of people. That’s why you get 300,000 people.

When you look at success stories, are there standard rules to follow.
Yes. And Ted Abernathy showed the 12 items that developers look for. And very few areas have all of them, including Dare County. Most every place has is its challenges – and its advantages. Not being close to and urban center is considered a challenge. But Dare County draws 300,000 people in a peak season, so it can also be a draw. So that’s a good thing.

So some things are plusses in one way, or a negative in another.
It can be, yeah.

What are the challenge? I know space was one. So was affordable housing. What else? And how do we address those challenges.
Affordable housing is not only a challenge for Dare County it’s a challenge for most any tourist economy. Not living near a metro center. In a way, it is a challenge, and in a way, it’s not. For me, I always really like going to Ocracoke. And you really have to want to go to Ocracoke to get to Ocracoke. But I’ve been practically every year since I was 17 because I was attracted to the remoteness. So, it can be a pro and a con. Land availability – that’s a challenge. There needs to be an available land inventory done — if it doesn’t exist already. But if were to do an affordable housing solution, and that can be done in many different ways — we presented a lot of options for that — where could we do it? So, an inventory of available land would be a good exercise. Those are the key tings. And for many people, especially y in rural North Carolina, education is a challenge. But K-12 is very high regarded in Dare County.

That was huge for us moving back. Conversely, if things slide, people may elect for another town. I guess when you compete on a global level, you have to raise your game.
And Dare County, the commissioners now, are looking at economic development differently than in the past. In the past, you’ve had tourism, which was the big deal and the groups are doing a good job doing their own thign: the chamber is a strong organization doing a good job. Travel and tourism are doing a good job. The marine industry park is doing good things. So, you’ve got different groups focusing on different areas. What we recommend is that the county get involved and be part of a coordinated effort for ecoconicmic development and pull these groups together. And we feel that’s important.

The cross county collaboration sounded interesting as well. And where we are, it’s not easy. Logically, you would think Corolla would be part of Dare County, and it’s not. Of course, if you’re county, you don’t just hand over a cash machine like that.
And Ocracoke also. But we’ve found is there is an interest in collaborating with Currituck County on both sides. Both counties would like to talk. There may be opprotunities for land, or for housing. Things like that can be looked at.

So what does success look like when it comes to implementing this plan?
I think the county finds ways to expand existing industries and it also finds new opportunities and that the rare measurements put in place to follow that. And that there’s a collaborative effort and coordination of efforts across the county that would be success.

But it’s more of a path then a destination? I think some people see a plan like this and expect an immediate influx of jobs.
Oh it takes time to do these things. These aren’t things that happen overnight. Especially when you’re not in an urban center. These things take coordinated strategies, they take time to develop, and people have to choose a plan and sick with that plan.


At one point in the presentation, they mentioned that sometimes existing don’t want to develop new ones. Why is that? And was that the case here?
Well, some people might see it as increased competition for employees. I used to be in the paper industry and people would move from facility to to th other for an extra 25 cents an hour. But I don’t know that would happen here in Dare County. And usually, that doesn’t end up being the case. Usually growth ends up being good for everybody. I did not hear that as an issue for Dare County. And most people were very supportive of the idea.

I was more worried that as we get bigger, it might bring outside businesses who compete with existing companies. It seems like even as we get bigger, we get more competition. At one point, we had office supply stores — Staples came in and they closed. Is that a potential pitfall? Could growth end up bringing in more competition than customers?
Typically, a company’s not going to move in unless they feel there’s enough business to go around. And they’ll investigate that up front. What you really want to happen is for businesses to cluster. So, you’ve got boat builders, then you get suppliers moving in to be closer. Which what you had happen at Wanchese. So you have a boat builder, then you have the guy who does metal work, or the cabinet shop, and the engine shop and then you keep that growing and attract more companies and attract more year round jobs.

I noticed in the survey, more support for dredging the inlet was much more popular than investing the inlet. Simultaneously, way more people said invest in tech and health care than boatbuilding. What do these messages mean?Are we at some sort of crossroads between traditional and future industries where we need to choose?
I don’t think you want to choose between one or the other at all. You want to have your traditional industries but you also want to diversify. So you look at trends, and look for growth areas. And one of the growth areas that looks good for dare county is work anywhere. How many people come to Dare County and say, “I wish I could live here?” Well, now you can. And if you an, why wouldn’t you? So it seems like a great thing to promote. And you see all the Virginia license plates in summer. Promote while they’re there and get ’em thinking abou tit. So when they go home, they think, “instead of going on vacation, I could live there all the time.

I met a guy with Texas plates surfing the other day. He moved here to work from home for Dell. And sadly, he lost his job – and now he’s worried about he can afford his rent without the Austin paycheck. But that that seems to points toward telework: you can handle the housing prices. And a company layoff doesn‘t kill 200 jobs.

And more people do it. I work out from a home office now, with my laptop and cellphone and little else. I can do it no problem. I could be doing my job from Dare County — if I could get my wife a teaching job. [laughs]

So how big of a population do we aim for then? If the goal is to create and support year-round industries, and maintain these quality of life elements like open spaces, where is the tipping point where you say, “that’ enough?”?
Hoo! I don’t know the answer to that. If you talk to the specific industries, I’m sure they have ideas.

I guess it’s your job to point out all the possibilities, then it’s up to the counties or towns to make the decisions.
That’s right.


Calculating the current state of Dare County Schools with CFO, Anna McGinnis

Are schools better off than they were five years ago — or worse? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Ask the county, they’ll say education dollars are steadfast as ever, comprising the largest budget expenditure. Ask a teacher, they’ll say that “flat funding” doesn’t match rising costs. Ask a school board member, they’ll say “no comment” for fear of sounding unappreciative, and making future budget conversations turn sour. But ask a CPA, she’ll cut you an answer faster than a fifty-cent check.

“All school systems are going to say there’s never enough money to fund all the things they want to do,” says Anna McGinnis, Dare County Schools’ Chief Financial Officer. “My dream is to have enough money so that you could help every child find his or her passion and push that child in that direction, whether it’s medical technology or it’s social work. But that’s a question for the politicians.
They’re the ones who can go to the assembly or county and apply the pressure. My job is to put together the pieces we have and make them work.”

And she’s been doing it for a decade straight. McGinnis remembers the golden years when coffers were flush enough to build new schools. She also recalls the 2008 crash that nearly broke the bank. And she’s managed every year since, cutting corners and shuffling positions to stretch every penny. With spring budget talks on the horizon — and a new formula in place that ties local dollars to state mandates — we asked the chief number cruncher for her best possible answer on this most puzzling equation. — Matt Walker

What follows is the full transcript of the edited interview that appeared in Issue 5.4. The conversation took place in October of 2016.

MILEPOST: Five years ago we interviewed the chairman about flat funding. We’re here to get an update. Because It’s hard to put your head around: you hear the schools are funded as before; and then you hear it’s still not enough. What’s the case? But let’s start with the basics: What’s your name? And what’s your title? And what do you do?

ANNA MCGINNIS: Anna McGinnis. I’m the Chief Financial Officer for Dare County Schools. What do I do? I guess I just make it all work. [Laughs] Big picture it’s putting together our budget so that its balanced. And when you do that, you analyze positions that are needed because 80% of our budget is probably personnel-driven. It’s a very labor-intensive organization because of schoolteachers and staff. And what drives that is based on General Assembly action. They give you the teacher pay scale every year. They set retirement rate. And they set the health insurance rate.

So, if you want to go back 5 years ago to where we kept saying “we don’t have a enough” and they kept saying and the General Assembly kept saying “you have more money.” Dollar-wise that may have been true. And it probably was true. But as long as you have retirement rates and health insurance premiums increasing, your dollar’s not going to go as far. So, total dollars it looked like we had more money. But generally speaking we didn’t’ have as much purchasing power.

Can you give us some tangible examples?
I always go back to 2008/2009 when the rug was sort of pulled out from under all school systems. They asked for money back mid-year. We had a revision, and the state wanted money back. And it’s hard to give money back in May after your school year’s done, which is why it’s important to have a fund balance, which is basically a savings account for us. And we saw it go down to $177,000 at one point. Which sounds like a lot of money to you and me as individuals. But when you’re looking at a $50 million budget, it scares you. Because if you had a hurricane come through and you had to front the cost of putting things back together for 11 schools, $177,000 is not going to go that far.

Suffice to say, $17,000 a school is not a large amount.
And we have insurance, obviously. But, having been through storms before, you usually have t put a lot out front before you start recouping form FEMA or insurance.

So let’s back up: how long have you been doing this then?
I’ve been with the Board of Education for 10 years — the second time around. I’m a CPA. I worked for the town of Nags Head for 10 years as the deputy town manager and their finance officer. And back in the late 90s, the BOE was having financial problems. I had kids. And I wanted a strong education system. So I said, “Somebody needs to step up and help out.” So I left the Town of Nags Head and went to the Board of Education. But I’d committed to a good friend a long time prior that we would start our own firm one day. And year-and-half later, she approached me. So, I worked with her for five years before coming back to the Board of Education.

I never thought I’d go back to the BOE because it’s much more challenging, in my opinion, than municipal finance. Because you don’t know what you’re pieces are going to be until you get school started. You’re still hiring teachers up until the day before. And you don’t know if it’s going to be a veteran teacher — who makes $51,000. Or an entry level teacher who makes $35,000. And the state pays for so-many teaching positions.

I’ve heard that. We pay for some; and they pay for some. And we pay for more teachers than other counties, correct?
Well, we don’t get low wealth money or small school money, which we shouldn’t. But what you do o is take your higher paid teachers and put them in the state positions — because they’ll pay those positions regardless of cost — and then you want your lower paid beginning teachers to be paid out of the county budget, because it stretches your dollar further. Another interesting part is principals’ state pay is based on how many state paid teachers they have in your building. So there’s a lot of balancing. It’s hard to explain to someone. It’s like a puzzle.

It sounds really complex. It reminds me one of those logic problems they’d give you in high school.
It is. And you play with it all year because you’re in a constant state of flux. Because you might have a teacher go out on maternity leave and bring in her sub, and you’re constantly juggling to try and stretch those dollars further. Now, back when thing’s were bad at the state level, they cut certain programs, like staff development.

What’s staff development?
Staff development might be when you send teachers to a conference and they can learn how to differentiate between skill levels while teaching math. Or when they change the core curriculum: there was no staff development to go with that — from the state level. We’ve always managed to do a little bit of that with local dollars. But that was one of the areas that got cut, and we’re trying to grow that back.

That was when the recession hit? When assembly said we don’t have same much money as we thought and asked for the money back? So you had to refigure?
And the county. We gave $200,000 back to the county, too. Because I strongly believe that if you work with the county they’re going to work with you. So, when they were having hard times, we felt like it was our responsibility to share those hard times with them. And right now, Dave Clawson and I go back to the Nags Head days. And we have a really good working relationship. But what we have put in place now — that’s been in place for 2 years — it’s the new funding formula. And it ties our county dollars into General Assembly action. So if teachers get an increase the county will fund that increase for locally paid teachers. And if the retirement rate increases, the county will fund that for locally paid teachers. And if the insurance rate goes up, they’ll pick up that cost too.

Another part of the formula ties into the number of students we have, so if our enrollment goes up they’ll bump up what they give us for instructional supplies or printing costs. And the third category of that funding formula is what I refer to as fixed costs. Like your property insurance or utilities — things you’ll have to pay no matter how many kids you have and aren’t impacted by general assembly action. That’s been in place for 2 years and it helps the county because it helps them knowhow much money we’ll need each year. It helps us with our budget because we plan on the revenue we’ll get from them.

We haven’t taken it the next step further, which is how do we start a new program? Because if want to do that, you’ll have to do it with local dollars or you’ll have to give up another program. Which would probably be the counties’ response: if you want to do that, you’ll have to cut something out.

So, when you say that to me, it sounds like a barebones approach. And I know it’s lot of money. And it’s the largest expenditure in the budget, correct? It’s $20 million?
Our operating part is $20 million. But they add in school resource officers and nurses as part of the number give us. And they should provide those service because those kids are Dare County citizens. But they’ll bump up the total by adding that to the number they give us, even though they don’t give it to us directly.

My question is, it sounds like the attitude is: you get more than anybody. Be happy with it. And I’ve seen some meetings where that seemed to be the attitude on the part of some commissioners.
And to be perfectly honest — and I might lose my job for this — but I don’t’ necessarily disagree with them. So we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to do things smarter and stretch that dollar further. And there are things you can do between state, federal and local money to make a dollar equal a dollar 50 — if you work it the right way. And we’ve been very good at doing that or the past five years I think.

Ten years ago, were you facing the same challenges? Or did you have the money to do everything you wanted?
I think all school systems are going to say there’s never enough money to all the things they want to do. There’s so many more many things we could do if we had the opportunity. We could expand certain programs like cultural arts or CTE — your career technical education. My dream is to have enough money you could take every child and find his or passion and push that child in that direction, whether it means medical technology or it’s social work. It would be nice and ideal if you could do that with every single child. But that’s not the purpose of public education. It’s purpose is to give a basic sound, education to each child. Do we have enough? That’s a question for the politicians. My job is to put together the pieces we have and make them work.

Have we lost things in the past five years?
Lost may not be the best way to put it. I think we’ve streamlined more.

But we’ve definitely lost people — even if just by attrition.
We’ve definitely lost staff. Teachers, staff. I used to have 5 people in my finance department. I now have 3 and a half people. So finance got cut 30%. And partially because someone retired and we moved someone out of finance into another position. We’ve done that a lot with different positions. We have fewer bus drivers than 2005. We’ve also worked with the county. Instead of us trying to maintain our non-yellow bus fleet, they’re doing the maintenance. They do the tire changing, the oil changing, preventative maintenance. So instead of having a full-time mechanic, we’re working with the county and I think that’s been successful.

Have we lost programs as well? Or teachers?
Well, an example of a program we had to cut is Spanish in the elementary schools. And I think everyone would like to see that come back because it was a strong program. But what we did with those positions and transferred most of them to English as a second Language teachers. So instead of teaching elementary kids how to speak Spanish, they’re helping non-English speaking kids learn the language. And it’s not a direct match. A Spanish teacher doesn’t necessarily have the skills to teach second language. So, that’s’ where staff-development money would have helped.
But we’ve cut finance staff. Transportation staff. Maintenance. We’re very lucky in the sense that things went south right after we got our new buildings because the amount of maintenance that was needed decreased. You hope the first 5 to 10 years of anything new won’t require as much maintenance.

But conversely that stuff is probably up for repairs. So you probably wish you had some of that money back.
And again, the county’s been great to work with because they give us $500,000 every year for deferred maintenance projects or maintenance projects. Whether it’s painting the exterior of First Flight High School or doing roof repairs, the amount of capital money they’re now giving us is over $2 million. Back in 2008/09 — or maybe 09 10 — it went down to zero. And that’s scary , too. One budget year they said “ We’re not going to give you any capital money.” And I said, “You have to give us a little bit because we just purchased activity busses and we have this debt payment every year.” And he said ‘okay.’ So usually when you explain to the county what your needs are. So I’m not going to bash the county because it’s a good relationship and I think they fund us well. I think it sour responsibility to figure out how to use it.

Still it’s hard when you hear we lost Spanish and not feel like we’re going backward. And as much as you don’t’ want teachers to lose jobs, shuffling one to another course isn’t the same as having a trained veteran. So where are w e now compared to 5 years ago: are we ahead? Are we the same? Are we still catching up?
I think a lot of what’s changed is the introduction of technology. I think what we’re offering at a secondary level is much greater than what we taught five years ago. There are many more choices, whether it be middle or high school, than when my kids came through — and I had one kid graduate in 2009 and another graduate in 2012, not that long ago — but my child couldn’t go to COA in high school and have an associates degree before she went to college. We now have that opportunity. They can take so many classes on line. So on the secondary level we’ve benefitted because there’s opportunity through technology and through a working relationship with COA to offer kids more choices. So that’s a positive. The other thing we’re doing is pushing down the curriculum to middle school kids so they’re taking classes now in 7th or 8th grade, classes that normally would’ve been taken in high school. That’s changed in the past five years as well.

I think the focus of elementary, even though they are using more technology, does have to be those core subjects. They need to master those before they can move on to the next level. And when the state goes in and change the core curriculum, one of the things I fault them for is not giving you the funds to train the staff to teach those changes. To throw it at you and say, ‘This I what you have to teach” and not give them the tools necessary to learn how to teach it. Because you don’t teach math the same way we learned it. Two plus three will still equal five, but they get there a really different way. [LAUGHS]

These are good points. My junior high barely had a computer lab. But then you hear about teachers buying their own supplies, too. But I’m sure when it’s between funding hand sanitizer and salaries the salary should get the nod.
I have to take issue with teachers who say they have to buy their own instructional supplies because we allocate to each school a pretty significant amount of money to buy supplies. And most principals know if there’s a need in a classroom — not a want, but a need —all they have to do is pick up the phone and we’ll figure out how to make it work. So if someone has to buy their own sheet music, please call — let the principal know. The principal knows, he or she can call and we’ll figure something out. Or hear, ‘We don’t have AP text books.’ Well, why didn’t someone tell me that? If we know , we’ll take care of it. Or one year Hatteras said we can’t afford to com t the Glenn Eure Art Show because we can’t afford the transportation. And it’s like, “All you have to do is let me know and we’ll make sure the bus isn’t charged to your school.” So you won’t have to come up with the money to pay for the students to come up to this art event. Again: if we don’t know there’s a problem, we cant’ fix it.

Do you think it’s because the culture is already engrained that “we don’t have the money?”
It could be.

My son hears us discuss money issues and he’ll pick up on it. You might start thinking, “If I ask for bus money now, I won’t get what I really need later.” And parents can always buy hand sanitizer, but they can’t get you a textbook.
Well, those lists have always been the norm. The Kleenex, the hand sanitizer, the baggies — it’s been going on for 20 years. Ever since my kids were in kindergarten. Now we do try — and its’ something we’re working with the county commissioners on — we do want to increase teacher supplements. Because you have to go by the state salary schedule but each county has the opportunity to pay supplements. Beginning teachers get a 10% supplement. So, they’re making $35,000 and they’re getting a $3500 supplement. Now, to come out with a four year degree and a have $38,500 has a starting salary? But that’s more of a state issue than a county issue. The state needs to do more. And there’s talk about average teacher salary being $50,000, but they played a numbers game to get there. They rolled their longevity pay into their salary — and then they rolled in the local supplement, too.

What’s longevity?
It’s a state program where if you’ve been here 10 years you get 1.5% longevity pay. It’s typical with local governments. It’s how you reward for years of service. For teachers, it’s after 10 years you get 1.5% increase. After 15 years , it’s 2.25 percent. Twenty years is 3.25. And 25 it’s 4. 5. So once you hit 10 years, on your anniversary, day, you’l get 1.5 percent of your salary. So if you’re making 40k, you would get $600 on your anniversary day.

But if you look at Wake County and Mecklenberg County — the two largest school systems — their supplements are grater than ours. So, if you take a state average, it’s going to be heavily weighted by those counties’ teachers where the starting supplement might be $5000.

Fuzzy math.
It is fuzzy math.

But that’s not the county’s problem that’s the state’s problem. And the county’s giving that money to fill in those gaps.
And they do it to attract to attract good teachers. And to attract good quality teachers you need a pretty decent local supplement. Especially here where it costs so much to live. I believe our supplement is still in the top 10 in the state for beginning teachers. I’ve bumped up the upper end of the our supplement for those teachers who’ve been here for 31 plus years. Becaue it’s the veteran teachers who’ve been really hurt by the change in the salary schedule. Entry level teachers and especially teachers who’ve been here five tot 10 years are getting the bigger jump in their salaries.

And that’s all part of a strategy to get good talent here.
And to keep them here. One of the board goals is to attract, recruit and retain good quality people. But I would never say that teachers are overpaid. Even if you break it down over 10 months it’s not enough. And again, they’ve got benefits they’ve got health insurance, it’s a decent retirement plan. So you have to look at the whole picture. And 10 years ago, the retirement rate — what the employer put into the retiement program — was under 7%. This year it’s 16.33%. That’s more than double. And that’s dictated by the general assembly. All full-time employees have 6% withheld — and it’s matched with 16.33%

So, compared to five years ago, do we have less money to spend, more money to spend ?
We have more money to spend. It’s not because of the state, it’s because of the county. And we have this fantastic funding formula that addresses any impacts on the school system caused by general assembly action or increases in enrollment. So there’s a good comfort level. Plus, we heave our maintenance projects funded again and our capital needs. We can go out now and buy an activity bus every year. And our local dollars still have to pay for utilities, maintenance staff, athletics — that cannot be paid out of state money. So when your’re paying 2.5 million in utilities for the 10 buildings, that’s 10 percent already out of what the county gives us. And property insurance is another big hit.

And that’s what frustrates me about topic: my bills go up everywhere no matter what. So seeing flat funding for four years, makes me go “How do people justify not keeping pace with inflation?” To me, it’s the least you can do is keep pace; then it should be, “What’s the best you can do?” Because to me, a good education is what draws people to live here. Like pre-k.
Well, we still have pre-k. In fact, we expanded it this year. We added 1 and a half more classrooms. And we added it because we did have a waiting list. And we did identify where the funds came from. Now that funding might have come from cutting finance 30% — which is okay. And I’m not whining. Because we’re streamlining. We were forced to become more efficient. And you look at processes and say, “Is this relay needed?” But those things take time. And I’d love to do it for the whole district. I tell Dr. Burgess all the time, that this manpower utilization: are we using our personnel in the best way possible?

And we talked about not having enough teacher positions. We look at staffing every year for elementary. And last year we looked at staffing for secondary, which is a little more challenging, and you might have a teacher with only 9 students in one section and 15 in another section. And we might say: “Why not put those 24 students in a class and consolidate some sections and reduce the total number of teachers through attrition?”

What about class size?
This year our class size at the elementary level is smaller than it has been in the past five years.

That’s good. Because isn’t there no class limit now?
There’s a class limit in K to 3. You can’t have more than 24. And then the total average in the district has to be 21. So you have to have a class with 18 for every class with 24.

I guess I wish there was more of a cushion. So each year, you could add a program. I could take Latin, French, German — non online, but with a teacher. But I also went to a much larger school system. And even there was only one AP English class, too, and not everyone got in. So in some cases, kids may be getting more.
Look at my two kids: one did really at AP classes. The other one freezes at tests. AP wasn’t a solution for her. But if she had the opportunity to take those Gen Ed classes at COA, she could’ve done fine, because everything wouldn’t bank on that AP exam at the end of the year . So I think we’ll make a big difference there. And we’ll save parents money, either through AP. Or, for those who don’t do AP, they;ve got another route available. Because every child is different. And we’ll save a those parents a lot of money on kids who want to continue to college.

And it’s also better for those kids getting an education.
They didn’t even have AP when I was a kid! We had honors. AP? never heard of it.
But do we have money – or adequate money? I think we have money for instructional needs. I think what we need to in order to recruit and retain good teachers is focus on getting that supplement up. Because teachers deserve mere. and not just teachers – but TAs

Because we’ve lost TA’s too.
We did.

Are those the most tangible things: losing programs? Or class size?
Class size is back down. I don’t think we have any classes with 30. They’re all 28 and below at the elementary level. That’s a good thing. But the state did cut teacher assistant funding. And we have a staffing ratio of 1 to 1 — teacher assistants to teachers — in kindergarten and first grade. And second grade it’s one for every two. It use used to be one to one. And we also provided teacher assistants for media.

And one thing to point out that is when the general assembly says we’re funding one teacher per 20 students, they don’t include the specials: the art, the music, the media, the PE teacher. Those come out of those allotments. So to say one teacher per 20 students, it’s not a direct correlation. Because right off the bat there’s five extra teachers. Now multiply that by five elementary schools. That’s 25 teachers. So everything ahs a spin.

And that’s where it must be hard trying to fill spots and not lose teachers. I’m assuming it’s hard to switch from health to math or vice versa. But you must try to pick from the same background.
Elementary’s a challenge because you might be being moved from second grade to fourth grade — and that’s totally different curriculum. We haven’t had to do as much of that the past two or three years. but I’m very proud — and Dr. Burgess is, too — that when things were flat and our spending power decreased we were able to handle everything through attrition. Nobody got laid off, which in 2008, 2009 and 2010 were pretty tough years for Dare County.

Were we ever flush? Did we have tons of money? We built all these schools, so we must have.
Yeah, there was definitely more money during the building boom – for everybody. And one thing that Dr. Burgess and I felt was really good was that schools, when they exceeded expectations, they got a bonus at the end of the year. We did that in 2006 and 2007 and in 2008, too. In 2009 the state pulled back the money, so we helped fund it locally because the teachers had been promised it. We would like to see that program come back.

You would think everyone would get behind that — even fiscal hawks — because it’s like a performance bonus.
And not just for the teachers, it would be for the teachers assistants, principals, even classified staff, because I do believe it takes the whole school to make that student successful, from the bus driver who pick you up in morning and says, “have a great day” to the cafeteria worker. That positive vibe needs to come from everybody.

And that positive vibe approach works internally, too, I’d suspect. Instead of constantly worrying about lean times.
That’s my dream. To put something like that in place. It would have to be funded locally, because I don’t see the state doing it again. And the state did something similar this year — but they just focused on 3rd grade and AP teachers. So if that AP student had a passing score of 3 and above, the teachers gets a bonus of $50 per kid up to a maximum amount of $2000. I think that’s great, but my problem is it wasn’t just the AP teacher that got that to that point. Just like 3rd grade teachers. If they scored in the top 25% in the state on reading ,they’re going to get bonus, too. More than $2000. But it wasn’t just the the 3rd grad teacher that made that kid successful. It could’ve started with the Pre-K program, identifying your letters. The kindergarten, first and second grade teachers surely had something to do with their reading ability. So I think it’s a very narrow focus to jus reward that 3rd grade teacher. But you don’t just magically learn to read in 3rd grade. Or that AP student had to learn many things before in order to perform at that level.

So, it was a good start by the general assembly. But it needs to be broader. And by doing that , you’ll get better quality teacher. Because if you reward people for doing a good job, they’re going to want to do a good job.

Do we have any idea of what our situation is for next year?
No. I’m still focused on this year. I won’t start looking at next year until next month.

Is there any hope for more money? I know last year the county staff got raises, might schools be next in line?
Well, again, the teachers the past 2 years have gotten raises. Classified, which are your teacher assistants, your support staff, they got 1.5% this year. That’s from the state. That’s basically a cost of living increase. Teachers are totally different, their average increase for this year was 4.7%. I think last year it was 7%. So they’re bumping up teacher pay. The general assembly also funded a merit pay plan for non certified personnel, where thy funded 1%. so you can give a 1% merit bonus too. But it can’t be across the board. So you have to come up with a plan for how to allocate this $71,000 — which the state provided. Again, the county matched that, so we have $142,000.

So it ‘s more fodder for the citizen to apply pressure on the assembly. because I think the county gets a lot of the heat.
It does. But it’s really the state where you need to go and say,’ We have to have quality teacher’s assistants.’ Especially with what you require in those elementary grades where we assess the students’ progress. Who do you think is doing those assessments? And all our Teacher’s Assistants are highly qualified. And that’s a good thing for dare county. But a teacher’s assistant makes $21,000 to $22,000 a year. And a lot just work for the health insurance benefits.

What can parents and citizens do to help?
I guess provide support, saying “Yes, we want to see Dare County have the best schools. We want to reward teachers for the job they do. And parents need to be involved, too; if you want your kids to succeed, you have to be involved.

I’ve always said we should put a sandbox in every school, then say we need money for sand. Because sand gets funded. Whether it’s nourishment or dredging, I’ve never seen a non-unanimous vote when it comes to spending money on sand.
But again: that’s politics. But to answer your big question? I feel like we’re better off. I feel like we can offer more through technology – particularly for those secondary students. I think elementary, it would be great if we could add that Spanish program back in. And maybe we can look at that next year. But you become a little gun shy when you hit a year that you only have $177,000 left in the bank that you can spend. You don’t want to commit to a new program until you’re totally confident you can continue to fund it.

Are we ever going to be back in the good old days of 2007?
I think there will be a day where we can build more programs. There’s an opportunity to expand programs or bring back programs we had to cut, such as a Spanish in elementary. And I’m very pleased we can expand our pre-k, because that problem gets the most bang for the buck.

Because it helps those kids and the other students in their grade.
Exactly And our relationship with the county, again, I think is the best I’ve seen it in 10 years. It’s the best working relationship I’ve ever seen. And I owe that to our board and their board. And keeping the lines of communication open. And we did talk about increasing supplements this year, and they said “we can’t do it this year but let’s talk next year.” So we we’ll be talking about that. But I’m always positive. We’ll figure it out. Even if moneys tight, we’ll make sure the school’s open this year and make the best we can this year. And then we’ll look at where we can improve. So you won’t hear me say that we don’t get enough money. And you’re not going to hear me say we get enough. My job is to work with the money we get.. And make sure we don’t drop down to $177,000.

I think the Chromebooks are very good, too. Because in college, everything is technology driven. You might have a code to get into your textbook online. And you’re definitely submitting everything online.

And that all that came about in the last three years. Was that all county or state funding.?

Was that another byproduct of tighter times? Or is that just technology inserting itself?
That came about because we felt lie we were behind the curve in providing laptops to students. And we had some leases coming up, some computer leases, so it gave us the opportunity that instead of buying desktops in the classroom — or the 100 or so mobile units per school— we said, let’s use the opportunity to order Chromebooks. And we started at the high school level and incorporated down to middle school. And we had to identify maybe $50,000 more in funding. but we just used the money we had freed up. But we had planned for that over four years to figure out how to make it work. And we made it work and I think it’s positive. We would love to move it down to fifth grade. And then move it all they way down, maybe. Because that’s the way the world work snow. Even your auto mechanic plugs your car into a computer.

How many counties have Chromebooks now?
Half. I’m sure. There are 115 school districts and 30 or 40 had them before we put it in place a few years ago. So we were on front side. But just barely.

So when you’re planning, do you follow those state trends to make sure we keep up?
That would be on the academic sides. They’ll look and say, “We need to move in this direction. How do we make it happen?” And we’ll put all our minds together and say “This frees up $115,000, lets use it for Chromebooks.” That’s how you make it work. Sometimes people say you make it look easy, but you have to think outside the box and stretch your dollars. Or we may have this allocation for text books, and instead of buying hard text books you buy e-textbooks. And you pay for that one time subscription. And then you have all these textbooks available — and all these novels. And the beautiful thing is: you don’t have people losing textbooks!

And nobody’s drawing inappropriate pictures in the margins either.
Right. And we al know what middle school boys are capable of.
And the Chromebooks can download the assignments. But another thing we’ve done is we’ve put WiFI on our activity busses so our sports teams that travel 3 hours to a sporting event, they can access the internet to do homework. That’s a positive we wanted to provide to those student show spend 5 hours in the afternoon going to sporting events. And we started that last year. We might have it on the longest yellow bus run, too

Any other things like that?
And we have benchmark districts we look at – Chapel Hill, Carrboro, what are they doing? How have they progressed. I’m not the one doing it, but we do look around. We should probably go outside North Carolina. We should look at Virginia Beach. We should look at magnate schools. We already want to do more with CSI — what resources are here. COA. Your kid can finish high school and have an associates’ degree, and then you just have to pay for 2 years of college. What a great savings.

But then my poor kid misses out on two years of partying.
[laughs] Well that’s why they go to grad school.


Hurricane Joaquin never came close to hitting us. But that doesn’t mean he left us unscathed. As the storm tracked east last October, it fed a second system over the southeast that drove wind and flooding across the Carolinas. When the clouds cleared over Kitty Hawk, a huge chunk of NC 12 was missing. And almost nobody saw it coming.

Except for the United States Geographical Service (USGS). For years, researchers had been applying a “wave run-up” equation to NOAA and National Hurricane Center weather models to figure out when the sea was likely to breach the dune line. With the Army Corps of Engineers just a few miles away, that stretch of beach road beside the Black Pelican provided the perfect place to test the USGS’ new work.

“We’ve actually been working with the research pier to ground-truth our predictions,” says USGS research oceanographer, Dr. Hilary Stockdon, who wrote the “wave run-up” equation behind the new USGS Coastal Change Forecast. “Now coastal residents will get specific information on an approaching storm, like where erosion will occur, whether sand dunes will be inundated by storm surge, and how high water levels are expected to be at the shoreline.”

Starting this fall, select regions — including the Outer Banks — can go online and monitor coastal wave action the second a system starts swirling. Residents and visitors can see how their favorite shoreline might behave — down to a single kilometer, up to three days in advance. And not just for named storms and nor’easters, but the everyday weather nobody else watches.

“That’s the real value,” says Stockdon. “The in-between storms that Jim Cantore would never pay attention to — but would keep the mayor of Kitty Hawk up at night.”

We asked Dr. Stockdon to discuss the new technology — and its unique ties to the Outer Banks. — Matt Walker

This interview was conducted in July of 2016. To check the USGS’ Coastal Change Forecast, go to:

For a long-term prognosis on coastal hazards, go to :

MILEPOST: Give us a quick bio.
DR. HILARY STOCKDON: I’ve worked at the USGS for almost 18 years. I started when I finished my master’s degree and came to work on a new coastal change hazards project. I started working on the west coast with the ’97 E Nino storm. And after a couple years working, I went back and got my PhD and then I never left. I’ve been studying coastal change hazards related to storms and sea level rise ever since.

And now you’re in the St. Petersburg. But you were studying up here at Duck at one time, correct?
Yes. In 1997, I participated in a big field experiment at the Army Corps Field Research facility in Duck. And it was a group of federal agencies and universities that were studying nearshore processes — waves, currents, how sand moves — and that’s actually where I met the man who hired me here at USGS. And we still work with the scientists at the FRF — Kate Brodie in particular — we work with them to study wave run-up. And we actually have a cool project going on with them, a trailer that’s set up to study beach profile evolution and wave run-up during storms. Because that’s’ really our focus: when big storm waves come to a beach, what happens to the beach? And can we predict it? And it’s really hard to collect these measurements during a storm. The instruments are expensive and get beat up. Our remote sensing techniques don’t always work well. But we’ve been working with the people at the pier on using lasers to measure wave run-up and what the beach looks like as the storm is making landfall.

Wow. Does that all tie into the model you’re releasing?
Yes. That’s definitely part of it. That’s how we’re going to ground-truth a lot of our predictions. So when we run our models, that work we do with the folks at the pier will provide the tests for the accuracy.

Is that one of the reasons NC is one of the places you’re rolling the model out? Because of the pier? Or is it more like that’s why the pier is here: because NC has such a notoriously dynamic coast?
Both of those. I guess it all goes hand in hand. But the scientists at the pier have been great collaborators this whole time — the past almost 20 years. And then also the Weather Forecasting Office and the National Weather Service — the one in Morehead City — they were really interested in this project of operational forecast of total water levels that includes waves.

And you went to school at Duke, too. Correct?
Yes. I did my undergraduate there. And I worked at the marine lab in Beaufort for a while, too. And that’s where I realized this could actually be a job. [laughs]

What’s your exact role in developing the model and what’s its exact name?
I developed the equation for wave run-up that is used to predict how high waves will rush up the beach. So if you know the offshore wave height and wave period and you know the slope of the beach, you can use my equation to predict how high the waves will run up the beach. So what our model is essentially is it’s comparing a total water level to different elevations of beach morphology. So the relevant beach morphology is the dune height, the height of the base of the dune, the height of a beach berm. And the water level is composed of tides, storm surge and this time variable component which is called ‘wave run-up.’ And that’s the part that has traditionally been missing when people look to predict the impacts of storms on coastlines. The focus has always been on storm surge. But that wave component is what brings that water up to the dunes and comes over the dunes.

So, storm surge is the big, moving blanket of water, wave run up is like the fringe on that front that fluctuates? Is that a good way to put it?
Yeah. so the surge is a mean elevated water level. And then the wave run-up operates on top of that water level. So surge might raise water levels a meter at the coast and then — on top of that –you get the time-variable part, which is big waves breaking and sending the water up and down and up and down.

So this model is meant to forecast all that turbulence on the leading edge.
Yes. It combines all those things. Do you know Mark Willis? He’s one of the reasons we’re doing this. He got in touch with me many years ago when he was working at the Weather Service in Morehead City and said, “Alright, Hilary. I hear you’ve got this equation that predicts wave run-up. We have a section of Highway 12, S-turns, that overwashes sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. We can have a 2-meter wave, where it overwashes and sometimes not. Can your equation help us predict when that road’s going to go underwater or sand’s going to be deposited on the road?” And I said sure. So we ran the model for smaller events. Because at that point, we were really focused on hurricanes. And he said, “It’s not just he hurricanes. It happens every year year. Or more.”

And that’s how it got started. So the question was: can we run your model in an operational mode with 72 hours advance notice — like a wave model. We’re using all the same information, so let’s run it in a 72-hour forecast mode, so we can provide locals with information about when water is going to cover this one-and-only road in and out of town. That’s how it all started.

Since then we’ve been working with wave modelers at NOAA — National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) — they’re creating a new wave model, the Nearshore Wave Prediction System. And that’s’ going to be rolled out to all the local weather service offices so they can provide more high resolution, more accurate estimates of waves in the near shore region. And what we worked with them to do was add this wave run up component to their model so they can output this total water level — not just surge — but wave run up.

So what is the name of the model you developed?
What’s funny is w don’t really have one. And we’ve been asked this question so much this year that we need to come up with one. [laughs] The run-up part is always just called Stockdon 2006. Because it’s this science paper, that’s how people refer to it.

You need to come up with an acronym that plays off Hilary.
I had a hard enough time accepting Stockdon 2006 to be honest. And I’d need a “W” anyway. But we just call them the Coastal Change Forecasts. And the weather service, their wave model is NWPS — Nearshore Wave Prediction System. And the SWAN model is the background of a lot of models predicting waves verywhere. Tried and true. We’re just bringing that SWAN wave model up closer to the beach so that it can pickup those smaller details of nearshore bathymetry and provide better resolution along the coast.

And the idea is to say when you have a chance of a breach?
We’re focused on three types of coastal change. The first one is dune erosion, so when waves and surge reach the elevation of the base of the sand dune, that’s when dune erosion is likely to occur. When those same water levels exceed the elevation of the crest of the dune, that’s when sand starts getting pushed inland — that’s called overwash. And that type of coastal change is what often deposits sand under homes or across the roads or even takes it all the way across the island and into the sound. It’s that type of coastal change that a lot of local emergency personnel are interested in because that’’ when they need to prepare earth moving equipment to bulldoze sand off of the roads after the event has occurred. The last type of coastal change is what we term as inundation. That’s when the mean water levels — forget waves – just the tide and the surge inundated the sand dune. That’s the most extreme type of coastal change. And if you have a very low barrier island ,that’s very narrow, that’s when you have the potential for breaching.

And that’s the stuff where you lose big chunks — like S-Turns or Kitty Hawk.

So how do emergency managers access this stuff?
The Coastal Change Hazards Portal is what we have now. This website we developed for one-stop-shopping on all the coastal change hazards work that the USGS is doing. Right now the focus has been storms, shoreline change and sea level rise. This website will walk you through the assessments we have that will predict the likelihood of different types of coastal change for different types of weather conditions ¬ — tropical storms, nor’easters, extreme storms. If you pick Category 3, you can zoom in on the Outer Banks and see what’s expected to occur in your town based on an idealized category 3 hurricane. So this is out there for long-term planning. When we have a storm that’s about to make landfall, we do this in real time mode. We work with inputs for the NHC and NCEP, using their modeled storm surge and wave heights, combine it with our run-up equation and USGS beach morphology to provide updated forecasts of what might happen to the beach. But you can zoom way down and see what’s going to happen by your home. And then look and see what will happen during different degrees of sea level rise. My aunt and uncle have a house near Frisco Pier and I’ve sent them this.

So average folks can see this too?
Yes. This is available to anybody. Next hurricane we get, we’ll update the forecast as the NHC updates their advisories — every six hours for meteorology. So on this website we provide the forecast of coastal change. But also what the water levels are modeled to be. So anybody can go in and grab these GIS layers an match them up with their own date a to answer whatever questions they have about what that storm might bring.

So we’re already doing our little hurricane dance, checking on the track every six hours to see where it’s going to land. This will let us know the wave impacts even if it passes by.
True. But there’s an important stipulation. The storm surge model we use is from the National Hurricane Center. It’s called the P-surge, and that stands for probabilistic surge. It has a 10% exceedance value. So it still is sort of a ‘maximum expected level of surge.” And the way they get that is by taking the hurricane and having it make landfall in a lot of different locations within that zone of uncertainty. So if it makes a sudden change and makes landfall, nobody is surprised.

It errs on the side of caution. You may get less water, but you won’t get more.
That’s the idea. But there are uncertainty estimates associated with all of this. The National Hurricane Center has uncertainty estimates on the track of the storm — that’s expressed through the cone of uncertainty. The storm surge modeling and the wave modeling has uncertainty estimates mixed into it. Our equation for run-up does. We also include uncertainty in the beach elevations. If we measured that dune and its slope year ago, and it may look different when the storm makes landfall. All that plays into it. For the USGS Coastal Change Forecast, that’s part of the reason we’re presenting a probability: there’s a 70% chance of overwash rather than a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

So it’s all on a grade so you can choose your level of anxiety.
Exactly. That’s a perfect way of saying it. Because it is really up to each person and the role they have. Are they a homeowner? Are they a mayor? What level of risk are they comfortable with? Does 25% make me nervous — or 75%? And when am I going to initiate some action? So USGS is providing information to help make some of these decisions.

It does seem like there’s an ongoing evolution of getting more info into the hands of the public. Is it a byproduct of technology? Or more people on the beach? Or a perceived increase in coastal threats? What’s driving it you think?
I think hurricanes Katrina and Sandy had a lot to do with it. Less so Katrina. But definitely Hurricane Sandy. And I think people saw what could happen when a big storm made landfall in a really populated area. I got a lot of calls from the media after Sandy. Reporters would ask: “Were you surprised at what happened?” And there were these pictures where sand had covered all these inland roads. And I said, “No. I’m not surprised. Because this is what barrier islands do during these storms.” Now it’s a matter of sharing this information with the people who need to make decisions about what to do out there.

So instead of doing a follow up interview with Jim Cantore, lets get the info out ahead of time so they can prepare. And on an even more local level, it sounds like.
Yes. so the scenarios we’ve listed out on our website, if you look, there’s hurricanes categories 1 – 5 — those are really a worst-case scenario for each of those storms. And that’s good for long-term planning. The real time ones we do for hurricanes are fro people who need to respond during a storm or immediately after. So they have some kind of idea what to expect when they go out to the beaches. For example, after Sandy, some firefighters out by the Rockaways called me and said, “We see another little storm pushing through and I see we no longer have sand dunes where ewe used to. How should we prepare for this next event?” That’s the type of information we want to be able to provide.

So this brings us to the new thing. Right now, we push the go button on the model; the new website we’re working on with NOAA turns on all the time for all weather conditions. And what’s special about that is each beach is going have different weather conditions that are problematic. Those nuisance flooding spots. Or, on the Outer Banks, those certain areas where a certain wind direction on a certain tide with a certain wave height — it’s going to put sand on the road. And that’s the type of event we want to be able to help local people have advance notice for.

So they go online and look and say, “This is going to be a bad day to drive down.
Yes. And we’re working with the NWS because they already have that line of communication open with the emergency planners and town officials. And we heard the need coming from the people in the community through the weather service: is there any additional information you can give us to help us know what a 3 meter wave offshore means on the beach.

When will that be available?
That will be available this fall for sure. And it’s still in pilot mode. Right now we have five grids: one his here on the gulf coast of Florida; one is Jupiter, Florida; one is the Morehead City area north to Duck; New Jersey; and Boston. And the goal is to have 10 of these very large areas by next summer. So the water levels will be available through the weather service. and USGS is going to apply that information with beach morphology to provide additional information of when coastal change might be expected. So this will be available on our local USGS website. And so it will be a time series of the water levels for the 3-5 days, predicted every hour to 3 hours — depending on location.

And that will be available So you’ll be able to look anytime. From the flattest day to a major storm.

Describe the interface.
So I sent a screen shot of the development site. So it’s map-driven. You click on a spot on the coast, and the top figure is time series showing the water levels. The bottom is a beach profile animation that shows the water levels going up and down.

And if it’s above the dune, you’re in trouble.
Correct. The elevations of dunes are actual survey data. That could change though. And there’s no modeling profile change or sediment transport. But he elevations will change depending on where you are.

Is that what you used to predict that breach in Kitty Hawk?
It’s the same model using different inputs. That one was Joaquin-specific. And it was us getting data from the Weather Service ad pushing go. The new way will run continually. But it’s NOAA with their expertise and USGS with their expertise, and bringing them together to make something better.

So was that test drive?
I wouldn’t say it’s test driving. All the models we’ve put out have been in development for a long time. They’ve been ground-truthed from past storms. They’re all based on peer reviewed science publications. USGS has always been more of research organization. But we have a lot of great useful science we want to put out there.

So the idea for this is to have that info out there. Because that spot broke through again after. So the town of Kitty Hawk could watch this and see the probability of another breach.
That’s right. And we want to identify the right people to get that information to. Or with the website, these people can check the information out themselves. And what we’re showing, a lot of locals know already. They know the spots that always go. But we’re providing additional info on timing of these events and magnitude so they can better prepared.

How do we fare compared to other areas like Massachusetts and the Gulf in terms of erosion and surge?
Every place has their own issues. The Gulf coast is generally worse off because the dunes are a lot lower. But on the East Coast you get bigger waves. So it’s a tradeoff.

It does seem interesting that this research is so tied to here — in that S-Turns sparked some of the idea. And that Kitty Hawk is one of the hot spots you ground-truthed. It’s like we’re the poster for overwash issues in some ways. NC 12 particularly. But it’s good research fodder, I assume.
Absolutely. Because the cape extends so far into the ocean you get great storm energy coming through. The dunes are very low in some regions. The island is so thin. There’s been some really interesting studies comparing the impacts of storms compared with the impacts of sea level rise on the Outer Banks, too.

And it’s nor’asters and hurricanes — and flat days. Is the real value in the lesser storms?
The real value is in the things that Jim Cantore would never pay attention to. But the mayor of Kitty Hawk, it would keep him up at night. Or the people who own shops there. So they have a tool to help them understand what’s coming for them in the next couple of days. Because the beach there is different than Cape Cod or St. Petersburg. and so we combine all this local information to give them real specialized forecast.

Where do you see people using this? Travel alerts? Real estate? Beach nourishment projects?
I think so, as it starts to get worked into other projects. I’m working with the Army Corps of Engineers on National Coastal Resilience Network. So this is going to combine a lot of our forecasts with their models for beach fills, and I think part of the focus will be on Corps projects. So we won’t create a travel alert, but I think there’s a lot of rich information in here that people can start to use as we educate the public, and even other agencies.

And this is all your formula driving this?
For wave run-up, yeah.

How stoked are you?
I am stoked. 10 years ago I was kind of scared about it.

What started you working on it?
Well, people had studied wave run up, trying to estimate how high waves would go up the beach in a lot of different locations: the Netherlands, a couple of west coast beaches, Duck, the Gulf. But what we needed for USGS was a model we could use everywhere. So if you’re studying a beach process at one specific location you can really get into the details and understand exactly what’s happening at that spot . You can go out and measure those beaches and you have instruments to collect wave information. But USGS needs to do something nationally. So we had to look at wave run-up and say, what’s really controlling wave run-up. What are the important parameters? So I pulled data together from about 10 different experiments, to come up with this expression that can be used everywhere, just because it’s simple. So its used nationally and internationally for estimating wave run up on sandy beaches.

Were you coming here an visiting and watching waves run up and having thoughts of being oceanographer one day?
[laughs] Sorry. I don’t have anything quite that beautiful to say. But what I did was try to look more at the big picture. And it was going toward this applied science — what do we need to know about beaches that people can use? So the process of wave run-up needed to be simplified to be understood over a much larger scale. And to be able to predict it over larger scale. So people would be able to predict what would happen to their beaches in terms of storms. You know, a lot of scientists really love the details. They love to go to one place and understand everything that one grain of sand is going to do. But I like the big picture. And I’ve got a people-oriented focus.

But no that big picture is being applied on more granular level all over the U.S.
It’s interesting you say that. Because we did have to pull back really far to look at the big picture, but then apply that information over a much smaller scale for it to be useful to people.

You did vacation here, correct?
Every single summer. I grew up n Richmond. Did my undergrad at duke and my PhD and masters at Oregon State.

So what’s this formula look like? Is it like a “Good Will Hunting” across the chalk board formula?
[laughs] I could make it look that way.

Or it more like E=MC2?
That would show I was really smart if I could do that. But no.


We asked ECU’s Dr. Paige Viren to give us the model for sustainable tourism. Turns out we already knew the answer.

Every industry has its leaders. If you’re making cola, you want to be Coke or Pepsi. Cars? Toyota — maybe Mercedes. (Definitely not Yugo.) Tourism’s tricky. If you’re talking pure money, Myrtle Beach is about $17 billion mo’ better than the Outer Banks. Las Vegas beats us by $44 billion. But that doesn’t make either one the perfect business model.

“I use Myrtle Beach as an example of what not to do with a beach destination,” says East Carolina University’s Dr. Paige Viren. “And a casino on the Outer Banks might be a big money maker, but does that acknowledge the culture? And how does that impact the environment? Sustainability is a mix of that triple bottom line of culture, the environment and the economy. It can’t be just be a quick payday.”

As a professor at ECU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism — and part of the college’s NC LOW program — Viren is helping small towns in Eastern NC incorporate more visitors into their economic future. Her goal? To help them pre-determine the type of destination they want to be without changing their whole way of life. We spoke with Dr. Viren about her work— and why the Outer Banks is more than just a coastal anchor point — it’s the gold standard.

“Sustainable tourism is protecting and enhancing the natural resources so that everyone gets to enjoy them,” she explains. “Not just tourists, but for residents. Because if it’s good for the residents, it’ll be good for the tourists.” — Matt Walker

What follows is a full transcript of the interview conducted in Spring 2016. The edited version appears in Issue 5.2.

MILEPOST: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
DR. PAIGE VIREN: Hopefully, I can help. Most of my research has centered on rural communities, but I have done some projects at the beach. I took a group of students to the bluegrass festival in Manteo and we actually collected some data and looked at it in the class. But I haven’t done a ton of research out that way.

Well, what I’m looking at is more pulled back information. I’m hoping you may have examples or comparisons that we can look at. And some philosophical input on how sustainable tourism works and what are the rules of engagement — for lack of a better term.
Well, I think the concept of sustainability does transcend regions, wherever it’s placed. We all have our issues, whether it’s Monterey California or Northern Michigan, they’re struggling with jobs leaving and how do we reinvent ourselves. In Monterey it was the canneries. Cannery Row was all sardines and fishing — then those jobs went away due to overfishing. They’ve done a real cool job of reinventing that area and having tourism be a big piece of that puzzle —tourism that acknowledges the natural resources there. Even the Monterey Bay Aquarium ties in. And it seems odd to try and tie that to North Carolina, but it fits: tobacco and textiles leave, a industries that offer a lot of employment for folks, so it becomes, “how do we sustain our lifestyle? Do we all have to move someplace different, go move to Raleigh, or are we able to stay in the communities where we are situated?”

And I kind of set the stage for this concept of sustainability around a sense of place and the connection people have to a place. Because, really, it’s about people making meaning in places. And whether that’s the beach on the Outer Banks for somebody who’s coming down from Ohio or Virginia, they find meaning in those places. There’s an emotional attachment. So it’s important that it’s sustained so they can continue to have that connection. So when we have large numbers of people that hold that connection to that place — we love the parks or we love the beach or we love the wilderness — we can influence those places staying around. And then you talk about how to sustain that: and it’s whatever is unique to that area. What is the culture to that place? And every place has a different culture. Culture is not just France and going to museums. Culture is North Carolina barbecue, it’s the Cypress Grill in Jamesville — which is a hole in the wall but it has character. It’s the Sunnyside Bar in Williamston. Or, on the Outer Banks, Tortuga’s Lie — there’s not a Tortuga’s Lie in Raleigh. It’s these unique places that you can’t export. Those authentic places that are unique to the area. It’s not the Applebee’s, right? I don’t get my sense of place going to a chain.

So you talk about culture: is there a constant pressure to change as you get more popular. Is that culture always in danger of being diluted? And is that one of the challenges?
For sure. And I think it’s a challenge because you’ve got all those people coming: how do we maximize that benefit economically? And that can change how we do business. Because you want something larger. Or you build the bigger hotel instead of the local hotel. Or you sell off a house that’s been in your family for a very long time because you make a big chunk of change. But in the tourism planning class that I teach we talk about communities have to manage how they want to develop so, what do we want it to be? What’s our vision of ourselves? And, unfortunately, in a lot of places — not just north Carolina — folks are reactive . They say, “Oh! This is what is going on elsewhere, we should do it here!” Or it’s a short-term gain for this investment but it’s not planning for the long term. So we have to think what is our vision for ourselves? People have to have a plan in place, and they don’t always have that. But when you have that connection and you have that sense of place and that emotional attachment, if you acknowledge that, you can help make people aware not to let that type of development happen.

But sustainability to me is a mix of that triple bottom line of culture, the economy and the environment.. When you say development, you have to balance those three things; it can’t just be one. A casino on the Outer Banks might be a big money maker but does that acknowledge the culture? And does that impact the environment? So that may not to be the development we’d want to do? So it requires some organization and some thinking about it and not just reacting to someone getting a quick payday. But I think a lot of people think short term instead of long term. Especially in an area where people need jobs.

I think of a coffee plantation in Nicaragua, for instance, where the owners wanted to sell the property. And the guy who bought it wanted to make a golf course. And the people said, “We don’t want a golf course, per se.” So they rethought how they did it and it was developed into an eco-lodge and reinvented with the aesthetics of the area. But in a poor country like that, it’s very easy for people to say “give us the money and we’ll do whatever.” Then it doesn’t fit with the area or employ local people and has a negative impact on the environment. Keeping a golf course is pretty expensive in terms of up keep and impacting the environment. But when you’re challenged and you don’t’ have jobs, people are willing to do whatever. Because they’re desperate. so it’s important to work with communities so they see the value of what they have an realize that quality of life is not just the economic value of something.

Do people embrace that message? Or is it a hard sell? And who are generally the villains for the lack of a better term?
It’s been interesting, because you almost have to get people to think about it in a different way. Because when they stop and think about it, instead of saying, “Who the hell wants to come to Bertie County for tourism?” When you get them to look and say, “You have a natural resource here that’s really beautiful and if you focus on this, there would be opportunity for people. And you can be proud of the place you’re from.” You almost have to get people to step back so there’s a re-education process that’s involved. Because people have been so down ad out for so long, they have a hard time finding the positive in things. So you help people step back and say, “what assets do you have? what are the good unique things about here?” The project in Winsor I’m working on , they have the Cashie River there. And everyone says, “Who would want to paddle on this?” But I’m a Yankee from up north, so I’m thinking, “People would totally want to do this.’

You have to remind people they’ve got something special because they’re so familiar with it.
Exactly. So that familiarity is people’s detriment. So having someone come and say “Let’s look at this anew” can help them re-imagine where they live. Now Windsor wont’ have the kind of tourism that Monterey or the Outer Banks will have but, you still see this sense of pride in where they’re from. And they feel happy that there’s development going on and that there’s paddlers on the water. So, it’s helping them to look at it differently. And now we see all these grassroots leaders get involved saying” what else can we do?” and all these little projects popping up. It’s not me saying, “This is what you need to do, ecotourism is this.” we say, ‘What assets do you have?” and they take the ball and run with it.

And even with the Outer Banks, I haven’t done a lot of work in that area. but when people talk about the history about the place, it isn’t about the chains and big money it’s about the sense of family and traditions. So it becomes, how can we capitalize on that so people want to protect it as opposed to just overdeveloping it. It is an interesting place, isn’t’ it? Because so many places on the beach have become so different, but he Outer Banks feels stuck in time. Isn’t there something there where it doesn’t change as much as other places? Or is that just me.

I think there’s something there. But if you were to ask some people, they’d say it’s ruined. So it’s a matter of perspective.
For sure. It is perspective. So again, it’s having people look again: It’s not Miami Beach. It’s not Myrtle Beach. But it could get to that, so we need to be mindful.

You’ll hear people say, “the death of 1000 cuts.” When the Applebee’s came in. Or some of the super mega McMansions that have come up. So there is a tenacity to dig their heels in. But you can’t stop the hands of time either. It’s one thing to say, “We need to make a conscious decision.” But how do you do that? Is it legislative? Because it seems some of the pressures are so economic. People in herit houses they can’t pay the taxes on them; they sell them to developers. Developers build something bigger to max out the return on investment. Especially on the ocean front.
And I struggle with that. Because that would require some sort of policy. I know in northern Michigan the footprints have to stay to a certain size. So you’re talking about some sort of policy in the county. But who are the people running the county? Is it the business owners?

Somewhat. What I’ve noticed, if you were to ask average community people —and even visitors — they would say they like it the way it is. But the pressures come independently. The more people who show up and develop a connection , the more people want to live there and the next thing you know they bring their values with them.
And you have a lot of second homeowners. Pat Long did a lot of research on how engaged second-homeowners are. The people who rent out their homes most of the year and spend a short amount of time there. Are they really engaged? are they a stakeholder? Are they sending their kids to the schools?

So you’re talking about introducing tourism as a whole to Bertie County and other places. Is it a good industry, for lack of better term? Is it one that when you’re looking for opportunities to help a rural town, does it stand out?
Yeah. In many cases, if you’re looking at wanting to sustain a certain lifestyle; where you’re not trying to change it. Tourism can use existing infrastructure; it can utilize existing natural resources. So you don’t have to build a superstructure for tourism to come. Especially if you’re focusing on certain market segments, like an eco tourist or outdoor adventure types. So my area of interest is actually adventure tourism. So who is the adventure tourist? Those are the kind of folks who are the first ones there and the last ones out. So, they’ll go in when its not very fleshed out and they like it. They like that it’s a challenge to get to the place. They want a local, authentic experience so they’re not looking for something highly developed. So if you’re looking at market segments, that’s a good thing for communities that don’t want to over develop. So I think you can focus on some markets that would tend to be of higher value and you can make more money off them locally because they’ll spend their money locally. So that’s more sustainable. They want to eat at local restaurants , sleep at local motels, and that money stays in the community. So focusing on that is important.

Now, tourism jobs are not going to replace a tobacco manufacturer or big industry, but I look at it as a lifestyle career. I did a biking trip in the south of France where the guy who was leading us used to be an attorney in Montreal, but he was miserable so he left that job to lead biking trips. And he loves that job. So I guess it’s people looking for careers that have meaning. Something they enjoy and they’re happy about. The Kitty Hawk Kites guy, I’m sure, he started out doing a job that he loved. Even the guys who started Patagonia started out as rock climbers and had to make gear, so it’s when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about. Sure, a Chilean salt mine may make more money ,but it also rapes the country. Tourism, might not make as much money but it’s a higher quality of life. So there’s that balance. it can’t just be about economics. And maybe that sounds idealist.

It seems like the Outer Banks is an organic example of what you’re describing. You talk adventure tourism, surely the first people who visited here wanted a more rustic experience. Even now, you can get a fancy house, but lots of people prefer a beach box or still go camping.
And certainly, the Outer Banks is sort of feast or famine. But if they could focus more on that eco, outdoor focus — not just laying on the beach in a bikini, but the people who want to go kayak on Alligator River or Lake Mattamuskeet, you could reach different markets and link different users together. That’s sort of the work we’ve been doing is having there be a complement to the Inner and Outer Banks, to where they’ll come in the offseason for kayaking or birds. I think the Inner Banks people have been focused on trying to get people from the beach to come out for night. No. The people who spent all the money on those houses aren’t going to someplace else. But there’s a market of people we could bring in that are additional. So, what kind of kayaking can we do on the Scuppernong? So what kind of programming and activities can we promote? Maybe it’s making moonshine in North Carolina. if we look at the assets we have and how we can capitalize on those assets, we can expand the market and more people can make more money on tourism. But not everyone can be a Kitty Hawk Kites, right?

For us, I think the biggest issue is weather. It’s hard to plan around. When people want to do events you never know if it’s going to be nice. And that’s moreso in winter.
But you can maybe capitalize on that. If you ‘re dealing with someone who’s into a certain kind of wildlife or into adventure, that might make it more exciting.

A hurricane experience maybe; come ride out a storm.
Exactly! You can make hurricane drinks and it’s a whole theme! [laughs]

Well, I’m sure the department of emergency management might have a different take.
Yes. For sure. But the point I’m making is it’s how you frame it.

Do you ever use the Outer Banks as an example for other communities.
I definitely have. And I’ll do a comparison. I’ll say, here’s the Outer Banks, now look at Myrtle Beach. Because I’ll use Myrtle Beach as an example of what not to do with a beach destination. And we’ll go ahead and talk about poor planning. Gatlinburg Tennessee is another place we use. I’ll take a group of students to the Smoky Mountains, and we go into Gatlinburg and use it as a case study because they did the overdevelopment thing, and now they’ve tried to do the fixing of it.

So if you’re using these places as examples of what not to do, what are the mistakes they made?
Developing ideas that are not unique to those places. So it’s the t-shirt chains or restaurant chain. The Ripley’s Believe it or not. That money doesn’t stay in the community. It goes up to corporate. They may hire a few local folks on the front line, but are they getting management from other places? Locally owned tends to employ local people, that money stays in the community. That makes a big difference.

But it sounds lie we got lucky ,too, because geographically we’re semi protected. There’s not enough are to go too nuts.
Exactly. the geography of the Outer Banks, while on one hand it can be a detriment because it’s a barrier island. On the other hand, it can’ handle crazy development. So that’s good.

So does that mean Currituck’s going to take the brunt? Looking at Chesapeake and here, you wonder if it will fill in?
I think everything seems to come here a little bit later. So I think we have an opportunity to learn from those other places and say, “We don’t ‘want to do that.” We may not make the same mistakes other places make. Maybe.

It’s ‘differentiate or die.’ there’s a reason people drive from VB to here. So who are the culprits? Is it outside forces or inside forces? Is it the indigenous people who can finally make a quick buck? Or is it people who are coming in and taking an advantage of a resource and carpet bagging? Or both?
Well, if you offer something cheap enough, they’re just gonna grab it up and they won’t have that connection to it. And they’ll do whatever. But I don’t know. A lot of times it can be business people who want to make a quick buck. But for some reason it seems like most business people live there. Correct?

Yes. It does some like most people sacrifice to live here. Like the guy you said did the bike tour in France. People come here for a lifestyle. But then, if you push to extend your season year round, you’re basically signing up for a different lifestyle.
I think if you have the ecotourism stuff, it just adds value, so it’ll protect it more. And I don’t think the impact of those types of those travelers will be the same as the summertime craziness. And you might even be able to make more money off hat smaller group. If you have 15 people on an adventure trip, you might make more than 50 people on a bus who are looking a the price point. Because if you’re selling an experience, you can charge a pretty penny. If you look at an adventure travel company, some people pay$4000 for a five-night gig. So you’re entering into a market where the numbers are lower and the price point is higher. So you’ll make a lot more money off fewer people.

The opposite of maxing out the volume.
But the idea doesn’t need to be a week in a condo. It’s a long weekend gig with a focus on special programming. Not just being at the beach. What is the unique experience? Is it seeing a certain type of wildlife? Sailing on a certain kind of boat? But, again, only if that’s what they want to do, because you can’t tell people what to do. But it sounds like it makes sense to me.

Right now our county is doing a study on how to strengthen the year round economy. Are there examples where you see perfect fits — or not s so perfect fits?
Well, I know in Tyrell and Hyde County, some of the issues are IT related. It’s hard for people to stay connected on the web. But telecommuting could be a good way to get people in your community who are working elsewhere. How is it in Dare County?

It’s actually pretty good. I know a few people who do that already.
Other business could be agricultural—like farmers markets. That’s seasonal, but you can have crafts and things like that. But if you don’t have tourists, and you’re not focusing no brining in different tourists, that’s kind of an issue… I don’t know!

Well, we already have fishing. And we have boat building. But that’s been tough too. We just lost a manufacturer.
That wasn’t Gunboat was it?

They left? Where to?

They closed. They had a bunch of bad financial hits.
That’s not good. I thought that was a great angle to go with. Some of the races and boat races were good, too

But SAIL NC is still tourism.
It is. But even traveling for soccer and those kinds of things, parents with their kids, that’s recreational tourism. We’re poised really well for that kind of experience. I’m not sure what else.

It’s hard in our space. That’s why I come back to telecommuting. You can’t put a 500-person factory here — but you can have 500 people working for 500 companies.
I love that analogy. Because if the company leaves, you don’t lose all the jobs. So in that way telecommuting is more sustainable than traditional industries. But I went to a balancing nature conservation meeting, and they were showing these videos that promote tourism in a certain county or whatever. And they always show quality of life stuff. Even the economic development department here, Northeast Alliance, and they’re trying to get big businesses, like aerospace. But all their promotional materials show outdoor recreation, quality of life stuff. They don’t show airplane hangers. They show people out on boats. [laughs] So they can’t put a dollar figure on it, but it’s valuable and they’re promoting the area with that. So they may not put the marketing dollars on promoting the tourism business they’ll use that message to people to move here. Because if you want to move to a new place, you want it to be a nice place to live. But a nice place to live is a nice place to visit.

It’s funny You say that. IT almost feels like a “grass is always greener” situation. People who grew up here wish we had all these modern conveniences. But they don’t realize how good we have it.
Exactly. And that has been the fun and exciting thing about going into these communities. I mean, the people are so authentic and I just love meeting and getting to know them and helping them to see that this is unique. An adventure traveler doesn’t want to go to Miami Beach. They want a unique experience. And if you can package that in a way that someone wants to come check it out — I’m still swearing that they should do moonshine tours where you show people how to make moonshine and then you make a batch. Or that you learn about how tobacco is processed. People like learning and doing things on a trip. But it’s hard to make them see that value because they want to get so far away form tobacco or farming or whatever it is because they grew up picking it.

They grew up on a small town so they want to be like the big city. They don’t realize how good they have it. Is that the paradox: as you grow your tourism destination you ruin it at the same time?
And that’s why you have to manage it. And people don’t like too many rules; they don’t like you to tell them their business — especially in North Carolina. Very independent minded people here. You can’t get in their face about it. And I appreciate that. But if you let the come around to the idea themselves, they will embrace it. I guess you have to plant the seed and let them see it for themselves.

What are the primary threats then. People here talk about traffic. Water quality is a problem in Myrtle Beach. But are there obvious mistakes to avoid that are always Achilles heels for destinations?
The one thing I’d say is when people are doing a tourism plan, they need to make sure they have input from all the stakeholders. Because if the residents seem pissed off that there are t tourists in their area, nobody is going to leave with a good feeling if people treat you rudely. That can be a problem if people don’t feel welcome. That spirit of hospitality needs to be there. So when people feel like they’re a part of that tourism system, and they feel like there were in engaged in the process, maybe they’ll feel a little bit kinder.

Is friendliness a big part of the equation then?
I really think it is. It’s like a having a steak dinner, If you have a nice dinner where the presentation is nice and it’s served on a nice place, it’s going to taste better than the same steak on a garbage can lid. So if you present something in the right way, you don’t even have to have everything be perfect. If people make you feel welcome, you’re want to go back. The place is a part of it, but it’s how people make you feel that makes big difference. You can go to Hoboken and have a great time if people make you feel like you were part of a something nice and you leave feeling like you had a good experience. And that’s part of what we talk about. I’ve been doing a project on the Scuppernong working with Sarah Phelps over at 4-H Center. We’ve discussed the idea of a customer service education out reach, where if someone comes into a gas station or corner market and they ask, “What’s there to do?” The people don’t say, “There ain’t nothing to do here.” People need to know there are things to direct visitors to. I don’t know what to call it, but a re-education for service people.

It’s funny you say that, because I think here is very organic example. Maybe it it’s because they move here and take a job, it’s vehicle to a way of life. They’re happy to be at work, because it provides them a lifestyle. They’re going surfing after work or fishing.
Exactly. I’ve done lots of stuff that didn’t make money but I made connections that I knew would be good. But some people have a hard time seeing value unless it’s monetary. The travel industry association has an ad campaign that shows tourism as valuing things in a different way. Not just going to a place, but what we get out of it; it improves relationships, kids are shown to be smarter. I like that campaign, because it shows it’s more than just money. It’s the guy who’s happy at his job this afternoon because he surfed this morning. I mean, how could you not be happy at the beach?

What’s your exact title and area of expertise?
Adventure travel consumer behavior is what I’m interested in — my dissertation was on looking at adventure travel behavior — however, when I got here, this is my first academic job. So when I got here, it was like “Here I am in Eastern North Carolina” and part of ECU’s mission is we do things in the East. So how can I have an impact in the region where I work? So I said, “What’s the closest thing to adventure here?” Is it paddling? Hiking? But I have a pretty holistic definition of adventure travel: it’s in the outdoors, involves some culture and maybe some activities. And I can’t say “adventure” in certain communities because they think it’s bungee jumping or something crazy. So I try to frame it as eco-tourism and nature based recreation.

So I’m interested in how do we market that: who’s interested in that? Why are they interested? Is it certain personality types? But since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten more into planning and development: so how can we develop in a more sustainable way? And for me that conduit would be adventure nature based tourism. And it is a more sustainable way to develop because adventure doesn’t require the infrastructure that mass tourism requires. And in these small towns they can’t afford that. They can’t build something huge, but they can do a bed a breakfast or camping platforms on the river. It’s not a big $200 night hotel, but it’s a way for people to experience the local culture and environment and probably the community would make more anyway because they’d be spending in local places. And eating in local restaurants and buying local crafts. They won’t be buying a t-shirt form China. Are there options like that in Myrtle Beach? Probably. But how do you find them?
But there are places like Orlando and Vega that seem like the opposite of what you described. It’s all man made glitz and lights and attraction. Is that a functional model? Is that the anomaly or the norm?
Right. And they have a lot of people and they make a lot of money but there’s a lot of issues and problems. Look at the water shortages in Las Vegas. Residents have issues accessing water because they built this huge destination where there’s no natural resources to support that. So they have struggles supporting all those hotels. But is that the type of visitor we’re looking for here? Because they evolve over time, starting with small hotels — now they’re huge. That’s not feasible here. It’s not comparing apples to apples because you can’t do that here. But what was the culture before that happened?

I don’t know. and I guess Disney is what made Orlando, but in both cases it’s…
It’s contrived. It’s no authentic.

And that’s their DNA. Whereas I think here, outdoor recreation and adventure is our DNA. The beach is the draw, that draws a certain type of person. If you’re happy entertaining yourself in the water, you don’t need a show or casino. So when you’re talking sustainable tourism, that’s what you’re trying to protect: it’s maintaining your brand really.
Exactly. And years ago, I guess the Outer Banks could’ve changed it’s brand to the whole Las Vegas thing but I think they have something in that’s pretty special. And by hook or by crook — however they’ve figured it out — they’ve pretty much maintained that. Yes, there’s been some development, but not like other areas. And it certainly could’ve happened. So I think they need to acknowledge that and make sure it doesn’t get to that point. we can learn because things move a little bit slower. We can look at people who’ve done it wrong and overdeveloped and not do that. And maybe there’s some things they can do to manage the traffic. Or maybe there are polices they can put in place where residents don’t feel like “Oh my prices go up when the visitors come down” — like a locals’ card or something — something that will help people have a better feeling about people coming to visit.

There is a backlash sometimes. It’s kind of cool to hate on tourists sometimes.
It’s like Rodney Dangerfield complaining about his wife because he’s supposed to. And I think that’s the mindset sometimes with tourists — you’re supposed to complain about them. So why don’t we turn that upside down and even have program like “be a tourist your own town.” And encourage people to go experience certain attractions, because they’re going to be the ones to talk about these things and spread the word. Get people to appreciate what they have and then that’s your word of mouth to get people feeling good about where they live and sharing it with other people. Let’s be proud of where we are and share it with visitors.

So define sustainable tourism.
I think it will always be a working definition because we’ll always have to adapt to things, but it’s any actions that help contribute to making a community balanced. So, jobs, taxes, sure — but also protecting and enhancing what you have. Don’t you’re your culture, focus on what’s the history and the natural and built resources so that everyone gets to enjoy them. not just tourists, but for residents. So if it’s good for the residents it’ll be good for the tourists.

Well you only have one gold goose, you can’ beat it up. You’ve got to exploit it carefully.
Exactly. and by focusing on sustainable tourism, I think it has the potential to stimulate the local economy, protect and enhance the resources, and I think it fosters community pride. And that’s what’s important: when you’re really happy and proud about the place where you live. That you’re willing to make sacrifices because you like where you live. There’s that connection. And acknowledging your culture. There’s that community pride. It can’t just be about the visitors, there has to be a sense of well being for the residents as well. So maybe someone wants to build that big hotel but if it doesn’t make the residents feel good we need to rethink that. So whatever actions we take it needs to be balanced in that sense and consider everybody.

So describe NC Low. What’s that do?
Well, Stan Riggs — who’s work on the Outer Banks can yield some very different responses, I understand — he ‘s worked on the project and it’s called Land of Water. It’s a combination of Inner and Outer Banks. And the focus of it is, the mission is to find ways to help communities to identify funding sources so these small places can promote themselves. So if you’re an ecotourism business it extends the market and finds ways to help folks. So it’s an outreach in a sense. But NC Low focuses on developing a strategy for that triple bottom line of natural, cultural, economic assets of what they call the land of water region. So it’s the inner banks and outer banks working as a system. And they’re all biologists and geologists. I’m just the lowly tourism person. But it’s a way to say, “Look, you’re right near Mattamuskeet, try to promote bird-watching.”

It’s funny: we were going to ask you for a perfect model for us to follow. But it sounds like y’all are using us to model for other towns.
For sure. And there a places that just have unique types of draws, different seasons, whatever. We all have our own challenges that we need to address; so we have to look within and look at resources before we draw up a plan. But tourism has been a common theme for places where mechanization is coming and jobs are leaving, these places have looked to tourism. But it’s no going to be the end all, be all — let’s be honest. Not everyone’s going to make a million dollars. But the place will be nice and you like what you do. It’s more than just money. It’s the guy who’s happy at his job this afternoon because he surfed this morning. I mean, how could you not be happy at the beach?

And it’s stable. You can’t export a tourism experience.
Exactly. You can’t export Lake Mattamuskeet. So you focus on what can’t go away, and how to capitalize on that.

So we’ll always be the 600 lb tourism gorilla for eastern NC. But 20 years from now, it could be as simple as bird watching in smaller towns. Or kayak tours. Or a hunting lodge. And they could promote that stuff in a way that improves their bottom line.
Exactly. And its doesn’t mean that the Outer Banks is helping all the poor little surrounding counties. It can be that the Inner Banks and Outer Banks interact collectively to benefit both places. So maybe people com bird watching then go to the beach. I don’t think trying to convert an existing market; it’s getting people to come visit who might otherwise not come because we have more options besides the beach. But then maybe they add the beach on the end.

So it’s kind of a lead by example thing. We’re showing these peopl the way to do it.
Exactly. you guys could be the gold standard right?

So how would you rate us then? Knowing what you’ve seen in terms of tourist destinations?
Uh…, I mean, do I say an A? I don’t know. [laughs]
We like A’s. A’s are good.
It’s an A now. But you better stay on that path. Because, like any grade, you do screw up that final, you’ll mess the whole thing up. [laughs] The final meaning, don’t go on a path that will set us backwards. That will set us on a path where we look like we don’t want to look like.

Okay, so give an example of an F then.
Well, before I would’ve said Gatlinburg. Tennessee but they’ve really made some big strides in changing what they did. But that took some time and a lot of leadership to change from being not so great, to where now they’re a little better. When I think about Fort Lauderdale or something, but that’s not my kind of travel, so it might not be fair for me to say that.

It sounds like the goal is just not to sell out entirely. You have to have some level of organic experience or people will smell it and get turned off.
And even if you think about places like Qatar, where they make man-made ski resorts with fake snow and they’re indoors. Sure, they have the money to invest it, but it has to be one the craziest ideas. And how sustainable is it? Some countries aren’t learning that lesson, I guess.

What did you learn at the bluegrass festivals?
That was really interesting. For the class, the goal was to learn the value of understanding who your market is. So they designed a survey and we want out an collected info. And what’s funny is, they didn’t have beer served, and everyone who filled out the survey said “We need beer.” So, I guess what we learned is that people who like bluegrass like beer at their events. And to be honest, so would I [laughs]. But we got a snapshot of who the visitors were and were trying to help organizers know who to market to. And festivals like that can extend the season somewhat for places. And people said they enjoyed it and would be back.

And that to me is not necessarily a beach going crowd. That seems like extending the reach.
And those types of programs and events are good ways to extend the season. And that is a beautiful setting. But I’d like to have a beer myself. [laughs]

We also have a a new event site in Nags Head and one of the options was a hotel where they could they could do tradeshows and conferences in wintertime. But some people got spooked and said, “That’s not who we are”.” Is that pushing it you think?
Well, conventions and visitors bureaus, that’s what they’re charged with. And conventions bring big numbers of people. I don’t think that needs to be the focus. Maybe bringing in certain kinds of tradeshows — if you were bringing in outfitters or things like that — but for me it doesn’t seem authentic to who we are. Are people coming to tradeshows. Are they going to rent a house. And that’s what’s unique about the outer banks too. But I’m sure businesses could rent a house.

Well my experience with tradeshows is you spend 3 days indoors. And we’re an outdoor destination.
Be who you are, and be it well. They can go to Raleigh and do a tradeshow right? You can’t be everything. You need to say “This is who we are” and stick to those talking points. And that’s how you stay good at what you’re doing. Because when you try to sell too many products, that’s when you run into problems.

Differentiate or die.
Exactly. And there’s some neat initiatives going on, and people right now are primed to make sure they’re protecting what we have. So it’s an interesting climate right now. People are more willing to listen, I think. We have a generation of people who’ve grown up with a different perspective. So we’ll see.


Meet the weather nerds who crack the code on brilliant sunbursts.

Bay Drive toward dusk is a rush of activity. Parents and strollers pour from neighborhood houses. Cars and bikes park at random. All anxious to catch a glimpse as the sun says “Peace out” and dips behind the horizon. Some days are jaw-dropping brilliant; some not so much. (Just check your Instagram feed.) But what if there was no need to rush? What if you could go online in the morning and see how high-rez — or ho-hum — your evening light show will be?

Well, now you can. Thanks to a few Penn State students and grads, a new website is predicting the brilliance of both sunsets and sunrises up to 32 hours in advance, using nothing but NOAA’s forecast models — and some clever computing.

“Basically, we take the data that’s produced by NOAA’s weather model and run it through a special algorithm,” says 19-year-old Stephen Hallet, the model developer for “It picks out which variables make up a good sunset and sunrise and then spits it out into an image.”

An image just like any online weather map of the U.S. Except, instead of rainstorms it predicts sun refraction: reds and oranges indicate a potential showstopper that says “drop everything”; greens and blues tells you to keep cooking dinner. The website’s been live only since last November, but it’s already generating buzz for producing results with 85 percent accuracy. And while the forecast itself is pretty broad — think states, not zip codes — as technology advances so will its potential. Who knows, maybe in another decade people will plan Outer Banks weddings and photo shoots on the flamboyant comings and goings of our favorite star? (Or, they’ll just have another reason to yell at the weatherman.) Either way, add it to your list of forecasts to follow.

As Hallet notes, “The model has days that it nails it — and days it could do better. But it’s nailed many more sunsets and sunrises than it has missed.”

This issue was conducted in December 2015 and originally appeared in the winter 2015/2016 issue.

MILEPOST: How old are you?
STEVE HALLET: I am 19 years old.

Where are you from?
I’m from right outside of Philadelphia, PA.

Have you ever visited the Outer Banks before?
No, but I’ve driven through North Carolina a couple times. I’ve always wanted to visit the Outer Banks because I know that’s where the Wright Brothers first flew their plane and I’ve heard it’s pretty.

Oh yes. You’ve definitely got to come check it out some time. We’ve got some good sunsets here too. So what is your official title with SunsetWx?
My official title is, I believe, model developer.

What expertise do you bring to the project?
Basically what I do is I take the data that’s produced by the weather model and I run it through an algorithm that I created that take variables from a huge assortment of data. It picks out which variables make up a good sunset and sunrise and it basically then spits it out into an image.

What kind of variables does it look at?
It looks at variables such as the moisture distribution pattern throughout the atmosphere and for whether a front has passed, because right after a cold front has passed or thunderstorms and everything the air behind that has been proven to contribute positively to the quality of the sunset. So it looks for that as well.

When you talk about sunsets in terms of “quality” what sort of scale are you using? What rates one higher?
So this was a challenge at first. The algorithm itself is ranked arbitrarily off of random numbers that, if we assign the value of, let’s say -700 to a sunset, what on Earth does that mean, right? So we then just decide to ditch any numbers and we decide to go on the unit of “vividness”. I mean, it’s a qualitative unit. It’s not a quantitative unit. But really, it’s in units of “wow”. Like, “the wow factor”. If there’s a sunset or sunrise at the top of our scale, well that’s gonna make you really go, “wow”, and make you stop and pause and admire the sunset. Not just your photographers or enthusiasts or anything. It’s just gonna catch your attention when you’re driving home from work or something. You’re gonna want to stop the car. So it’s measured in units of vividness I would say.

How did this whole project come about?
I work with two other people, Jacob DeFlitch, meteorologist for AccuWeather, and Ben Reppert, who’s a research assistant at Penn State. And Jake DeFlitch, when he went to Penn State, was hired as a landscape photographer by the university. So he would always go out at sunset and try to photograph it. Him being a meteorology major, he wanted to know what factors made a good sunset. So he did a little research and he consulted with Ben, and then the two of them contacted me earlier in the year, and Ben brought his idea to life.

Why did they reach out to you? It sounds like you’re the math behind this operation.
They reached out to me they knew I was pretty good at the computer language that would be useful in coding this algorithm, and I was happy to do it.

How long did it take you to create the algorithm?
It took us about three weeks. Basically, what we would do is Jake and Ben would analyze the atmosphere and then tell me what variables that produce a good sunset. We met several times to look over sunsets across the country and determine, well, maybe, you know, “insert this variable” or “take out this variable” and we refined the algorithm. It took about three weeks for that process of going from literally nothing to a product that would be appropriate for the public’s use.

That sounds like fun. You guys just, what, met on a hillside and gazed at the sunset for a little while?
Yeah. They promised me food, and if you entice a poor college student with food, then I’ll certainly do the work for you.

I know that’s true. So is it a different algorithm for program that predicts the sunrises and sunsets?
Yeah. The differences between a sunrise and a sunset, there’s one fundamental difference. It’s something called “pressure tendency”. So I have to do two algorithms and I’d say the biggest factor, I mean, there’s obviously others, but the biggest one is that pressure tendency, and I have to tweak that around a bit. So there are two different algorithms that make up the images that you see.

Basically what the model is looking for is a favorable profile of the atmosphere that makes for a good sunrise/sunset. Things that lead to a favorable sunrise/sunset are the absence of low clouds and a broken deck of clouds that’s at the middle or high levels of the atmosphere. It also sniffs out regions where the air is sinking, which indicates the potential for a more favorable sunset. For those cool blues, the model would sense low clouds and precipitation falling. Also, if the clouds aren’t broken (scattered), and there’s a thick deck of clouds the model will sense that and penalize.

The biggest change in variables it looks for regarding sunrises/sunsets are whether the air is sinking or rising. It’ll reward for sinking air on the sunset algorithm and reward when it sniffs out rising air with the sunrise algorithm. So the model meshes all these variables together on a numerical scale. What I do is take these numbers and turn them within the algorithm from numerical to qualitative. Because, what good is it to the layman if you say ‘expect a sunset of 35 today.’ I wouldn’t even know what that means if I didn’t write the algorithm! So, I tell the algorithm to rank and then display the smaller numbers as ‘less vivid’ and the larger numbers as ‘more vivid’.

Where are you pulling the atmospheric data from? Is that something you have to input or does that pull automatically?
My data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). They have weather models that run, and those weather models just spit out data that’s available for public use, and it’s free data. What we did is they just decided on what model to use and then I just pulled that data from NOAA, and then my algorithm processed all the variables inside that data. My scripts pull the data from NOAA and input it every day.

How far out can your program predict a sunrise or a sunset?
Currently, the regional United States algorithm I use combined with that model data predicts it out 32 hours into the future. However, the global sunrises and sunsets, because I use a different model- the model I use for the United States doesn’t cover the globe- and that goes out to 48 hours.

What about the European model?
So for the European model, I need $250,000 per year, because they charge for that data, but, never fear, I use a different model from NOAA called G.F.S. and it produces model forecasts for the world. I just take that data because it’s, obviously, free.

Now, I gotta say, we’re down here on the Outer Banks, which is a tiny barrier island, and I almost couldn’t find us on your map. The map is kind of broad right now. Is there any chance we’ll be able to “zoom in”. How drilled down can you get with those weather patterns?
See, therein lies the challenge. The weather models are very powerful. They’re using the top ten super computers in the world and everything. But we’re not there yet, just with technology. So that I can zoom in, let’s say, near Kill Devil Hills or wherever you are in the Outer Banks and just give that forecast for your house. I can’t do that, because the model’s resolution, how fine it sees the data, it’s not there yet. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I was able to do that just for my house and my street. The weather model, it’s very coarse when you zoom in. It’s like zooming in to a low quality picture. The picture doesn’t look that bad when you see it unzoomed, but when you zoom in you can see the individual pixels. The model has the same exact set up. When you zoom in real close to Kill Devil Hills from the whole entire United States, it’s gonna look pretty grainy and it’s not gonna look visually pleasing.

Is that something you anticipate could improve if, for instance, you had a sack of money?
Well actually, with time, NOAA and all the computer models around the world, they’re getting finer with the spacing between those pixels. So what that’s gonna do is, in 10 years I’ll probably be able to do that. But it takes a crazy amount of computing power to even produce the image of the United States that’s on the site. Or, sorry, to produce the data that compiles and forms the image of the United States on the site.

Going back for a moment to how far out you can predict the sunsets, is that something you see may improve in the future? Are we talking, you can maybe plan a week in advance kind of thing?
Oh yeah. As the computers get better, so will the methods that go into them forecasting it. Because what the weather model does right now is, it cannot model individual air molecules and there are tons of air molecules in the atmosphere. So what it does is it guesses, and it guesses between those pixels. So as the pixels get closer and closer together, it’s not gonna have to go over such a great distance to guess. So, in turn, it will become more accurate. As computing power increases, the model won’t have to guess as much, and therefore will become more accurate. So that will come in time as they get more powerful and as more money is fed into them by the government and other organizations around the world.

I’m curious about some of the factors that play into the sunsets, and if your program can anticipate for those things. Do you notice any trends in the time of year, for instance or the seasons?
See, that’s gonna be interesting, because all the astrodynamics are taken care of for us, but we’ve only had this from the early fall into the early winter. So far it’s been alright, but when we get into the heart of winter, when I think the sunsets are pretty great, it’s going to be interesting to see if we have to tweak the algorithm based on the season. So that’s unknown at this time, but we’re actually looking forward to seeing how the model performs and adjusting as needed.

Right, because the program’s relatively new. When did you guys launch?
We launched about a month and a half ago.

Does topography come into play at all? Because we get some weird weather over here.
Yeah. Topography comes into play and that’s our input into the model data that I get. So the model already knows that you guys are surrounded by water on both sides and that in the west it’s going to have to deal with the Rocky Mountains and everything.

What about urban verses rural settings?
I do not believe that it knows. It’s not a high enough resolution to pick out that, but there are models that do that. Well, hold on, I think that they make note in the model that they change up a couple parameters so I think it sees it somewhat, but I don’t think it sees it high enough. I don’t think it sees it at 100%.

What about pollution? For instance, I noticed California seems to frequently be lit up bright red and I’ve seen the smog layer in California. How does that affect it?
Well actually that is the one variable that we are still searching for data to put into the model. So we don’t have that right now, but we’re actively searching for that and it will be put into the model once we find it. It does well without it, but it can do even better with it. I think that’s one thing that would really improve the accuracy of it. You know, especially with the Canadian wildfires in the summer; they make for beautiful sunsets.

How accurate has the program been so far?
It’s been 80-85% accurate. You know, I just verify it. It has the days that it nails it, and then it has the days that we could obviously do better. But it has nailed many more sunsets and sunrises than it has missed.

What were some of your best results?
One of the best results for a lot of people, and this was the one that first got us off the ground was, there was a great sunset up across the Eastern seaboard in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York. And that was when I still had to run the model manually. So I ran it three hours before and the color scale was maxed out across the big cities in the Northeast. It just really nailed it. And people really started to take notice. At the time, we just had this little fledgling Twitter account and people were like, “Whoa, you guys predicted that?” They were sharing that map and sharing our account. And that was probably one of the top ten sunsets that I’ve seen, and it was probably the sunset that really kicked off SunsetWx.

What about bad results?
Ah. Well, it all depends on the model timing, so model’s data that I get the algorithm from, or if the algorithm processes wrong, then the image is gonna be a bit off. I was actually at school, I go to school at Penn State’s main campus, and it was predicting not such a great sunset. The clouds came out just a couple minutes before the sun had set, so there was just a five minute time period where the sun reached the angle and refracted and everything just lit up in the sky and I took a look and the model and the model hinted at it, but it did not nail it. I had friends come up and say, “Well your model didn’t predict this, but it’s a pretty good sunset.”

Are there any particular Achilles’ heels of the program that you’ve faced so far?
Yes. There is one. If the weather model guesses wrong, then, in turn, I’m gonna process that data. So my math is gonna be off. And that’s a product of the weather model getting bad data to run off of and the weather model not seeing a feature within its equations. So if its garbage in, I’m gonna get garbage out. So if the weather model produces a sub-optimal representation of the atmosphere, well, of course, the image I produce from that data is gonna be off. That is a big problem within the weather model world and people are actively working to fix that.

I noticed on your website you said you were having particular trouble with Florida and the Western Carolinas. Why is that?
I think the Western Carolinas problem is fixed. I had to do with the moisture distribution, especially with water or a tropical environment. So the model sees a lot of water and doesn’t think it will be a good sunset, but it’s a tropical environment and the atmospheric factors are slightly different. But we have made modifications to it that have pretty much taken care of that issue.

I also noticed on your website you have a “case study” section, which was just pictures of sunsets compared to your map. How did that case study work? Did you just round up some volunteers?
That was the work of Jacob DeFlitch and Ben. What they did is, people were tweeting those photos at us. We just went on our Twitter account and asked them, “Can we use this for our case study?” and they said “sure”. And then we asked them where they took the picture and so we just complied a list of images and verified them against the forecast.

It sounds like social media has been a key factor in testing your program.
Yes. It’s been a key factor in testing the program. It’s also been a key factor in getting the word out. The Twitter account lights up if there’s supposed to be a great sunset in the big cities. We get a fair amount from the barrier islands, either on the Outer Banks or near the Outer Banks.

In the future, where are you going with this program? Are you developing an app?
Yes. We’re working on an app development, but that’s really, you know, we all have full time jobs. I pretty much have a full time job as a student. And the three others, Ben and Jake and, I’m working with another person, Justin Lowery, to develop the app. He actually goes to school in Charlotte, NC. So we’re slowly developing an app, and getting ready to go along that route. There’s no promises for a release date or anything. We’re just playing this day-to-day.

What do you think the app will look like? Am I gonna get a push notification that says, “Hey, you should wake up early and watch the sunrise?”
Yes. That’s gonna be one of the features of the app.

What do you think some of the implications are of this? How can people use this technology?
One of the implications to using this technology is to bring tangibility to the forecast. When people view a weather model on the news, there’s all these spaghetti models and that, “Oh, it could go this way or it could go that way.” In the public eye it’s just like, “Well, you don’t know what’s gonna happen.” But for a sunset, those variables are a bit more tame and it allows the ser to see that forecast on the image and then go outside and actually look at it and there it is, right in front of the user. It’s just happening right in front of you. I think it relates the weather forecasts and an element of the weather, because the weather does control the sunset, how vivid it is and everything. So it brings a degree of tangibility and it allows you to bond with the forecast.

Do you see any possible business implications of this? Like people planning their weddings around it or sunset cruises, things like that? Booking services based on the sunset forecast?
Yeah. I mean, obviously those are applications you can get from this. But I’m just your programmer. I have no business experience whatsoever. But yeah, we’ve had landscape photographers plan their days around the sunset and sunrise forecasts.

So what are you learning in school about being a weatherman? People around here love to hate on a bad forecast.
I’m in my sophomore year, so I’m just getting done with the prerequisites. A lot of math and a tremendous amount of physics and calculus and three-dimensional calculus and all these forces in physics and everything. We’re just learning fundamentals so that in the major-specific classes we have those topics already taught to us.

I gotta commend you for that. I barely made it out of calculus alive.
Oh trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

Well thank you for taking to time out to talk to me then. What’s next for yourself and the project?
Well, I think that I’m gonna work with Justin on brainstorming about the app and everything. And probably refining the algorithm even further. We released a new color scheme for the sunrise algorithm late last night. It’s just attending to and modifying the algorithm and also working on the next step of SunsetWx, which I believe is the app.

Is there any other weather-related phenomenon you’re working on right now?>
Nope. Just sunsets and sunrises. That’s it. — Katrina Leuzinger-Owens


Dare Detention Center’s head explains how our community can create criminals, and how former criminals can become part of our community again.

About 90 percent of the inmates at Dare County Detention Center are locals. That means when they’re released, most will end up right back here, where they can choose to make the same mistakes — or become productive members of our community. According to Allen Moran, a lot of that decision hinges on how they spend their time behind bars.

At 28 years old, Captain Allen Moran may be the facility’s youngest Jail Administrator ever, but that hasn’t stopped him from making an impact. In his first year, the Manteo native’s helped reduce costs by over $200,000, using the money to fund several reform programs aimed at keeping inmates from becoming repeat offenders. Already, the facility’s seen a decrease in the amount of fights on the inside. Moran now hopes to see even greater results on the outside.

“I think, obviously, if it affects one inmate coming out and not going back down the same path that he was, it’s worth it,” says Moran. “That’s one person not stealing from somebody, not being a drug addict, and actively participating in the community and society itself.”

We sat down with the soft-spoken former sheriff just as Hurricane Joaquin was brushing the coast to discuss the role of addiction on crime, how our little local jail differs from big state facilities, and why his real goal is to eventually get fired. — Katrina Leuzinger

This interview was conducted in Oct. 2015 and originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.

MILEPOST: What is your exact job title at the Detention Center?
CAPTAIN ALLEN MORAN: Jail Administrator.

How old are you?

Wow. That’s impressive. You’re awfully young to be the guy in charge.
Well I started with the Sheriff’s office when I was 20 years old, then six years of patrol, and then I did another two years in investigations.

How long have you been the Jail Administrator now?
Just a year.

Where are you from originally?
Manteo. Born and raised.

What brought you into this field?
I had a good friend who was a Deputy when I was in High School and he started asking, “Hey, you want to come ride along with me?” I think the first time I rode around I was doing a career day piece for my Junior year in High School and so I got in the car with him and he got a domestic call with lights and sirens and from then on I was hooked.

Why did you end up more on the administrative side of things?
When I went into investigations the slot that I took was financial crimes. I didn’t really have a lot of interest in it at first, but it was a plainclothes position and a promotion. You don’t turn that down. So I took it and I came to actually love the financial side of it. And from that when the Administrator spot came up- it’s a lot of financial things. Doing their budget. So the Sheriff came and asked me if I’d be interested in doing the job.

What does a typical day at your job look like?
I come in and check the population. See who’s come in overnight. If we had any incidents, say, someone’s gone to the hospital for medical, or a fight, any incidents. You kind of put out the small fires as you go. And then the rest of it’s just employee management. We have 56 employees at the jail. So that’s 56 lives, all with families. A lot of employee management that comes along with it.

What would you say the function of Dare Detention Center is and how does that compares to a State facility?
At a local facility the majority of our inmates are pretrial. So they’ve been arrested or charged with the crime and the bond’s been set, but they haven’t been able to make that bond for whatever reason so we’re holding them until their court date. We do have some inmates that are serving sentences of six months or less. Whereas a state facility is all sentenced inmates. So if we have somebody for breaking and entering we’ll house them up till their court date. Then once the judge sentences them they serve the remainder of their sentence with the state.

How long are most of the inmates typically in for?
That’s a real big number. That fluctuates. We’ll have folks that stay two weeks with us, and then right now we have a fella that’s been with us for about four years and still hasn’t been to trial. He’s still presumed innocent, but he’s lost four years of is life.

Wow. What’s going on with that guy? Why is it taking so long?
A lot of it comes down to backlog in government, all the way from the judicial system being backlogged and not getting enough trial dates to the state lab being backed up. It takes roughly two and a half years; you know, if somebody gets a DWI and their blood is sent to the lab to find their alcohol concentration it takes about two and a half years to get that back. So if someone’s bonded and they can’t make their bond on a DWI they could theoretically sit there for two and a half years waiting for their trial.

That doesn’t strike me as the most efficient system ever.
No. And the new district attorney we have, Andy Womble, he works really well with us. He came into office about the same time I was promoted so we both kind of reached out towards each other as far as seeing that there was an issue. We have a pretty good working relationship. If we have somebody that’s been there a long time I’ll call him and say, “Hey, this guys been here a long time.” And he’ll push it along to get it through our system. That’s helped us a lot in the last year or so.

How many inmates do you usually have?
An average of about 65.

Has that gone up or down since it’s inception?
It has gone down. It was right about 80 for a long time. It dropped down to 65. And then, for really no reason we know of, last February it jumped up to about 90 or so and stayed there for about 30 days. Then it went back to the 40’s. Now it’s leveled back off at the 60’s.

Any theories on what made it jump up in February?
It was my first winter, but looking back at the local winters it really doesn’t happen. But maybe with the really cold winter. We do have a really large portion of homeless folks here on the Outer Banks. I don’t know if… Obviously, there wasn’t 20 of them that came in, but those that don’t have a better housing situation may have been more apt to stay with us then try to get out.

Do you think the homeless are a big portion of the Detention population?
A lot of the homeless community they’ll come in for shoplifting. I call it petty crime. Shoplifting $10 worth of snack and drink at 7-11. Well they don’t have the $500 to get out of jail, so they’ll sit there for ten days to three months. So what I’ve started doing is once they get there for ten days- which is normal. If they’re going to go into court and plead guilty the max they’re gonna get is ten days in jail. So I’ll wait for them to get there, call the D.A.’s office and try to facilitate to get them their time served and move on. But a lot of those guys, they don’t have the means so they’ll sit there in jail and cost the county money for days and days.

Is that typical? Steal $10 from 7-11- $500 bond?
Well what they do is they put consideration in your criminal history and past actions. So if you’re stealing stuff from 7-11 every three months then your bond will stay higher. Typically, your bond is a reflection of flight risk and past criminal history. They kind of weigh the two out.

Are a lot of people at the Detention Center repeat offenders?
I don’t know an official number, but I would say the majority are repeat offenders.

What’s the typical inmate look like?
It’s funny, because we have to send a number to the state all the time. Quarterly, we have to send out stats and at least every other time somebody will call or send an email back saying, “Are you sure your numbers are correct?” because our typical inmate is 25-35 year old white male. That’s not the norm for most facilities. We stay at about 90-95% Caucasian.

Why do you think that is?
Well I think a lot of it’s our population.

The demographics.
Yeah, I think Dare County’s pretty close to that. But most facilities don’t have that matching demographics.

Is it just the racial demographics that stand out as unusual or the age as well?
I think the age as well. Ours tend to be a little older. I think the typical inmate in other facilities is somewhere between 18-25, whereas ours is 25-35.

Why do you think that is?
I think probably lack of careers and full time employment here. That’s kind of the age where you’re expected to have a career. Here, with the lack of it, I think they kind of loose vision and drive and go in the opposite direction.

What are they usually in for?
Mostly narcotics or related to narcotics.

Selling or using?
A mix of both. You know, back in the 80’s and 90’s crack was the big thing everywhere, and there was one central dealer and a bunch of users. In today’s world pills are a huge thing, and you kind of see where it’s not one specific dealer. It’s whoever has some at that moment and will sell or give some to friends. So I think you’re seeing a lot more folks get arrested and charged for dealing that…they may have been dealing at the moment but…

It’s not their career path. Just everybody needs to make a few extra bucks.
Yeah. And then we see that a lot with property crimes. You see a lot of folks breaking into homes and stealing things or stealing from cars. Since I’ve been in it I think I’ve seen one inmate that- you know, a lot of them talk to me and I enjoy it. I worked on the street for close to six years and no one wants to talk to a cop. But in there everybody will talk to you. And I haven’t met one yet that stole something that wasn’t doing it to support their habit, whatever it may be; cocaine heroine, or pills. It’s all directly related to that.

How does the Dare Detention Center population compare to those in larger cities?
I would say most of our inmates are… I hate to say “innocent”, but “innocent in spirit”. They’re not mean. They’re you typical next-door neighbor, who made a bad decision and wound up in jail.

It sounds like addiction is a reoccurring theme here.
Absolutely. I think it’s the underlying cause of all the inmates that are in there, one way or another.

Are there any programs around here aimed at helping those people before they end up with you?
New Horizons, they’re a counseling program, they have Catisha Bryant who actually teaches a Helping Women Recover class at the jail, but she also teaches at New Horizons. That’s how we found out about them. So we brought her in, partnering with Social Services to provide that class to the female inmates.

Do you ever have issues with overcrowding?
We don’t. We’re lucky. Most facilities do. Our facility has 134 beds and we’re currently around 65. And we’re working with the state to house state inmates for other facilities to relieve their overcrowding, but it also makes money for the county. And we’re able to do it without hiring more staff, without adding cost to the county.

There seems to be two basic schools of thought concerning inmates: That you should lock them up and throw away the key, or put more of an epenthesis on rehabilitation and reintegrating people into society. Where do you fall on that?
I think I’m down the middle of the road. I think there’s a time and place where folks aren’t wanting the help, and if they continue to show that they can’t change and can’t be helped and can’t actively participate in society, then at some point you gotta look at them as maybe being a lost cause. But the majority of our folks are 25-35 years old. They’re young adults that have a whole future ahead of them. We have a number of programs at the jail to try to restart, give them some satisfaction and completion. Recovery Innovations is a North Carolina program. They come in and they do counseling with the men. It’s a three step, three six week courses, and they get a certificate at the end. (The courses) are “Making Changes”, “Moving Beyond Anger”, and “Healthy Boundaries”. They’re all geared around getting beyond the addiction and everyone looking at you as “you’re an addict” or “you’re a criminal” and how they get back into society. The good part about that is, Recovery Innovations, Dave Edmonds is the instructor and he’s an ex-con, so he really relates one-on-one with the guys. It’s neat watching him interact with them. And we now have A.A. and N.A. at for the male and female population, as well as we partner with the C.O.A. They come in and teach an employability class. It’s geared towards getting a job, keeping a job, and also has an emphasis on how to deal with having to check the box that says, “I’m a convicted felon”. You kind of go ahead and address the elephant in the room. I think it’s a great thing for everyone so when they get out they have means. During that class they get to make a resume with the instructor they can take with them when they get out.

I know a lot of places I’ve worked they tick that box and their resume goes straight in the paper shredder.
Right. So it really helps them say, “Yes, I’m a convicted felon, but I’ve changed my life and this is what I have to offer.” And really deal with it by confronting it. It’s a really neat class.

So they’re teaching spin basically?
Yeah. Exactly.

How do you think that rehabilitation impacts our community?
I think obviously if it affects one inmate coming out and not going back down the same path that he was it’s worth it. Any more than one is just extra. That one person going back out into the community and not stealing from somebody and not being a drug addict; actively participating in the community and society itself, there’s no telling what they could come out and do. And the good thing is, Dare County is full of volunteers and resources. I didn’t know half the resources until I started looking into them for the jail. Like the Dare Literacy Council. They come in once a week and teach the guys math and reading skills. Some of them dropped out of school in third grade so they truly don’t know how to read. Just learning how to read has got to be a huge help for them when they come out. We did a- we call it a reentry guide. Essentially it’s a brochure that has all the resources in Dare County, from Social Services to Recovery Innovations to New Horizons to community foundations, all with the name and contact numbers and addresses. And we give that to every inmate as they’re walking out the door. Because we found that a lot of them, when they were leaving, didn’t know these things existed. I mean, I didn’t know any of these things existed, and I kind of think of myself as being pretty aware of what’s going on in the community. You can’t expect them to know what resources are available to them. It at least gives them an option instead of walking out, no money in their pocket, trying to think of how they’re gonna make money. That’s probably the easiest chance for them to go back down the wrong road.

I’m curious, because you said so many people are in for addiction related offenses, how much medical services play into the process. Like, do you have people going through withdrawal when they come in?
Absolutely. We have quite a number of folks that come through that go through withdrawal. We have what we call “withdrawal protocol”. It’s a packet of some medicines and vitamins that- if you come in and say, “I think I’m gonna go through withdrawal” we start them on this. It’s a five-day course of medicine and it downplays the withdrawal. It doesn’t negate all the symptoms, but it keeps anybody from dying. And then we also keep them on medical observation during the five days. We keep them up front, away from general population, and keep a closer eye on them.

So that is something you guys have the capability to handle in-house.
Yeah. We do. And that’s been something that all facilities have come up with their own protocol plans as they went along, because there was no standard procedure for dealing with half your population going through withdrawal.

When did that change?
We started the withdrawal protocol in 2011-2012, so it’s been going a few years.

We talked some already about the rehabilitation programs you have. I already talked the your volunteer coordinator, Carol Hartman, about that, and the picture she gave me is that you had a few programs before, and then you received new funding to start some new programs.
We moved some funding around. We’re doing a lot of medical things in-house. Years ago, we used to, any time somebody had a mental illness we’d send them to Raleigh to the state prison, because they had a psych ward. But we were paying $55 a day just for them to be there plus whatever medical expenses came along with that. So the previous gentleman Dare hired, we’ve kept him on, Dr. Coy he’s a tele-psychiatrist. He was actually the state psychiatrist for state prisons for a number of years then retired from the state and went into private practice. So what we do now is he sees them, all out mental illness patients, he sees them through the TV. So he’s not on-site, but he remotely sees them. We pay him monthly, and we’ve cut our costs by close to $200,000. So the county was gracious enough to take a portion of that and give it back to us to invest in programs for the inmates. And I truly believe, and obviously the commissioners did as well, that investing back in the programs will be a good investment.

What programs did you have before and what were you able to start with these funds?
Before it was just five church groups that came in and A.A.

And the church groups did…?
They hold church and Bible study type class. But now we have five church groups still. We have A.A. and N.A. for both the male and female. We have the females’ Helping Women Recover Class, and the Recovery Innovations class for males, and then the Dare Literacy Council for math and reading tutoring, and the C.O.A. employability class.

Those programs have been going for how long now?
Some of them have been going on for about six months. We kind of shot gunned them; as we got one we’d go and look to do another. I think the first one started a little over a year ago and the latest was the tutoring. We started that approximately three months ago.

What improvements have you seen since these were implemented?
The biggest change that we’ve seen is the lack of aggression and fights between the inmates themselves. We never had a whole lot of violence towards officers. Just typically there’s always been a fairly high level of respect from the officers to the inmates but also from the inmates back to the officers. But in the last year I think we’ve seen two fights between inmates. Before it was anywhere between 20-30 a year. That’s a substantial difference.

Carol Hartman told me that you’re applying for continued funding for these programs.
You know, the county is willing to continue the funding, but I’ve been looking at some grant options, either through the state or the state Health and Human Services board. Just been reaching out to different agencies throughout the state and federal level. Grants for, whether it be funds for the programs that we have or equipment, projectors or computers for the classes, or just materials in general. But this year Dare County is continuing the funding. I don’t foresee any reason for them not to.

So if the inmates are convicted then do they get sent to state?
It’s really a mix. The ones that stay with us for three years before their trial, they’re normally in for pretty serious crimes. Most of them come from families or do not have the means themselves to pay the bond to get out. So when they do go to court, a lot of them get “time served” because they’ve been in for two years or they’ll get “time served” plus additional time. We have one inmate that’s been with us for three years. He was found guilty and he was sentenced to three and a half years. So he’s finishing his last six months with us. If he were sentenced for four years we would have had to send him to Raleigh, because he can only house sentenced inmates for six months or under.

Once they’re released, are most of them back here in the community?
Yeah. The state will try to get them as close to their home county- and when they say their home county that’s wherever they were convicted at- they will try to get them as close to their home county as possible. So say you’re doing a year and a half sentence at state, you may do most of your time at Polk or Green county, but three months before you’re released they’ll try to transfer you if they can to Tyrell county work camp, just for ease for everybody.

You told me earlier about 90% of the jail population are locals. So most of those people ultimately end up living back around here right.
Yeah, and we don’t get a high rate of folks that end up going to the state prison anyway. I would say we maybe send 10-15 a year to transfer to state prison.

What are some of your favorite success stories?
The best is there’s a young lady who was with is. Young. She was probably maybe 18 or 19. Was in for narcotics charges. While she was there she was kind of a mess. She was just full of herself. Never any serious trouble, but always was getting writ up for something. We talked her into going to the Helping Women Recover class and she attended six or seven of the classes and then she got out. The week after she got out, she attended the class on the outside at New Horizons. Which is out ultimate goal; for them to be that interested that they seek it outside when they could easily be going to a movie or hanging out at the beach. Instead, they’re going to a recovery class. So as far as programs and stuff go that’s a highlight.

What about some less successful stories?
We had a fella that we helped. Ms. Hartman, she helps inmates get into recovery programs and rehab facilities throughout the state. She helps them line up places that are suitable for them, whether it be a long-term or short-term facility. And she worked with one fella for about six months to get him to a long-term treatment place. He stayed about three days, got out, and then wound up back here in Dare County and got re-arrested on new charges on the forth day. Full circle.

How do you convince inmates to break that pattern?
My biggest thing is letting them know that you’re just a normal guy too. I try to go down to the housing units themselves at least once a day and just talk with them. Have that one-on-one chatter. If nothing else, just sit down at the table and talk with four or five of them. I think once they see that you do care, that you’re not just talking at them, you’re talking to them, I think that truly helps break through to them.

What can people in this community do to keep their families and loved ones from becoming this sort of stereotype?
I would say the biggest thing is involvement, whether it be family involvement or, especially for kids, involvement in something with structure, whether it be sports or band or drama or church or whatever, it truly helps young people. It gives them not only something to do, but something to look forward to, and gives them a group of friends they can connect with. You know, peer pressure can be good just as much as it can be bad.

What do you see for the future of the Dare Detention Center?
I would say it’s one of the few jobs where your job is to work yourself out of work.

That’s an interesting way to describe it.
Well if you think about it, your whole job is to reduce recidivism, and ultimately your goal is to shut the doors down because you don’t have anybody to house.

That’s interesting that that’s the way you describe your job- going back to the lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality- some would argue that your job is to keep them in and have them serve their time.
I guess, having dealt with addiction in my own family’s life, that puts a different perspective on it for everybody. Everybody knows somebody or has a family member that’s either been in the judicial system or is an addict. So I think that everybody at some point has a soft spot in their heart for them. But you gotta be soft and steel at the same time.

So where do you think the facility’s going? Is it growing? Shrinking? Changing?
Hopefully it’s shrinking as far as population goes. I think as more services are added in Dare County and more services are readily available to young people and older folks I think you may see less folks in the jail. I’d like to partner with some rehab facilities- try to have a working relationship with them, not only when they’re with us, but have a direct gateway, when they’re released they can go straight into a rehab facility. Not have any down time where they can have second thoughts about going.

Well you’ve got your soapbox here. Is there any one message you’d like to communicate to the public?
I guess it all comes back to, like I was saying, Dare County’s got a huge volunteer base. We are always looking for volunteers, whether it be come in and volunteer your time or if you want to donate $20 to the programs. It can buy highlighters for the guys or buy a book for the women’s class. Every little bit helps. As the story with the girl who went to the class outside, it does touch them at some point.

How would people get involved if they want to volunteer or donate?
Well they can call the jail or call me at 475-9220, or email me at, or mail at 1044 Driftwood dr. Manteo.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I think that’s it. I appreciate you doing this.


Sandy Sanderson has held only two Outer Banks jobs in 40 years. But what he did with those two positions still impacts every level of public safety. As a Nags Head police officer hired in the late 70s, the Moyock native and Navy vet helped train the first EMTs, institute helicopter medical flights and create the whole ocean rescue program — including being the first coastal community in America. to employ jet skis and ATVs. And he took the same approach as Dare County’s Director of Emergency Management: using technology and teamwork to solve problems before they could happen. But with one big difference.

“Once I turned in my blue siren, if you had to call me, we were talking about some major problems,” laughs the 69-year-old Kill Devil Hills resident. “Usually hurricanes.”

A lot of them. Beginning in 1993, Sanderson led the evacuation and recovery for every landfalling system from Emily to Arthur — and all the near misses in-between. Along the way, he helped Dare County earn a national reputation for hurricane preparedness. In August 2014, Sanderson retired, handing the reins to former Coast Guard captain and current director, Drew Pearson. But with the Atlantic experiencing one of the quietest tropical seasons in recent memory, it seemed like the perfect time to ask Sanderson how Dare County handles disasters. So the next time a storm has us in its cross hairs, we know what to expect — and how react.

“That’s what Emergency Management is all about,” says Sanderson. “Making sure that you’re getting information into the public’s hands so they can make good decisions. After that, it’s up to them.” — Matt Walker

This interview was conducted in June 2015 and originally appeared in the Issue 4.2

Can you spell your name for me?
Nathaniel is my given name. I’ve been going by Sandy since I was 4 years old.

How old are you now?

Where are you from originally?
My home is Moyock. Up in Currituck. So I’m not far from being a native.

How did you end up here then?
It was a roundabout way. I went to high school in Currituck, obviously. I graduated from Knapp High School in 64. From there I went and served in the Navy. I came back from the Navy in 1972. I went to Old Dominion University and got an undergraduate degree in criminal justice. And at the time I was commuting back and forth from Moyock, because I had a place to stay for free rent. I was living off the GI Bill, commuting and working part time jobs. But I got a job with the fire department there. Emergency medical services was just getting its foot in the door at the state level. I became an EMT, and then an EMT instructor, CPR instructor, that sort of thing. When I finished my degrees at Old Dominion, I started looking for a job. And I ran into the city manager of Nags Head — the first one Nags Head had — at an Emergency Medical Services Regional meeting. We got to talking about jobs and things of that nature and he said, “Would you be interested in a job in Nags Head as a police officer?” And I said, “Well send me an application.” And from there I was hired in Nags Heads in ‘76, as a police officer, with the understanding that I would teach EMT classes to the police officers. And that escalated into teaching more classes in the county. So I was the first EMT instructor in the county.

So that’s how I got started in Nags Head. And I stayed there until ’93. And I moved from that position into the emergency management position. So I’ve only had two jobs in 40 years. So I’ve been very fortunate.

So, when you want to Nags Head, did you head up all emergency response stuff?
No, back then, it was all volunteer — except for the sheriff’s department who ran ambulances in station wagons. And they finally graduated to being EMTs. Bascially they were just sheriffs deputies who picked someone up and carried them up to Dr. Charlie Wright in Harbinger. From there it escalated into a paid service. But I never was in charge of any kind of EMS service except helicopter operations when we started the helicopter operations. And I was charged with training people flying on the helicopters through East Carolina School of Health.

When was that?
I started the helicopter in 1977.

Is that when we got one? Or did they send one?
The then Sheriff, Frank Cahoon, got a surplus helicopter from DOD in ‘73 or ‘74. And they trained several sheriffs deputies as pilots, but it truly didn’t have a function. It was here, they could use it — it was a B Model Huey helicopter like the old Vietnam era helicopters. They hired a trained Army pilot who was a reservist, or National Guard, who became more involved. And I finally went over and said, “Hey, I have Vietnam experience, you’re a pilot, we can transport these serious patients in that Huey a lot quicker than we can over ground.” About the same time, Outer Banks Medical Center was opened. It was next to where Britthaven is now in Nags Head. That was our first official medical center on the beach. Dr. Horton was over on the Manteo side. But Clarence Skinner was the administrator then. And we said, “If you build a helo pad out in front — which is still there if you go look at it — we can land and take patients to wherever a lot quicker than you can transport with the station wagon ambulances we’re using now.” And we did. And that involved training people to ride in back. At the time, we were only able to train up to an EMS intermediate level, but we were able to set up basic life support, stabilize the patient and transport them. And most of them either went to Chesapeake, Norfolk or Elizabeth City. Elizabeth City was a 13-minute run and we would land right in front on the grass in front of the hospital.

And would you fly with them, too?
Yeah. I was their main tech in the back.

How busy would you be in the summertime?
Well, in summertime, we’d go out three or four times a week.

So it definitely came in handy.
Oh yeah, we saved a lot of lives. We pre-dated Nightingale by about a year.

Wow. I bet the choppers looked different, too.
They were flying Bell jets and we had the old B-model. They were a little hesitant about starting our own service until they realized we were taking all our patients to them. So we were saving them a lot of money and they were reaping the benefits of our high-dollar patients. Because we were only taking our most severe patients out of the clinic that needed immediate attention. So they were getting the heart attacks and head injuries and broken bones, and all the things that were happening down here. And we became friends after that.
What was your exact title when you retired?
Director of Emergency Management.

That’s obviously a different role
Entirely different.

So how’d you end up there?
Well, in my career I’ve been a lifeguard, I’ve been a police officer , I’ve been a fireman, I’ve been an EMT. I’ve been all the thing that you would think an emergency manager would have a background in. So when they offered that position, I applied and was fortunate enough to get the job.

And that was in ‘93. Was that when they created the position?
Oh no. Before then there was George Spence, who was the local emergency manger, and then Buddy Shelton came along. And I replaced Buddy.

I’m assuming things have changed a lot since when you came in and left. Or is still the same basic function?
Well, emergency management function stayed primarily the same. You’re charged with ensuring the evaluation and protection of the county that you’re responsible for — for all hazards. So, there’ a lot of plan-writing. A lot of interaction with the state and FEMA to ensure that all the plans that are in place to support the state and FEMA response are maintained and updated and that the information is current. Along with responding to serious disasters. When I got the job, I turned in my blue-light siren and got into my regular car. If you had to call me for an emergency, there were some major problems. Fire departments and police departments handle all the local responses. The emergency manger was responsible for ensuring that you’re prepard for hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding — those kinds of problems. So I maintained our emergency operations center. I made sure that it was staffed and had the necessary equipment and was able to sustain itself during a disaster.

So when thing shit the fan, that’s when your job kicked.
When we are declared a state of emergency then emergency becomes the lead agency within the county and it provides information to all the other municipalities and our supporting agencies.

So you’re in charge.
I’m the go-to guy. The overhead responsibility still belongs with he chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the county and the mayors within the municipalities. But they’re looking to emergency management as a guide. And I’m the guy who collects all the information and intelligence and supports them.

So when you do start implementing your role, then you deal with the firemen and police and such, so being on that side of the equation for 20 years has to be helpful because you were on the ground.
I knew what they needed. I knew what questions they should be asking me. And if they weren’t asking me, I was able to provide them with the input they needed. That was the kind of luxury that I had with the background I had. Local knowledge is the key in any kind of emergency response — the ability for the person who is there inside the operational theatre to recognize the problems that he incident is going to create.

You need to be able to predict what’s coming down the pike. Even 20 years later, we’re a much more modern society. 1993 was pre-Internet, pre-drones, pre- webcams. What was it like when you first came on?
We were just getting into computers — what was it, 84, 86 when computers were coming in. I think DOS was the program of choice that you could use. So that was just becoming a part of technology for emergency management for public safety. But we tried to incorporate that into the emergency operations center as we developed our response capabilities. So technology is a big part of the evolution through my 20 years in emergency management. Being able to bring that technology in now an capitalize on what it can do for providing real time information and getting it front of not only the decision makers but the public. So now we’ve transitioned into having cameras all over the county so you can see the road traffic to having social media to where you are instantaneously questioned about everything you do. The media has capitalized on that, so now they have access to everything and they want access to everything that you do in regard to whatever the situation may be.

So that has become an area you have to address, and we tried to do that as best as possible. Through our public information officers. Through our IT department. and it’s a challenge because technology changes — what? — they say every 18 months something new comes along to replace whatever was previous? Government can’t work that fast. We have to buy according to a budget. And we may turn over technology – if we’re fortunate — every three years. But usually it’s every five years. The technology that is out there, the tracking programs, the software, typically you are able to purchase that on a yearly basis and it will be able to satisfy the needs you have for 3 or 5 years. So that’s a challenge: keeping up to speed on the technology and the ability to utilize that technology.

What was the first hurricane you had to deal with?
Emily in 1993. And prior to that, we had a winter storm. I hadn’t been here 10 days. It flooded all of Manteo. It was a huge snow storm in the wet and up north . And it went all the way from Florida up into Maine. That was my first presidential declaration. It was of a state of emergency and out of that it became a federal emergency for all the county and the states involved.

And after that, Emily came along toward the end of August. And that was my first hurricane here as an emergency management person. Emily was a category 3 that approached Hatteras and veered just offshore about 20 miles — the eye of the storm. So we probably got 110 mile an hour winds in Hatteras up to about Oregon Inlet. it was fairly severe impact for that era. And we go t another presidential declaration out of it. It took us a while because were the only county that was seriously impacted. I know we initially asked the governor to make the request to the president and the first attempt was denied. And we had to go back and reassess our damage to get more dollars. Because a percentage of your tax base is used as part of your determination of your presidential declaration. So it took us ten days to two weeks to get our presidential declaration — which frees up dollars, is what it amounts to, to help citizens get back on their feet.

So FEMA money.

Describe the atmosphere at the time as you saw this thing coming up the coast. Were you nervous?
Well, certainly your first hurricane. Back then we were just beginning to utilize radar that could be used to visualize the eye of the storm as it was moving toward you. We were just beginning to use the hurricane tracking program — called Hurrevac — that FEMA produced. So that was a big help in identifying the track of the storm and looking out 72 hours, which at the time was as far out as it would project the track of the storm and its intensity. But it gave us a pretty good idea. So we had a full-blown evacuation for the county and from that we were able to ensure that everybody had plenty of times to secure their properties and get out for those that wanted get out.

You said you had a 3 day update. Now we there’s a 5-day projection where people can at least feel like they know what’s going on. But at that point was there a magic cut-off point where it was like, “Ok, we have to evacuate”. Describe the tension when it’s like ”Everybody leave.” Especially in July, when I’m sure there’ s pressure to say, “Don’t everybody leave.”
There really isn’t. Because we’ve developed what I call ‘the rules of engagement’ that we go by. We have certain points that we follow for determining if we’re going to have an evacuation and what that evacuation involves and how it evolves. One, we evacuate for all hurricanes. If at 48 hours, it looks like the track of the storm is going to impact anywhere in Dare County, that will trigger an evacuation.

So that’s Cat One or above.
All hurricanes. Anything 74 miles an hour or above we’re going to be making the call. That is a trigger. Every evacuation is a mandatory evacuation. We try to make sure that we start our evacuations at early daylight. So in the timing scheme, that means if it looks like it’s going to make landfall a day ahead of time from that 48 hour period then we’ll back up another day to ensure everyone has time to get out. We know that it take 18 hours or so to get people off the island. And that gives us a full day of travel. Usually during the time you have hurricanes, you have some portion of daylight from 5am to after 9pm. So you have a wide window of opportunity there to ensure that people have time to get out.

And once you‘ve made those determinations — and once you’ve seen what the hurricane is doing and the track it’s forecast to take — it becomes relatively easy to make the decision. We have the tools now that can show us and demonstrate to us that we’re fairly comfortable with and that give us the information so we’re comfortable in making those decisions.

Every once in a while, you’re going to get broadsided by a hurricane — Mother Nature being what she is. Felix, in ’95, probably would’ve been the worst storm that we had had in years because it was coming perpendicular to the coast. And it was projected to make landfall somewhere in the Kitty Hawk/Southern Shores area. at 110-115mph. And that is the worst-case scenario for any kind of landfalling storm is coming right straight onshore. You’ve got the right side quadrant winds that are going to impact the coastline, dramatically.

So what did Felix do? Felix shot off the coast about 200 miles and stopped —I mean, just flat stopped right there — because of a high pressure system, a front that was moving down. And w knew it was coming at is, but we didn’t know the timing. So went ahead and made the declaration for an evacuation just for the safety factor. I mean, you’ve got 300,000 people down here that you can’t take a chance on whether or not she’s going to stop. She may stop right over the Wright Memorial Bridge.

But luckily she stopped offshore and stayed there about 24 hours before she moved northeast. And so the only thing we got was a little bit of rain — and some great surf. So those are the kinds fo things that will complicate your decision making. But if you stick by the rules of engagement you’re going to err on the side of safety. And that’s what Emergency Management is all about: making sure that you’re getting information into the public’s hands so they can make good decisions. Because what it all boils down to is an individual decision on the part of the person who is impacted by whatever that threat may be. And in this case it’s hurricanes. So we try to put the information in front of you, so you can make a good decision.

How often to the people who live here make good decisions? I know we’ve yet evacuate.
Why is that?

Well, the only big storm we’ve had to deal with the past 10 years is Irene. And we boarded up and hunkered down.
Irene would’ve been the one you should’ve left for.

Probably. But I think the general consensus is we’re more prepared here. People who go inland seem to get stuck for days with no power. It seems we recover faster and hold up better. I don’t know why…
Good emergency management. [grins]

You’re kidding, but we do have better codes. And we’re more used to the storms. Why do you think people don’t leave as often?
We have had multiple attempts to try to determine what the factors are that keep people here. And it runs the gamut from “We don’t have any way to take care of our pets” to “we don’t have money” to “we don’t have a place to go.” But the biggest one is, “I won’t be able to get back.” Which, when you think about it: How crazy is that? I mean, if you feel like you need to leave. And you’re threatened, but you won’t leave because you can’t get back? Then you’re just, to me, telling the world, I’m dumb enough to sit through a hurricane. Because what we’re trying tell you is, “It’s not safe for you to be here in hurricane. And leaving is your best opportunity to save your life.” And you’re telling me, “I can’t leave because I can’t get back.” [laughs] but that is typically the answer I get from locals. “It’s too hard to get back.”

You have to have had these talks with other places. I’m sure you go to emergency management conferences where there’s guys from VB or Florida. Is that a coastal thing? Or is it an Outer Banks thing?
No, it’s a universal thing for the people that have been impacted by a hurricane. You go down to the Keys and talk to year round residents there — the Conchs, so to speak — and they’ll tell you the same thing. “We ain’t leaving because we know we can’t get back.” Or “I’ve been here 3 generations and my family has never left. Or “We’ve been through three hurricanes and never had any problems.” Those are the kinds of answers you get from the locals. And hat’s unfortunate, because every storm has it’ own characteristics. And every track has its own determining factors on the damage potential. A good example is Arthur. Arthur was a Category 3 hurricane. It came ashore south of us as a Category 2 . But it was moving so fast it didn’t cause much damage, really. Most of the damage was south of Oregon Inlet.

It was like stripe. The tri-villages took it all.
And it moved through so quickly that it really didn’t cause any damage down there, other than a brief, high soundside [flood]. So people think, “Oh, Category 2, Arthur didn’t cause any problems.” But the next Category 2 could be slow-moving, 8mph hurricane , and that’s going to cause some major damage. Because it’s moving so slow, you’re gonna go through probably 2 or 3 high tide cycles and it’s going to build storm surge that will crate the flooding that you saw during Irene. We’re fortunate here in that you will probably never see a Category 4 or category 5 hurricane this far north. Hazel was probably Category 4 as it came shore at the North Carolina/South Carolina line. And it caused significant damage — an 18-foot-high storm surge as it came it at that area. And it wreaked havoc all the way to New York. But the 1s and 2s with different characteristics can cause some major damage to the Outer Banks. And you have to realize you live on a barrier island. You’re living on a sand pile. Mother Nature could care less about Dare County or the outer banks. It doesn’t even recognize the Outer Banks as a land mass. It could care less.

So you have to think about that. I think a lot of times we lose track of that thought and we’re becoming very complacent in our attitude toward the hurricane threat. That concerns me and it has for a long time. We’re losing our protective barrier, frontal dune system. Yeah, we’re gonna replace some of it with a beach but not a dune. And if you get that perpendicular storm that Felix represented and it makes landfall somewhere in Nags Head, Waves, Salvo— it’s not the skinny black line you’re worried about. It’s everything on the righthand side for about 50 miles. It’s going to impact the coastline dramatically.

You look at Katrina and what it did to New Orleans. What you don’t see is what it did to Alabama and Mississippi. It devastated that area. They’re still recovering from Katrina. They had a storm surge down there of, I think, 25 to 27 feet. Yes the beach configuration is a little different, the bottom profile. The ocean is conducive to higher storm surges. But that’s what could happen to us. If that does happen, because we have a reluctant population, you may see some dramatic loss of life. Certainly the potential for it. Especially on Hatteras Island.

I think people see forecasts as gospel. We’ll make fun of the weatherman for being wrong all day long — until he tells us what we want to hear.
Well, hurricanes, you have prepare yourself for the hurricane. And usually it take you 24 to 48 hours to do that. And hurricanes can make that shift. I know before Hurricane Floyd I was in the National Hurricane center in Miami at the time. I was part of what they call a hurricane liaison team. And they took local emergency managers how’d been impacted by storms and took them to the hurricane center to talk to local emergency managers that looked like they were going to be impacted by a hurricane. As Floyd developed and came across, they felt like it was going to be a Gulf storm. So they activated the guys on the East Coast to go to the hurricane center to talk to the people in the Gulf. I’d been down there two days when the director at called us into the office and said, “Fellas, I think you need to go home. [laughs] It looks like this storm is going to track up the coast or right into Florida in the next 4 hours.” So I packed my bags very quickly. And actually, the storm followed me home. I got here in time to open the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Manteo and activate our control group and decision makers and bring them up to speed and activate he decision to evacuate. I don’t think I slept for three days. It was just bam-bam-bam. But that’ show fickle a hurricane can be. The best minds in the world — which is the hurricane center — often get fooled about where the track of the storm is going to go. But everyone on the East coast evacuated for Floyd. Because it came up and turned and moved up the shore off the coast just enough for emergency managers to make that decision to evacuate for safety. So the roads were just clogged with people. I-95 was a bus stop. You couldn’t move because of the evacuation.

And eventually it came ashore somewhere around Jacksonville, NC. or Wrightsville as a strong Category One with a lot a rain. Lots of rain. And we’d just had a storm previous to that that dumped a lot of rain. So we suffered from the rainfall. But the people inland really got the brunt of the storm.

I remember stories of animal carcasses coming down the Neuse river.
Princeville was under water — 64, right there at Princeville — was under water. For us it was a rain event. We did evacuate but we didn’t have any problems. Yeah you had trouble getting back because you couldn’t get here. Because if 64 is closed you’re going to have problems on other roads. It was the first time I had 168 closed coming out of Northwest. Lake Drummond, which is west of 17, had overflowed and was creating — along with the rainfall — a blockage along 168 coming into Northwest, a little community on the Virginia line. So that road was compromised for a brief period of time. So literally we were cut off from the world, transportation-wise, for a short period of time. It didn’t cause any problems, really. But that is the fickleness of a hurricane. And that’s what we’re alluding to, really.

The information that hurricane center is providing is getting a lot better. It gets better every year. They’re dumping a lot of money into improving their forecast window. That cone of error is shrinking. And now they’ve extended it out five days. Intensity levels are still something they’re trying to figure out. They’re going into storm surge prediction now. There will be a watch/warning for storm surge. I don’t know how that will impact decision making for the coastal communities. Storm surge is a product of wind, especially off the ocean. The higher the wind, the higher the storm surge. We always look a t wind as a determining factor as part of our evacuation decision-making process. I think they’ll now have to incorporate storm surge prediction.

And lots of times that’s the more damaging part.
It is the most damaging part and the most loss of life occurs from drowning from storm surge. But in your mind you have to think about what are the complexities about what generates the storm surge. And that’s the wind factor. So you want to intermingle the two and not differentiate one from the other. It all boils down to, “Am I at risk? And how great is that risk for me?” From that you can make a decision, hopefully, that will push you to evacuate given where you live in regards to the landfall of the hurricane.

When you went down to the hurricane center, what would you tell those people? What information would you give them?
Well, you become a government agent then, so you can’t reveal a whole lot. What they were typically looking for is: Where is the storm in relation to where I am? Where is the storm going? And what is going to be the impact? And we would take the position of the storm, extrapolate the storm out to 24, 48 or 72 hours and give them a pretty good idea of what the storm surge was going to be and the impact. Whether they’d be on the left side or the right side of the storm track, and try to help them in that regard.

Is it pretty uniform for most counties to pull the trigger to evacuate in 48 hours?
No it isn’t. Look at Tampa for example. Tampa has a huge population. They probably need five days to effectively evacuate that huge population. Same thing with New Orleans. For all the negative things you hear about what Katrina did to new Orleans, they did a fairly good job of evacuating the number of people that they moved – more than 200,000 people. That’s no easy task. Believe me, it isn’t. So what we try to take into consideration is each area has an understanding of how long it takes to evacuate their area of responsibility. Each emergency manager understands that. So he’s computing that into his timeline when he’s doing an evaluation for a storm. Where the track is and where it’s moving. He’s factoring that into his decision-making process. Now we’re at the point to where we can do it in 18 hours. So we want 48 hours to make a decision. That gives us a fudge factor of maybe a day. A person in Tampa or even the Tidewater area has to consider extending that timeline — probably even by 2 days because of the population density and the road infrastructure they have for an evacuation. It plays into our decision-making process in Dare County, Hampton Roads does, because they have a road system that affects our evacuation. Probably 70% of the people who come here come down 158 through Currituck. And they’d like to go out the same way they came in. Now if Felix, for example, was to threaten, I feel like there would be a Hampton evacuation. And they would have to make that evacuation decision at 4 days — 96 hours — for portions of their area. That would affect our decision-making process because we’d be moving our traffic into their traffic, which causes more of a back-up. So what we have to do is anticipate that. We have conversations with the Tidewater area every time we have a storm threat.

You talk to their Emergency Manger, I assume.
We do. So we try to get a feel for what they’re going to do so we can anticipate that and expand our timeline if we have to. We also have another plan in place if they say “Okay, we’re going to have to shut down our evacuation corridor to 158 traffic because the volume is to heavy.” So then we have to implement a plan to send everyone out through Elizabeth City and 17 and hit 95.

Irene, that was one of the concerns — or maybe it as Sandy. But a lot of people saying, “Virginia’s gonna stop traffic on 158.”
There is a plan in place to do that.

It sounds cruel. When you hear that, it sounds like a big, “Screw you people. We’re getting ours out first.”
But the reason behind it is you don’t’ want to have traffic on the highway if you have a storm approaching. The goal for Emergency Management is to have everybody out of the area by the time gale force winds – 40 mph winds – affect you. So we want to push everybody out and give them plenty of time. If you were to not implement a plan to take the people off the Hampton roads area, then those people are likely to be stuck in a storm somewhere. Because it just becomes a bottleneck. You can’t move. There’s not enough time to get people out safely. So that’s why we have a plan to do that. We also have a plan to reverse the traffic from Kitty Hawk at a certain point and say, ‘We’re going to send you out 64,” if it got to the point where everything is backed up from Barco to the beach. If for some reason we got stuck in an Hampton Roads evacuation and we could see that traffic’s not moving on 168. So we send you on 64 toward 95 — or to Raleigh to go west.

Part of this just a larger population density on the coast. It’s not just here, but in the US. In some ways, we’re lucky, because there’s not so many options to play with. But on a larger level, the more populated the coast gets around us, there’s a whole ‘nother level of planning.
Well it broadens your perspective on the potential for the problems that it creates. So at your planning level you have to anticipate your timing needs.

And I guess, it means you have to be prepared to keep pushing back the timeline. So it sounds like a lot of “if thens” — if this is the situation, then we have to do this.
You do. You have to look at the problem area. But it still comes back to individuals making their own decisions. Fortunately for us, our huge population base — which is our visitors — will leave. We have no problems with the visitors at all. We put the flags up for evacuation and they’re gone. It then becomes our 30,000 people who live here year round and are very hesitant to evacuate. And from Oregon inlet north, it seems like nobody evacuates.

Really? I’d think it’s the opposite. You always think about them as being the hunker-down types who dig in their heels.
Well, there’s a group of people down there who’s been through enough hurricanes they say, “I don’t want to go through any more of this.” So percentage-wise, I’d say 35% or 40% people down there who leave. But there’s 5000 people down there year round, so that still leaves about 3000 people that’re gonna stay. And they’re the ones who’re going to be the most vulnerable and have the most potential for loss of life. And those are the ones that concerned me. And it’s a concern for management now. “How do you get them to recognize that we’re doing this to save your life. We’re not doing it because we’re mean and nasty.” Here is the information we have. This is how deep the water is going to be. If you’ve been through Irene, you should know what he consequences of a major storm are like. Do you really want to go through it again?

Or Isabel. I think about Isabel. When you have an inlet cut through your island.
Isabel in Hatteras Village was a huge problem. Irene it was a huge problem for the TriVillages. So you’ve witnessed the problems you can have. Even if you survive, you’ve lost your road, you’ve lost power, you’ve lost the ability to cook. You don’t have any law enforcement, you don’t have any fire protection, you don’t have any EMS service. Yeah, you do have a link back and forth — that’s a ferry — and that will be put in place, but you’ll have to survive pretty much on your own until we get help to you. That could be three days, that could be five days, that could be three weeks.

But they do it. They go through it.
And the ones who live down there now understand the circumstances because they’ve been through it as bad as it’s probably gonna get, with Irene and Isabel. They can see what’s happened.

What’s the worst thing you’ve seen?
I’ve been rather fortunate in the fact that over 22 years, we never lost anyone in a hurricane. Nobody’s ever died from an actual hurricane landfall. We’ve had people die from doing stupid things after the storm. But as far as a hurricane killing anybody, we have not had anyone. Isabel was probably the worst as far as the damage that we saw and potential for loss of life. And then the recovery process pushed us to the limits to be able to support that village. If we hadn’t put the emergency ferry system in place, it would’ve been astronomically more difficult. If we were to lose that, if you were to get a situation where the ferries couldn’t operate, you’re back to “how do you support that population?” The only way to do it is by boat or by air, and that reduces your ability by some level.

For us, we rebuild on our own little level, but for the county it’s obviously exponential. So its like you deal with a crisis situation, and your day-to-day stuff at the same time.
Oh yeah. Emily was a prime example. We had to deal with the crisis from Avon south, really. But everything north of that was business as usual. You still had to provide the garbage pick up and county services and everything else that had to be open and running for people north of the bridge. Fortunately, just before we had Isabel, we signed a debris management contract. FEMA allowed us to sign with a private debris hauler. So we could dedicate our manpower to doing county things.

So it’s three stages: before, during and after. What takes the most planning? What’s the biggest headache?
For us, for me, it was after the storm. I’d always kid max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center: “Max, you don’t have any idea what it’s like to be in a hurricane. All you do is tell me where the storm’s going. When the storm hits you’re done. That’s when my work starts.” [laughs] And it typically, if we have a major storm — an Isabel, an Irene or an Emily — then my work really starts after landfall. Because we’re doing damage assessment. We’re positioning ourselves to recover. So if you get a presidential you’ve got all the FEMA and state people coming in an doing assessments. You’ve got a population you’ve got to support. You’ve got logistics, logistics, logistics.

The other part of our situation is when we lose NC 12 and we go into our emergency ferry operation, then we become the manager of that system. We being the emergency manger. We have to prioritize who gets on the ferry from the fuel hauler to the medical emergency to the doctors appointment to the wedding we’re having. All those thins become important to somebody. But there’s only 600 cars we can take on that ferry every day. No matter how you cut it. So who goes? and that becomes our problem.

And it’s a source of frustration for people. I’m sure some understand, but…
Well the fact is for a lot of the businesses it’s business as usual. They feel like they can go get in line and do their 9 to 5 job using the emergency ferry. And they get upset when they don’t get priority to go fix a commode in a rental house. So yeah, it creates some problems. Even at the state level. I think it was Irene that took the road out in Rodanthe and we were balancing – because we didn’t have power. The generators went on line for providing power to Hatteras Island but they needed fuel. And they were eating something like 18,000 gallons of fuel a day. So that’s three tractor trailers loads of fuel that had to go down there every day.

So we said “ok, we can do that. but fuel trucks have priority.” At the same time they’re trying to fix the highway. So we’re dispersing all that with asphalt trucks. And you can only take something like 4 asphalt trucks on a ferry. And you can only take one fuel truck on a ferry. And you can only have something like 20 people on a ferry with a fuel truck — by law. So you can take a fuel truck and like two cars. And that takes that ferry out of business. So the other ferries were taking asphalt trucks. So you could put four asphalt trucks on a ferry that carries 40 cars. So that becomes a huge problem trying to get the services over there that want go but you have to disperse those with the needs of the road and getting the power going. it can get interesting.

Tell me about the control room. What goes on in there? Are you locked down?
Usually at five days I bring in support room staff, I’m briefing the county manager, I’m bringing in social services, health department, public information officer, public works, sheriff, EMS – the key agencies that are going to play such an important role in not only the evacuation but the aftermath. The support group has about 30 different agencies and they’re either department heads or the outside agencies, like the park service or highway patrol or state DOT or ferry division. They’re all part of that operation. And they play a key role in the managing of a response. So at five days we’re in there with those key personnel so they’re monitoring the track of the storm and talking to their key different parties. So everybody’s on the same page. And at 72 hours if it looks like the storm is going to impact us, I bring in the control group, which are the mayors, the sheriff, chairman of the board —– and they make the decisions. They’ve been getting information by fax or email already, but now we’re sitting at a table eyeball-to-eyeball and I’m briefing them up on situational awareness. Giving them timelines, giving them options. For example, if it moves this direction we don’t have to do anything, if it moves this direction we need to do something in the next 12 hours or 24 hours. So that gives them an idea of what their response is going to be. And now they can go back to their different jurisdictions and make their plans. Then at 72 hours or right after we’ve made a timeline, we’ve determine if the track continues on we’ll be back at a certain time and make decisions. There’s usually only 2 or 3 meetings with the control group before a decision is made. And they don’t stay there. They go back to their respective municipalities and make their plans. But they know now they’re in the cue and there’s a timeline established. And if nothing’s changed, we’re back around the table, to make a decision, evacuation starts at 6am the next day.

Can they push back? Does anyone ever say, no? Is there debate?
It’s fairly obvious. Using the tracking system we have and the parameters that we’ve established, if they all agree to that — okay, this I the way we’re going to do busienss — which they have — then it’s pretty cut and dried. We come in, we look at he information, we look at the track and if it meets the criteria, it’s “Let’s go.”

Anyone ever freak out?
No. Not really. We’ve done it a lot of times now. Fortunately the county has a lot of experience that’s still there and will continue to be there. And it’ll carry them on.

You see pretty calm and even tempered. You probably need that mentality. But it does seem like when one is spinning, there’s an energy that picks up an people start to spin a little.
Well, in the back of your mind, you know there’s something that’s going to affect you adversely and you need to stay on top of it.

Do you get the same buzz when it kicks in? Or is it old hat?
Not really. There’s so many things going on in your mind and people you’re talking with that have to understand what you’re doing. Dare County sort of drives the train for the area as far as our preparedness. And I’m talking to every county around me. I’m talking to not only Hyde or Currituck, but Pasquotank, Perquimens, all those counties that are affected by my decision because it’s an evacuation that’s going to affect them. So we’re all communicating multiple times before we make that decision.

Is it pretty cooperative? Do counties ever butt heads?
No. They see the potential problem. Hurricanes are a fairly large animal. So when they see the scope and magnitude of the threat, then okay, we’re gonnna prepare ourselves to do what we have to do. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and it’ll go away. Nobody says, “Is that really a hurricane? You’re pulling my leg.” The threat’s obvious.

What about evacuation/reentry process, I’ve heard stories of conflict between towns, where KDH wants to open, Kitty Hawk doesn’t. Is that really the case? Or is that even your call?
It becomes part of our reentry process. Municipalities, for the most part, cannot stop reentry on main thoroughfares. Their only responsibility is on the secondary roads. But 158 is a state road. And it’s operated by highway patrol. So unless there’s a physical impediment that causes the road to be closed — for example, when thers’ a serious overwash at the Kitty Hawk Post Office. When that happens, 158 is obviously closed. But Kitty Hawk can’t just say, “There’s too many damn cars on the highway, the road’s closed.” They can’t do that. Or if we want to close the road going through Southern Shores and Duck, we can’t do that. If the road is open and Corolla says, “We want to have people,” we can’t close that and restrict that.

I remember that during Irene, people said “Why are they opening Now? why not let the locals get their lives back together before they have to go open houses?” But I guess if the road is open, the road is open.
Well, it’s the different industries that will take that positive or negative spin. The realtors are an interesting group because they want people to come back in as quickly as possible. But they don’t want them to come back in too quick, because they’re not ready to handle them. I’ve had it go both ways. Corolla got really upset one time because they wanted the road open and physically the road was closed. Right there at Barrier Island the road had washed, out and there were rocks and debris. But Corolla wanted it open. So we quickly fixed the road and opened it. And as soon as the people started arriving, Corolla said, “No, we don’t’ want ’em. We’re not ready! We haven’t had a chance to clean the cottages.” Because the people hadn’t been able to get up there to clean or do an evaluation or to see if water had leaked in the windows. So, they didn’t think through the problem. They knew the road was closed so they thought, “We need to get people in.”

It’s a catch 22, really. This place is filled with more Monday morning quarter back. Is that just part of the job?
Oh yeah. Social media just eats me alive. They say, “That Sanderson, what is he thinking? Why won’t he let people back in? The water’s on, the power’s on, the road’s open.” But it doesn’t bother me one bit. The thing I learned a long time ago is: once you evacuate, you don’t run back in. you walk back in. very slowly. And that means you check for infrastructure —well the first thing you do is you’re looking for life safety. Treat the injured. Find the dead. But simultaneously, you’re checking the roads, checking to see where power is off. Do you have EMS, fire support, law enforcement support? If those things are lacking, you can’t support any population other than what’s already there — and you can’t really support that. But you certainly don’t want to let more people back in. And you certainly don’t want to let visitors back in, who haven’t a clue as to what the problem is.

Sometimes we’ve been a little reluctant to let the residents back in a timely fashion, with regard to their mindset. They feel like they should have an instantaneous ability to return: “The wind’s died down, I want to be able to go back home.” Well, if the wind’s died down, but I can’t get you back home because the road’s closed or you don’t have power, then I don’t need to put you there. Because then I have to support you. And I can’t support you. And I think the public, at least the local public, doesn’t really comprehend the complexities of trying to support a large population. And it’s a balancing act. But we don’t have the type of infrastructure where I can immediately open the doors and support people. I’ve got to get help from the state and the feds in order to support – fed is the biggie. Food water, power that sort of thing.

What’s your take on the Weather Channel?
They’re fun to watch.

Do they help, do they hurt? Are people more informed, really, or do they just think they know it all?
Where do you get your information?

I go to NHC, NOAA, Wunderground — Jeff Masters. I call my friends at Surfline. Do you know them?
Oh yeah. I subscribe to Surfline. They’re on my computer. There is some good information on the internet now, as far as letting you know there is a system out thee you need to be aware of. The biggest thing that any of these provide you is an early warning system to say, “there is a system in the Atlantic, it looks like it is tracking toward the east coast, I need to start paying attention to the weather.”

I mean, the Weather Channel gives you a fairly good synopsis of the situation as it develops. Do they overblow it? Oh, heck, yeah. But I like to think Jim Cantore and I are fairly close. Because we’ve known each other for 20-some years. And I have had occasion ask him to come to Dare County. Because they don’t like him here, but he’s effective when he’s down there. And if I have a situation where we need to evacuate Hatteras Island, I’ll ask Jim to go down and there and he can get on the air and tell people what the situation is and that they need to evacuate. He reaches millions of people. I mean, people watch him. That’s the beauty of Jim Cantore. They watch him. and I use his help in that regard, and I think it’s been helpful to have him down there.

You’re right. If you’re trying to scare people…
If you’re trying to get to as many people as possible, that’s a conduit I use to do that. We’re using social media now. We have a twitter feed. I think with the new emergency operation center that we’re building, you’ll see more of a public information visualization of what the storm is doing, the consequences of that storm and the impacts it will have on our community, visually.

So almost like a local TV broadcast. When will that be completed?

What about long-term forecasts for a whole season? Colorado State’s been doing that for 20 years now. NOAA’s started doing it. What do you think about those?
I don’t really give them a whole lot of credence. I mean, one storm kills us. One storm in a season and we’re done. So it’s nice to know that the potential for having that storm is diminished if there’s only a chance for 8 storms. If the total is 20, then the percentage goes up for me having to work. So that in my mind, is the only benefit I get out of that information. But I think Colorado State has given an extraordinary amount of time and attention to the overall workings of climate and the impact it has on our weather. Their predictions? Until you can tell me where a storm is gonna landfall, they do absolutely nothing for people in my position.

Do you think they do a disservice just by lowering people’s readiness levels?
Maybe for the general public. But for people like me, it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. I’m still as prepared for an 8-year storm potential as I am a 20-year storm potential. And I think you’d get the same response from anyone with the same responsibility as a coastal manager.

How much is planning and how much is improvisation?
I have a readybook of everything that can possibly happen to you or me during a storm event from five days out until long-term recovery.

How big is that book?
That part of the book is probably 30 pages. But it covers everything I should be prepared for things that I have noted I should do.

Have you ever been caught off guard, like ‘Man I should’ve thought of that?
There’s always something that will be different that you didn’t expect. Most of it’s kind of off the wall.

What’s the weirdest thing you didn’t expect. Obviously the inlet being cut is a new affair in some degree.
I think it’s the expectations of people after a storm. Why they cant get back in, or why you cant tell me if someone’s house is destroyed? Or how deep is the water at such and such a house at the end of a cul de sac on Sir Walter Raleigh drive? Why can’t you tell me that. But people are just being people. They’re curious, they want to know things and they want to know why you don’t know those things.

What about technology: what do you see moving forward? Is it cameras? Drones?
I think the technology that will do us the most good is what the hurricane center is working on in terms of intensity. They’re trying to diminish the cone of error to the point where we can diminish the evacuation geography. Because of the influx of the population on the coastal areas, we have a huge problem in defining who we need to evacuate. And if we can reduce that then so much the better for us. Barrier islands it won’t effect that t much, probably, but the inland populations — large coastal inland populations — it will help them tremendously.

The ability to provide the public with real time imagery on how deep the water’s going to be at my house, is huge. Because you’ll then be able to tell that person who’s in that house, what my response is going to be. That guy who’s thinking, “I’ve been here 30 years, and I’ve never had a storm cause water come up more than 2 feet.” Well, now I can show him a picture. And it’s 6 feet deep. And it’s gonna happen in 24 hours.” So real time imagery is gonna be our next huge asset in trying to get the pubic to recognize the threat. And that’s coming. In fact, its probably already here in a lot of different areas.

Drones are going to be a good after action capability. To be able to do very definitive assessments — where damage is, potential damage — and do it very quickly. Right now we get overflights. I was bombarded with information after Isabel. From NOAA, from Sea Grant, from National Guard. From Army Corps of Engineers. Even from the Red Cross. They all did overflights of Dare County and gave me the information to look at. Was it helpful? In a kind of a cursory sense it was. We knew where the damage was — we had people out there. But the National Guard did it at night with an infrared camera. But dummying it down to where I can use it would be the next step.

What about long-term stuff. The potential for storms to get worse between climate change or sea level rise?
That’s really a problem that’s over my head. I respond to and plan for disasters. Is sea level rise going to increase the potential for a disaster? Could be. But I already have a plan in place for that disaster.

What’s the worst disaster you’ve got planned for? Is there a doomsday plan in there?
No. Most of the plans respond to a hurricane. Now, situations being what they are – and society being what it is –disaster planning for terrorism response has become a very prominent part of what we do now. And the random shooter —someone who just walks in with a gun and starts shooting people, that’s’ another huge planning scheme that we’re deeply involved with and concerned about. Can it happen? Yes. it can happen here just as easily as it can happen in New York city. So I think everyone has an understanding about what situational awareness can be. But because we don’t have an occasion to respond to that like we do hurricanes, we don’t know how we’ll react.

Which explains why we do pretty well with hurricanes, because it’s the one we have the most practice with.
Yes. It is. And we are looked at as a leader in being able to manage disasters – hurricanes primarily. I mean, I can do a hurricane for the back of my car. Give me a cell phone and a radio and I can sit here and run any hurricane that you can throw at me. But that’s the beauty of having that experience. Because I know what to expect and who to call. It’s just a matter doing it. What did that baseball pitcher say? “It ain’t bragging if you done it.” [laughs]

The downside is we’re reluctant to leave, the good side is we’re willing to help.
We do have a very good community. We’ve got a very good Interfaith Group, which incorporates all of the churches and faith based organizations. They’re a hard working group and have been prominent in getting back on our feet. And we get good support from the state, so in that regard we’ve been fortunate.

I think most neighbors are willing to help each other too.
And the other thing we have going for us is the municipalities have good organization. The fire and law enforcement is very community oriented. They;’re out here in the community and helping you out. You hear some people criticize them for their individualism– why don’t we collaborate and have one fire department and one law enforcement organization? – but you would lose that community involvement if you did that.

You did Ocean rescue work as well, correct?
I was charged with creating an ocean rescue operation in Nags Head when I came here. So I started the beach patrol with four-wheel drive, with radio communications, and with jet skis. We created the beach patrol mainly in Nags Head, but it expanded into Southern Shores and Kitty Hawk. We were the first ones to use Jet Skis. First to use ATVs. The first to have litter capability in the back of a suburban. You could take someone off the beach and to an ambulance.

What year was this?
‘77. Actually, ‘76 was the first time we used jet skis.

So who else was doing that in the US?
Nobody. Huntington beach was looking at them to incorporate them into their operation. I read an article about it in Sports Illustrated or something. So I wrote those guys and asked them ,for an evaluation and what they were using them for. And they didn’t like them. But Huntington Beach was 100 years ahead of us in terms of rescue operations. They were using boats and paddle boards and all these other things we could only dream about.

The biggest concern we had was, one: getting a a lifeguard to a situation in the water. And two: transporting that person off the beach. We didn’t have any stationary stands. We didn’t have anything other than that 4WD vehicle with a lifeguard in it to cover 11 miles of beach. So it becomes a force multiplier to be able to put a jet ski in the back of a 4WD to offset the lack of lifeguards. If he was sitting on the beach and got a call 4 miles down the beach, he could launch a jet ski and be there in 2 minutes and effectively make a rescue. We had was Hobie cats and sailboats and rafts getting blown out 2 miles . Before he jet ski, you called the coast guard. If they had a helicopter available it would take them an hour to get here. And that’s the upside. It was four hours at times. Or they’d send a duck from the Oregon Inlet coast guard Station. And that could take an hour and a half. So the jet ski solved problems. I could go out and have a tuber back in under 2 minutes. That solved a lot of our rescue problems. We got into rip currents long before sea grant. We did the first poster for rip currents in Nags Head 35years ago. Because we recognized that rip currents killed people. We were losing 8 to 10 to 12 people in Nags Head every summer.

We were able to expand the program and hire more people. And we put them on ATVS instead of building stands, because I could cover 3 miles per ATV. We didn’t start adding stands until we had certain places identified for larger populations. Bonnet Street was the first one – because of the parking lot. When they started building parking lots that was when we recognized that’s where beach populations would go. And we added stands to those areas. And then from there, it’s grown.

What’s the most pressing challenge moving forward?
Maintaining our level of service. Budgets are being cut. People are not being replaced. Trying to ensure that we stay on the technology lead, get the information out to the public. Utilize the latest and greatest. Being able to generate the necessary information to young people and older people. That is a huge challenge. We’re in that we don’t have a huge diversity in our population. We have Spanish speaking people, which we’ve addressed, but we don’t a huge multi-lingual challenge in our population. We don’t have Vietnamese, Italian, or the challenges you see in other areas or large cities.

Obviously Drew Pearson’s got the job now. He’s a coast guard captain?
Drew Pearson is retired coast guard captain. Started out as C-130 pilot. Spent quite a number of years in Elizabeth City, so he knows the area. Elevated to a position where he couldn’t fly airplanes any longer. And went to Miami as the OPS officer down there and then when he made Captain he was the sector commander for Group San Juan. So all of the Caribbean was his responsibility. So hurricanes are nothing new to Drew. He’’ been through Katrina and helped clean that up. So we’re blessed to have someone with his experience.

Does he have the ready book now?
He’s got the ready book. And we’ve gone through it page by page. But if you live on the Outer Banks, you’ve got to prepare for hurricanes.

Anything else you’d like to say?
No . Anything we can do to get the information in front of the public is beneficial. It’s hard to maintain a steady stream of information. It all helps us.


Nothing is set in stone. Remember that whenever you’re dealing with the National Park Service — or any federal agency for that matter. Legislations update. Lighthouses move. Leadership changes. Last year, after almost a decade of rocky community relations and contentious debate over access issues in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Outer Banks Group was ready for a fresh face. In December, we got one: David E. Hallac, a biologist and former resource manager for Yosemite, who’ll now oversee the seashore, along with Fort Raleigh and Wright Brothers National Memorial.

“I love community relations issues,” says the New Jersey native and lifelong fisherman, whose prior posts include the Dry Tortugas and Everglades. “Being in the science world, there’s certainly interface with the public, but not as much as when you’re the figurehead for the local organization. So I was just excited about being Superintendent, knowing I could work with a variety of different stakeholder groups and really help build those relationships.”

He sure got what he wished for. Within days of his hire, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which included an amendment ordering the Department of Interior to revisit the 2012 ORV ruling and “modify buffers and corridors of the shortest duration possible.” Thus began a hectic first few months on the job, as Hallac and his staff researched the latest science and reached out to all various interests to beat a mid-summer deadline. On April 29, they proposed a “preferred alternative” that not only suggests buffers shrink — by as much as half for vehicles two-thirds for pedestrians — but proposes hiring more human monitors that could keep a single nest from blocking miles of beach. The key word being “could.”

“It’s impossible to predict how species will behave and what might happen in years to come,” says Hallac. “We don’t want to set up expectations that this will create immediate changes, but it certainly has flexibility to make things better for ORV and pedestrian access.”

If it happens at all. At press time, they were still taking public comment in order to issue a final decision on June 16. And while the new tack is far from a complete reversal of course, it certainly shows a welcome willingness to bend. For our summer issue, we sat down with the new boss twice this spring —once in mid-April, and once the day after the April 29 release of the environmental assessment — to discuss the potential ruling and what more flexibility might mean for the future. What follows is the complete transcript of those interviews. — Matt Walker

Part One: interviewed April 13.
MILEPOST: I’ll start with the basics. What’s your exact title?
DAVID HALLAC: Superintendent of the Outer Banks Group, which is Wright Brothers National Memorial, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Can you give us a quick bio: Where did you grow up and how did you end up here?
I grew up in New Jersey, just over the George Washington Bridge, so real close to Manhattan. We first started going to the beach in summer at Long Beach Island. And then we graduated to Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I can’t remember what year we first came down, but we ended upcoming for many, many summers. And we would almost always go to Avon and rent a house very close to the beach there and just have a blast — surfing and boogie boarding and fishing. So I have a lot of great memories of being on the Seashore.

But I went to college and graduate school at the University of Vermont, and spent many years in Burlington — which is a great place to be. And then I ended up moving down to Florida. We lived in Florida for about 12 years. I did a variety of things, including working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. And following that I went to Yellowstone and spent three and half years there, managing their resource management science division, which was an amazing experience. And I have the pleasure now of working as Superintendent of the Outer Banks Group.

So how does that work: is it like the military where you get assigned a position? Or do you say, “Put me in?”
The Park service, just like all federal agencies, announces jobs on a website called USAJobs. That’s how we hire all our positions. And I saw it come up on USA Jobs. I applied for it, got interviewed and was very fortunate to have a job offer.

So you wanted a change of pace, because Yellowstone is obviously a different world from here.
Yellowstone is amazing, and I miss it to some degree. But I was very much looking for the opportunity to be a Superintendent. And one of the things I love now — and one of the things I was looking forward to working on — are the community relations issues. So being in the natural resource world, the culture resource world, the science world, there’s certainly an interface — a nexus — with the public. But not as much as when you’re the figurehead for the local organization. So I was just excited about being the Superintendent here, knowing I could work with a variety of different stakeholder groups and really build those relationships.

So did you know what you were getting into?
Oh yeah.

Because I’m sure it’s like any industry, there’s a buzz about different offices or locations.
It is. And there’s no question, that Park Service wide, if you mention Cape Hatteras, people understand that there have been issues here with off-road vehicle management and a divided public — and that it’s certainly a contentious and classic resource preservation versus access issue. It’s pretty well known for that. So, yeah, I was familiar with it. And certainly I had read newspaper articles about it so I think I knew what I was getting myself into. And I can say that after three months being on the job, I’m generally seeing what I expected. And people will make comments like “You’re a glutton for punishment. Why would you want to get involved at a park service unit that has that much contention over all these issues? Where you can barely step away form your iPhone or your computer or your landline without getting yelled at for something somebody feels you’re not doing right?” And although, as park managers, we can certainly be frustrated by all that input sometimes, I can tell you — definitively — thank goodness we have people that care so much. Regardless of what side of the equation they’re on, they care so much about national parks that they’re willing to weigh in — they’re willing to spend their free time, and sometimes their money — and they’re passionate about these special places. I’m thankful for that.

But because of that passion, people are quick to assume the worst. I’m sure when the early nesting began a few days ago, the phone started ringing off the hook.
It’s interesting you mention “quick to assume.” And it’s fairly well known that in the absence of information, people fill that void with whatever they want to fill it with and then rumors get started. So one thing that’s actually a priority of mine — and it’s difficult to do these days — is to improve communications. And it’s difficult. On the one hand, we have a lot more tools at our disposal to communicate — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the website. On the other hand, because there’s no longer one way of communicating — reading it in the newspaper or just seeing it on our website — it’s hard to keep up with all the levels of communication and places we can get our message out. We’re doing our best trying to provide regular information about a lot of different things. But some of these topics, people are so passionate about them that if we’re not communicating enough for them, they can fill the void with information and we just hope it’s factual.

I met with the Cape Hatteras Angler Club folks. They were very nice. They invited me to dinner for one of their monthly meetings two or three weeks ago. And one of the things I’d told them is I’d read some blogs online — bulletin boards — I don’t know if it was Red Drum Tackle, but that’s one I tend to read. And I actually read it because I’m a fisherman and I want to see what the fishing reports are. And we had just sent out a press release indicating that we were implementing our pre-nesting closures. And almost all of the comments on there — and on Facebook — were “earlier and earlier every year.” And there were long discussions about how every year these pre-nesting closures come earlier. And I said to myself, “I’m really curious if our pre-nesting closures are coming earlier.”

So, I went to our website. I clicked on “news” and I scrolled back to 2009. And what I found was that every year from 2015 to 2009, I believe the pre-nesting closures were implemented within 7 days of each other. And in at least half the years, the closures were implemented earlier than the pre-nesting closure in 2015. And the press release went out earlier as well. So what I stressed to the Anglers Club was, “We respect your right to disagree with us or be angry with us. That’s the public’s right. But before reacting, please come to us and ask questions before you form your opinions.” Because what you’ll find is a lot of stuff you’re reading on Facebook or one of the fishing bulletin boards may be based on information that’s not accurate.

All that can make it harder on the people who live there at times, I’d argue. I know people who still think all of Hatteras is closed because that’s all they hear.
It does. And in some case, similar to the NIMBY issue — not in my backyard — there’s also a “not in my favorite place” issue, where people tend to support certain things as long as it doesn’t affect them personally. We support the protection of these species or that species, but I also need to get to that place because I’ve been doing it for a long period of time. And I’m in no way am I minimizing that as a concern or issue. Because it’s important. We’re human beings. We have a culture. We have traditions. People have been going to places with their family and friends for a long, long time. So that’s no less important. But it is a factor. And it’s important for us to understand that.

So you were hired before the defense budget that made the changes?
Correct. I believe the Defense Authorization Bill went into affect on the 19th of December. I got the job offer in November, but my first day on the job was the middle of December. So I was hired before that was passed.

So what went through your head?
What was my first reaction? Well, it was one of mixed emotions. Number one, we finally had a plan that was passed in 2010. And I know everyone’s not happy with it, but it had been implemented. And people were finally getting used to it. And now it’s time for us to potentially redo that plan. And I thought that could certainly cause some flare-ups in terms of reigniting a lot of those passions — which is a good thing — but also the anger that was part of the planning process. So I definitely had some concerns there. On the other hand, the Congress and President of the United States passed and signed this and I looked at it as an opportunity. The reality is we going to do a five-year review following the 2012 ruling anyway and a lot of what we’re doing, the Defense Authorization Legislation will basically fast forward some of that work.

So you’re re-evaluating the buffers, you’re re-evaluating the corridors — all those things. And that’s basically what it’s requiring you to do by the end of the year, correct? But you don’t necessarily have to modify them. Is that right?
Here’s what the language says in a nutshell. And we’ve broken it down into two parts. The first part says the Secretary of the Interior shall review science and modify wildlife buffers in accordance with peer-reviewed scientific data to ensure they are of the smallest size and shortest duration. Now, some people have seen that and joked — although, maybe not everyone is joking — “Well, they may need to be bigger.” Because if we have science made available since the old plan was made that says that, we’d have to consider it. But I don’t think that was the intent of the legislation. It’s fairly clear the intent was to make things smaller and to grant additional access.

So that was Part A of the first part. Part B of the first part is that the Secretary shall designate corridors around areas that are closed because of wildlife buffers, and will let you get from one open area to another open area. And as you know, sometimes some of our wildlife buffer may be on a section of ORV beach where get off on a ramp, and head north or south, and hit a buffer and now you can’t get to — in some cases — 75 % of a beach that is technically open. So the intent of that Part B, as I describe it, is to find ways get around that problem. And some of that will happen by ways of additional ramps and roads that we’re building and that we always planned to build. But part of what was in the legislation, as well, was a directive to the Secretary to accelerate or expedite those construction projects. And we’re doing that. And all that we just talked about was due within 180 days.

June 16, right?
Right. The second part of the legislation was a little bit different. It says to review vehicle free areas, consider the seasonal ORV routes in front of the villages. I think the intent there is to see if we can make those open earlier in the season. Currently they’re open from November to April. And the legislation wants us to make it a broader window. And then also to look at the nighttime closures and the morning openings to see if we an open the beaches earlier. That’s a little less prescriptive. It doesn’t have the 180 day timeline and it specifically prescribes a public process. That being said, we are going to have a public process for the first part. And the next few weeks we’ll be looking at posting some draft ideas of how we will make changes to he wildlife buffers and how we’ll provide corridors around closed areas. And we’ll get the pubic reaction.

So that will happen before May 24?
It will happen between now and the middle of May.

Do you have any ideas what that will look like? You’ve seen the science, do you have a working idea of the options that you will ask people to weigh in on?
We’re going to actually say for all the different species that we currently have buffers on. So to give you an idea, when it comes to piping plovers, when they have chicks on the ground we have a 1000-meter buffer around those chicks. And right now that traditionally completely closes access to Cape Point. What we’re doing is looking at all the science we can find — the foundation of our work by the way is relay robust scientific review and our regional office has helped a lot with that — just to know all the best science that we have that would tell us whether or not something may or may not be a good idea to help protect those species. And we’re going to see if it’s possible to make that existing buffer smaller. So we’ll actually have a proposal in there for what that buffer might be. So stay tuned.

You can’t give me a sneak peek of what hat might be? I think it might be smaller?
I think folks will see some proposed changes.

Gotcha. No sneak peek. Well what is your take on the science so far. Then. you’re a biologist right? I know people on the ground certainly think it was heavy handed, maybe even a little bit skewed.
You know, this is really hard. This whole issue is. People love the beach so much I love the beach so much — people are used to getting where they want to go for years, and years, and years — if not decades, being able to drive wherever they wanted to go. So that passion is there and it’s so important. But then you start to look at the Atlantic Seaboard and how much habitat is currently available for seabirds and sea turtles. Some of these species have special status, they’re federally or state listed. And when you start to look at what their needs are and how much habitat is lost and you look at some of the science there was science that supported the buffers that went into place. Now whether or not we chose buffers of the smallest size and shortest duration, I would suggest we didn’t necessarily do that. That being said, it’s fairly unusual for National Park Service unit to say, “Let’s choose the minimum amount of protection necessary to protect a species or resource.” That’s not consistent with our policies or defining principles. We usually look to find protection that is very robust. So, I very much respect the work that was done in the initial plan and I think it was clearly rooted in science. Where it was on that spectrum on providing protection versus access? I’m not in a place to judge that. That being said, the Congress of the United States has asked us to take another look to see if we can make those buffers smaller and of shorter duration and we’re doing that.

It’s interesting. I’ve always thought of the people of Hatteras as being under pressure from larger forces — Audubon and the Park Service, or just Mother Nature and outside population. But it sounds like you’re under pressure, too: from Congress, from interest groups, the public. Is it a constant balance of trying to please some group. Or in this case, a coastal issue. Because what happened over the past 50 yeas, isn’t just that Hatteras is facing increased pressures — but the rest of the coast is as well.
No question. There are a lot of pressures from a lot of different sides. In this case though we come down to the three tiers of decision-making that we try to stick to. And that is that we make sure we have the best available, sound science. And that the decisions we’re making are faithful to law, regulation and policy. And that the decisions we make are in the best long-term public interest. So those are the three legs of the stool. And it can be hard to balance all that. That being said, the Park Service’s mission, the policies, are fairly strong and easy to understand. So they serve as good, guiding documents.

I’ve always said that the whole purpose of the Park Service was to be unyielding — to have pungi sticks out on long term issues. Because if all you had to do was say, “This is bad for me now” there would be no park land left, because there’d always be justification for removing a restriction.
Exactly. And that is the challenge of the park rangers — to look at the big issues long term that are looming out there. Trying to not only a make decisions that make sense for today, but make sense in five years, 10 years, 20 years — in some cases, that may set a precedent for 50 or 100 years from now. It’ trying to really think along all those time frames and make good decisions. It’s challenging.

Do you think by June, you’ll be able to make some changes — assuming there are some — or do you think it’s more like next season?
Given that we haven’t even released the EA or given a chance for the public to weigh in yet, it’s too early to really say whether or not changes could be implemented this summer. If we decide to make a change and make a decision on June 16 that we can change a buffer —and we can do it this summer with the resources we have, that is something we’d consider doing. There may be changes we recommend or wish to make but they require additional resources we don’t have at the time. In that case, may not make it until next summer. In either case, it’s really too early to say.

You mentioned resources. Does the law give you any more funding at all to implement changes or to make these corridors?
Not that I’m aware of. I don’t see anything in the defense authorization bill that authorized any funding. It makes it challenging, but it’s all a matter of priorities. Obviously this was a priority for the National Park Service to take the legislation seriously and give it our best shot. So we’ll have to see the degree to which we feel additional resources are necessary. But I think what folks will find as we move forward, that some of the new ramps that we’re building and trying to expedite, that we’ll take certain pots of funding that have not gotten any bigger, and reprioritize the use of those funds. Maybe take some other things we wanted to do — for example some deferred maintenance projects — a parking lot or something else we wanted to do in 2016— and say we’ll do that project in 2017 or 2018. And we build a ramp. For example Ramp 32, which will be in construction this summer — we’ve done exactly what I just said to build it more quickly than before. And by having two ramps on a particular stretch of beach, if there’s a nest in the middle that blocks access, two ramps open up new possibilities to get around those areas. You can drive a mile or two down the road and get out on the beach.

But it’s not immediate. And people want it that fast. And I was interested in the shortfall. In a previous conversaiont, you said you’ve got $9 million dollars in funding, and $15 dollar operating budget. Are most parks in that situation? And we don’t have an entry fee either. Is that normal? And how does that affect these decisions?
Good question. I don’t know if there is a normal. There are more than 400 NPS units and they’re all very different in the way they receive income. When I was at Yellowstone , in the division I worked in, I got over a million dollars a year just in donation funding. And grant funds were probably more like $2 million. So it varies among. But you’re correct. We get $9 million in federal funding appropriated to us, but our budget — what it takes to run the Outer Banks group, the three NPS units — is more like $14.5 million. And that comes from a variety of different funding sources. Everything from climbing the lighthouses, to the entry fee at Wright Brothers to a reservation fee for a campground. So it’s challenging to cobble all that together to make it work. But we certainly do it. But you’re right, it’s interesting. Cape Hatteras National Seashore gets a lot of visits — we get well over 2 million visits every year. And it’s totally free. And that’s amazing.

And 80% of it stays on site right? If someone pays to go into Wright Brothers it stays at Wright Brothers?
Eighty percent stays in the group. We can use it among the three parks. That being said, we tend to use the funds that were generated in one location to go back into that unit. And we have pretty strict requirements when it comes to the collection of fees. To give you an example, Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, that’s a concession operation. And they pay a concession franchise fee to us. And there are very strict guidelines on how we return those back into the park. It needs to benefit the visitors and patrons that come to use the concession, meaning the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.

You don’t use that to build Ramp 32.

That money comes to from the ORV pass. That reminds me of a comment I saw “The NPS will keep it closed until vacation season is over. (Less park to manage=less staff/budget).” But it sounds like the other way around.
For example, the ORV program, we sell about 30,000 permits. Two thirds are weekly permits and a third are annual permits. And we generate about $2 million a year. And there are no strict guidelines around that, but our intent is to spend it back on projects that relate to ORV management in the park. And that’s what it’s spent on. As a matter of fact, we posted a spreadsheet that shows what we spent that money on. As a matter of fact, I got a phone call asking if someone needed to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get those numbers, and I said, “You can, or I can just tell you.” So we worked up a spread sheet that shows how we spent the $2 million and show it’s transparent and so people know how the money is spent.

But it’s still not enough to do everything you want to do as fast as you want to do it.
Definitely not. If you look at the 2010 ORV plan, following that plan, we said there were a whole bunch of a different additional access projects for pedestrians and ORVs. 29 projects, and the cost of that compendium of projects was almost $8 million. So even though we have $2 million coming in, if we were to spend every penny of it, it would take at least 4 years to compete. And we can’t spend every penny on just that. We also use that money for monitoring activities, law enforcement, the cost of the collection itself. We’ve made it an extremely convenient system for customers who want to buy a permit. Our permit offices are open 7 days a week. All year round, it’s expensive to make it that convenient. A lot of money has to be used for the cost of collection. So we don’t have all the funds to do all the projects we’d like implement. But that being said, we’re making great progress. And after you do a project, you have to maintain it— that’s expensive, as well. But I think we’re doing well and we’re making great progress and I think you’ll see very shortly as we roll out our EA, we’ll roll out our expedited construction schedule for all the projects that will be put into place soon. And that’s exciting.

And by the time people read this it’s sitting online right now and they can get the latest news.

Private donations. You said you got $1 million for Yellowstone. I’m scared to ask: is there a culture of giving here?
We get thousands of dollars in donations. We have donation boxes in the visitor centers. That funding does no make a significant portion of our budget That being said, we do get a big donation from Eastern National. They’re the ones that run all the bookstores and gift shops. And they’ve provided us with a donation every year that’s often over $100,000 dollars which is a portion of their revenues. And that’s extremely appreciated. And it helps us do a lot.

But not like Yellowstone. Here, I think there’s appreciation for the resources, but they’re also taken for granted to where people will give 20 bucks to help firefighters but the feel the park service is supposed to be free.
I can’t speak to the local culture. But a lot of programs have Friends groups. And we have a First Flight Society at Wright Brothers. And we have the First Flight Foundation — and they’ve made lots of donations. They’ve done amazing things to help with the up-keep of the facility. But when it comes to the Seashore we do not have a friends group. I would love to have to a friends group for the Seashore. Parks traditionally have friends groups and they tend to bring folks that want to stay connected to the park unit they love. And they often have philanthropy as a major piece of their organization. It’s not uncommon for the Yellowstone Park Foundation to raise $5 to $6 million dollars a year for the park.

We don’t have that. And a lot of people who make those donations to Yellowstone Park Foundation, they’re a mixture. They might be local folks in Jackson, Wyoming or Boseman, Montana. But they’re also people from all across the country and the world who just love Yellowstone. They may have second homes. Or they may have just gone and had an incredible experience and they want to give back.

That’s amazing. Because it seems like this is such a coastal drawing point. It’s amazing there isn’t more of that. Part of that is some resentment. I’m sure people in Hatteras would will read this and say, “Give money to the Park Service? Over my dead body!” But if there were restrictions loosening, maybe there’d be a thawing. Especially if they can get more access with more funds.
Could be. It’s just hard to know. And there are a lot of people who aren’t happy with the way the seashore is managed because of the ORV management. But we also have two to two-and-a-half million visitors who come to Seashore very year and we don’t get a lot of complaints from them. People who are visiting Waves, Rodanthe and Salvo, we tend to hear people who are very happy. They rent a house. They go to the beach. They may drive, they may not. But a large part of those folks are on the beach every day enjoying the resources that have been here for generations. So there are a lot of different groups who have different experiences, attitudes and perceptions about Cape Hatteras Seashore and different levels of willingness to support.

Have you talked to all the user groups. Have you noticed any thawing at all?
I’ve talked to a lot of user groups on all sides of the equation. Like the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, the CHAPA folks. I’ve spoken to folks from Audubon, I’ve spoken to folks from Defenders of Wildlife, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Surfrider, almost everybody that had a willingness to speak to me. And I want to talk to everybody. I want to hear peoples’ ideas, their perceptions, their concerns. What I’ve found is everybody has been warm. They have been professional. They have been constructive. I haven’t met with many people that have just started attacking the seashore. They usually say, “We have a concern; here’s what it is.” And they offer up a solution. And I really appreciate that. And a lot of the local groups are well-suited to offer those constructive ideas because the live here and they’ve been here for a many, many years and they know the place really well. And we realize that.

Is it basically just numbers? You can’t have the same rules for a 1950s population or 1980s population as you do from a 2000s population?
I think the park service realized that they needed to have a solid reasonable way to manage offshore vehicles on the seashore, and I think they found something that was pretty balanced. And actually, the more that I read the plan, there is something in there about carrying capacity. Just how many vehicles can you have on a seashore? And I’ll tell you park service units wrestle with that across the country: how many people are too many people? To the point where now, there’s so many people that the overall experience is being degraded and the resources are being degraded. And I’ll tell you that’s a tough number to figure out. But we address that to some degree with the plan we have. So I think we put the plan into place and considered a lot of different tissues, everything from resource protection to access for variety of different groups to carrying capacity. A lot of different considerations.

It’s funny. When you think about it, the Seashore was pitched a tourism draw. And its’ been successful. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau data says the number one reason people visit the beach. I’d argue Cape Hatteras was the original draw. But moving forward, you’re setting yourself up for an issue you can’t control: how do you encourage people to visit and still manage the resource?
And it’s a balancing act, because if you exploit too much the ability for everybody and anybody at any time to use the resource, the resource becomes degraded. And that original draw, that original thing that was so special for people to come to see, might not be so special anymore. That being said, if nobody can access it and enjoy it then one of the principal reasons for being is gone as well, and also people that get to enjoy national parks and the resources they protect, tend to be some of our best supporters.

I’d argue that, long-term, you want people to visit the park. You need humans to protect these areas because turtles can’t hold picket signs or pressure legislators.
You do. And that’s a pretty good segue to talk about the centennial, which is really exciting. August 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. And to me it’s an incredible opportunity to reconnect a younger generation of U.S. citizens and people around the world with the National Park idea. To get them to understand that there’s more beyond the iPhone or video game they’re playing. That these things are out there for them to enjoy and protect and to bring their families to. And that really encompasses a lot of what the Centennial is about is to connect and reconnect with this new generation of park supporters and enthusiasts.

Have you noticed a drop? Does the data say fewer people are visiting?
I’m not sure of the total number [for all parks]. We have pretty good visitations, but it has trended down a little.

Too many old people? Is that the problem?
Just to be clear: everyone is welcome at our park units. But knowing that there’s a younger generation that may not have connected with the park system like the baby boomers, there is an initiative to bring them into the park. An example is that is a new initiative called Every Kid in the Park. They’re going to try and give every 4th grade student in the US — and their family — a chance to visit a park. And more than just national parks. It could be a preserve, public lands, a state park — but they want to do this between 2015 and 2016. And that’s awesome to have the park service and the Department of Interior and the government overall backing this initiative to try and get every fourth grader on to a piece of protected land. I think that’s a feat. Because sometimes those early memories turn into a long-term passion for individuals. And I think that’s a great example of one of the things we’re doing to try and get people here.

In our case, that applies mostly to the Wright Brothers because that’s the one that has an entry fee.
It does. But there may be initiatives to get folks to the seashore and spend a day with one of our interpretive rangers. You could do an educational program on the ecology of the intertidal zone or something similar on the sound side. Talk a little bit about the history of the area, talk a little bit about coastal geomorphology and sea level rise. In some cases, we’re sort of a national laboratory for studying all these coastal processes. And one thing we’re going to try and do from an educational standpoint is an initiative to make this more than a one-year event and try to connect more with the urban centers — whether it’s Raleigh or Norfolk or Virginia Beach — and find ways to bring those students down to Seashore. It’s almost their backyard. And talk to them about the amazing resources we have. And get them to understand more about these special park units and also have fun.

A couple things you’ve mentioned before that sounded interesting was a kayak trail?
The park service has a series of Call to Action Initiatives. Number 12 is called Follow the Flow. So this particular project, under the umbrella of the Centennial, is all about establishing water based access and establishing paddle trails in the Seashore. So we’re looking at four new paddle trails with designated launch sites, so people can use stand up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, whatever they want to do to experience the seashore on the sound side.

And the International Night Sky designation was another one.
In that case, we have Call to Action Initiative Number 27. It’s called Starry Starry Night. We want to lead the way to protect the natural darkness and the dark night skies in this region. And we’re pursuing an International Night Sky Designation. We have a lot of work to do there — to retrofit hundreds of lights to make them turtle friendly, as an example — to do a lot of things. But anyone who’s visited the seashore, I hope has had the opportunity to walk out on the beachfront on a dark night and look up at the sky and see this incredible world that’s beyond the planet earth here. It’s amazing. In addition, that darkness that allows you to enjoy the night sky is also critical for sea turtles who use our beaches extensively in terms of not being distracted by light pollution at night. So there’s a lot of benefits for that initiative.

We’re looking at a variety of other things, as well, in terms of bringing school groups in and really focusing on education. And we’re also interested in finding new partnerships with local community groups that want to work with us on specific things where they can help bring resources to the table and we can bring resources to the table as well. And to some degree that’s yet to be defined. It’s my hope that this Centennial is not just one big birthday party in the summer of 2016, it really is a variety of new partnerships and initiatives that bring us into the next century.

What user groups? Is it kiters? Surfers? The same user groups that are involved in the access issue?
The answer to your question is yes. It’s everybody and anybody that has some nexus with these NPS units and wants to make a difference and do good things with us.

It almost sounds like you’re trying to convince — not convince — but it’s like a branding thing. You’re shaking people and saying, “Hey! We’re here! Come enjoy us!” How has that changed over the past 100 years? I mean, there are people who come here these days and stay in the pool or their house the whole time.
I don’t the data behind it. But you mentioned the word branding. And I would encourage your readers to go to FindYourPark .com. The park service has a major friends group called the National Park Foundation and they are working very closely with us on the Centennial. And one of the initiatives is called Find Your Park. It’s all about finding out about centennial events. Sharing stories about the protected areas — state parks, local parks, trails, museum, historic sites, national parks — so you can post on these blogs, “I went to so-and-so and here’s what I did.” Sort of developing a new community of park enthusiasts.

It sounds like it comes back to what I was saying earlier: you need people to support these national parks or they may go away eventually. And I’ve heard people say, “Get rid of the park service.” I’m not sure that’s even feasible, but is this self-preservation in some ways?
I don’t know if it’s as much self-preservation as it is treating this Centennial as an opportunity to rebrand in some ways — as you mentioned — and to really reach out on our own. The world is changing. It’s a changing society. And to reach out and try to connect the Park service with a younger generation. I don’t think it’s out of any form of desperation. It’s just changing ways of communicating with a changing world.

Any push back on these initiatives? I love the sound of a night sky, but I could see business owners wanting to leave lights on.
I don’t think we get a lot of friction. In some cases there’s a cost associated and that’s where some times it becomes more challenging. Even for us to retrofit our lights to make them night-sky friendly or to remove certain lights is expensive for Seashore that stretches so many dozens of miles with all these different facilities. That’s a barrier, but I’m confident we’ll get there over time. The cooperation we’ve received from folks like the Hatteras Electrical Co-op and other folks wanting to work with us ah all been very positive.

What about long-term threats? When you look at 100 years, what are the big issues. I know you said something about sea level rise on the phone conference, and that’s some of the frankest language I’ve heard around here.
When I saw in your email you wanted to talk about big things looming in the horizon, the first thing I grabbed was the North Carolina Sea Level Rise Assessment Report. This is the 2015 update to the 2014 report. And they looked out 30 years. And I don’t need to read it to you but basically they’re looking at ranges of sea level rise somewhere between a couple inches up to 10 inches over a 30-year period. For anyone who’s been here a long time and driven down Pea Island between here and Rodanthe, there’s times when you drive past the water and you look and you go, “I’m literally almost at sea level.” And there’s times when 10 inches of water — and even 5 inches of water — can make a huge difference. And not only during ordinary days when it’s 70 degrees outside with 10mph winds but in particular during a time when there’s storm or a lot of rainfall and the groundwater comes up. There are so many challenges associated with living in a location where sea level rise is a factor. And on top of that, not only do we have sea level rise occurring, but you also have subsidence occurring of the land.

And you can look at sea level rise in two different ways. You can look at it as a looming crisis or you can say, “The best available data, the best available science we have, suggests that it’s happening, so let’s plan appropriately and move forward.” And that’s the way I’m choosing to look at it for the sake of the Outer Banks Group. We’re not seeing this as a crisis. We’re seeing this as a continually changing environment. In some cases it’s changing much more quickly than it has in the recent past and that’s definitely challenging. But I think it’s only responsible for us to say, “What does the best available science say? Let’s look at all of our infrastructure, let’s look at access to the park, let’s look at the resources we have, and lets start forecasting out 30 years.” If we know that sea level might rise 2 inches or 5 inches or 10 inches and look at a particular a building or boat ramp or parking lot — a culvert that passes water from once side of Route 12 to the other — and say to ourselves, “If the sea level rises as much as 2 inches or 10 inches higher in 30 years, how would that affect what’s in front of us? And what are our options?”

This is no different than watching the news on TV tonight, before I go down to Buxton tomorrow, and seeing if it’s going to be 60 degrees or 80 degrees and whether or not it’s going to rain or be sunny. Because if I know that I can certainly plan for a much more comfortable day and protect myself from getting sunburned or drenched. Well, we have some science now that forecasts what our climate is going to look like and sea level rise is going to look like so its only responsible to take that into consideration and say, “Now I know this is reasonably likely, what sort of different ways of managing these NPS units should we be considering?” So what we hope to do in the next few years is what we call scenario planning. And actually this sea level rise assessment report is the foundation for that.

So you’re using the state and not the federal one. Because I know the state low-balled a little bit.
What we would probably do is use all of it and say, “There’s a range from nothing happening to the maximum amount and something in between. So, let’s look at all three and scenarios and say ‘What alternative ways might we have of managing these NPS units?’” Because we all know there’s a lot of uncertainty in these scientific predictions. But it’s funny, at the end of my street there’s some bollards by a bike path with a sticker that says, “Life on a sandbar.” Well this is life on a sandbar. And a sandbar is really susceptible to these changes. We’re at ground zero here. So we want to be thinking progressive about how we manage the seashore. And we’re already doing it.

Right now at Coquina Beach we have a trailer where we’re selling ORV permits. It’s open every day of the year. And it’s maybe 50 to 100 feet back from the last dune. It gets beat up by the sand. It experiences the same thing any beachfront home experiences. And we had on the books to spend money, well over $100,000 to end the lease and build a permanent office. And we looked at things like the sea level rise report and though about the storms that came through that can be so damaging and said, “Maybe we ought to make a different decision.” Maybe we ought to let the lease end, let the people come take that trailer way and go across the street to one of the buildings we have and carve out a little space. It might not be as convenient as before, but we’ll still sell permits and we’ll better utilize existing space. But we won’t invest in infrastructure that’s in an extremely fragile or tenuous place. So we’re starting to make those decisions already.

I think that makes total sense. The other side of that is, I know there’s discussion of doing beach nourishment in Buxton, which may not make sense from that long-term perspective. Have you reached any decisions yet?
We’re currently evaluating the impacts. What we’ll do at the end of that evaluation is make a decision on whether or not to issue a special use permit to the county to allow it to happen. What I’m hoping is that we — and I mean the entire community, the seashore, the county, the local residents, the user groups — I’m hoping that in the next five years we can all sit down and say, “We want life to exist out here. We want to continue to have a good economy. We want to continue to protect the resources we have.” But there is no question: it is changing. There’s no question about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the photographs from Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, but they’re losing shoreline. Trees are dying from saltwater inundation. It’s happening. So what if we all were to get together and say, “We’re all part of this community, the changes are occurring, how do we become progressive and forward thinking and think of the ways we revision our existence out on this sandbar.” So I’d love to see something like that happen. But I can tell you that it would be something the community would have to initiate and we’d love to participate on. Prior to that happening, we need to at least take a look at the science and take a look at our operations and look at alternative ways of doing things in the future. But that’s one of the biggest things that’s out there. And we need to look at. But it’s probably going to take a little time. We need to get through that ORV legislation more first.

But that could be an opportunity for a thawing for some ways and for these groups to talk more and look to the future. Speaking of sea level rise, did the group comment to BOEM on the offshore drilling issue?
The park service in Washington solicited input from us and all the coastal park units. And they basically sent in a letter to BOEM saying we had a number of concerns and asked for a lot of information so we could better articulate our concerns. For example, we asked for good oceanographic modeling that could help us. You know it’s one thing to say if there’s a spill in the ocean there will be oil on the beaches. But it would be really good to know what that risk is and there’s a lot of models out there that will tell you between the gulf stream and the prevailing winds, literally what happens to a drop of oil that comes out of the ground or spills on the ocean’s surface, where would it end up? And talk about scenarios — what if all that happened when there’s a strong easterly wind, or northeasterly wind or south wind or southwest wind? What happens if a spill over laps with a hurricane? So to basically bring that science — just like the seal levels science — to the table so the park service can better understand what that risk is.

Short term stuff: the Frisco pier is gone.
Frisco pier is going to be demolished. We had to do an underwater survey so we could figure out how to safely remove the pilings. But that’s been a plan for a long period of time. And now it’s just a matter of when we do the work.

Tell me about the circle of stones for the foundation.
Just drive over to where the lighthouse is, you’ll see it. It’s an incredible honor to the people who dedicated parts of their lives to operate the lighthouse. It came out beautifully. It’s a semi-circle with crushed stone. Several rings of stones in semi circle that faces the lighthouse. So it’s a great place to do programs or have people sit and rest. We’ll do some of the dedication ceremony later this summer.

And lifeguards are funded?
Lifeguards are funded. We contracted it out, just like we did last year, but all that’s handled in our regional office. But we’re definitely funding the lifeguards this summer.

There are some renovations in store, too?
There’s a major overhaul planned for Wright Brothers. I‘m not sure when that’s all going to happen but it includes all new exhibits. And we actually got funding for all new exhibits, so that’s underway. And that actually takes longer than the renovation of the building itself. So we’re hoping that funding comes through for the building renovation soon so the timing for the exhibits inside an the building construction will mesh and in the next five to 10 years we have a new visitors center.

Any idea what it looks like?
It will be a complete makeover. We’ll bring the media inside up to 2015/2016 and it will continue to be faithful to the story but hopefully the exhibits will be even more engaging.

What about Fort Raleigh? Anything there?
No major changes. We’re trying to continue to build relationships with the Lost Colony and the Roanoke Island Historical Association and the Elizabethan Gardens. Try to find ways to work even more closely together to insure that people realize on Wednesday or Thursday whenever the sunburn’s kicking in that this really is a phenomenal place to visit. That we have a lot of history here, that we have an incredible play that occurs almost nightly, and that we have a lot to offer. And we’ll continue to partner with those organizations — and maybe we’ll partner with new groups — to make sure people understand we have a lot to offer on Roanoke Island.

But I’m really interested in engaging with all the local groups that are tapped into the hip culture. I’m not going to win a lot of interest from the 7- to 15-year old surfers dressed in this uniform — even though I love it — so we are looking for groups to help us tap into ways to attract younger people. Because to some people the Seashore might be all about baking in the sun, to someone else it might be about watching oystercatchers, to someone else it’s about seeing the night sky to someone else it’s about catching bluefish on a seven-foot spinning rod to someone else it’s about having the rideof a lifetime on a wave or a kiteboard. So we want to really connect with all those groups that really enjoy this place.

In many ways, people see the park service as a “keep out” organization. This message sounds more inclusive.
Think about how primal and natural surfing is. Just as an example. Let’s forget the fact the board is foam and fiberglass and not wood, but you’re going out there on a piece of something that floats. It doesn’t make any noise. It’s just a human being paddling the wave. It’s awesome in terms of a low impact sport. It’s a dream sprort for a national park.

You have a lot of that though – the kayaking, kiting, fishing, is all very…
Yes. Really compatible uses within the seashore. So to me it’s exciting. Plus I like to surf. So I‘m excited. I want o get stand up paddleboard. I’m excited because I’m a huge sight fisherman, so you see the fish and cast at it. It’s the type of thing you do down in the Keys for bonefish or tarpon, but you can do it here for redfish and things like that. And they have this SUP you can stand and fish from. I’m thinking I want to do that. I have kayak-fished before, but the height makes it so much better.

What does the park service look like the next 37 to 100 years?
First of all, I’d love to establish a friends group for the seashore. It’s not even about money, it’s about finding ways to keep our visitors who come here connected with the seashore. To leave and maybe get a newsletter to keep them informed of things that are happening. People make their childhood and family memories here. They exercise here. They become adept at incredible sports here. They gaze at the nighttime sky. They see shorebirds. They have incredible experiences. And it would be great to have an organization that would do that. And perhaps they could help us on the educational side as well, to provide resources for educational programs. I mentioned before that we really want to connect the surrounding communities to the park a little bit better. So folks up in Norfolk and Virginia Beach realize they have this gorgeous resource right to their south an hour and half away. And to connect with folks who might not step outside of that urban or suburban environment to this beautiful natural area. So a friends group might be able help us do that. So I’m looking forward to trying to make that happen.

And that goes beyond the National Seashore. Take a place like Wright Brothers — it’s an amazing place in terms of what happened there. But it’s even more amazing when you think about it from the angle of inspiring the younger generation to invent. Inspiring them to embrace science, technology, engineering, math. All those great things that have allowed the US to become a leader in technology. When they see what a couple of people could do in terms of making an airplane fly, I think they become inspired. There are so many opportunities with a friends group to bring in the younger generation and inspire them to do great things for their country. So we relay have a lot of hope when it comes to connecting youth with all of the Outer Banks Group groups units.

Part Two: interviewed April 30.

Good morning Superintendent. Congratulations on getting this all done in time. I’m sure it was a stressful few months.
It was a lot of work, but we have a good team so we did well.

I had a chance to see the report. It’s a lot to digest, but it looks to me like the buffers got a lot smaller. Would you agree?
Yes. We’ve proposed some substantial changes, so we look forward to getting everyone’s feedback.

It also looks like there may be room for more corridors. Or at least make it easier to get to Cape Point. Am I reading that right?
I can see you how you might conclude that. What we’ve done is we’ve basically tried to provide new buffers based on the science we could find. And because they’re smaller, it allows for corridors. Some examples are what we proposed for oystercatchers, what we’ve proposed for piping plovers, what we’ve proposed for sea turtles.

So for piping plovers our standard buffer from an ORV perspective is to have a 1000-meter buffer around the chicks. So what we propose in Alternative B — which is the preferred alternative in the EA — is that we go to a standard buffer of 500 meters. But we believe we can still maintain the same level of protection. And the reason I say that is because we’re also proposing to have additional staff to keep eyes on those chicks. To make sure that if they get out of that 500-meter buffer — or come closer to humans or ORVs — we would have the ability to make adjustments and protect them. And then we’ve gone a step further. And for the sake of trying to make those buffers as small as possible and also to allow for a corridor, we’ve given ourselves the flexibility to go down to 200 meters — but no less — if a particular set of chicks and their 500 meter buffer are preventing access from one place to another. So it gives us that flexibility.
That’s a big change.
And the corridor in that case would be next to the shoreline. One of the things I’ve learned from our biologist here and others who’ve worked here for a long time is that traditionally — and it’s important for me to stress this could change— but traditionally a lot of the chicks who utilize the Cape Point area use some of the ponds that are a little bit north and west of Cape Point as opposed to the eastern shore line facing the Atlantic Ocean. And because of that, there may be some opportunities where this flexibility allows for a corridor down the shoreline to Cape Point itself.

That being said, we can’t predict what these birds are going to do every year. And we also have a lot of overlap between different species. I’ve got a great map we’ll be using in the public meetings, but this area of Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one of the most highly preferred areas for wildlife to nest on throughout the Outer Banks. It’s really wild when you see this graphic of all the different oystercatchers and colonial nesting birds and piping plovers that nest in this area. So there’s a lot of overlap. And that will make things complicated. That being said, I’m confident the proposal we’ve put forward will provide significantly more flexibility than we’ve had in the past.

Gotcha. No guarantees. And I know you don’t have this approved —although between A &B, I think I know what most people around here would say — but if it does go through, what are chances of chanages happening this summer?
Remember: this is just a proposal at this time. We haven’t made a decision to implement Alternative B. And the reason is, we want to hear from the public. And we have a 15-day public comment period that kicked off yesterday afternoon. So it’s critical to hear from the public and understand everybody’s thoughts on the proposal before we make a decision. If we make a decision to implement alternative B, I anticipate we’ll be able to make some of the changes that are contained within Alternative B, but not all of them. And the reason for that is if you read the environmental assessment, you’ll notice we’re attempting to keep the same level of protection that we have under the current plan that governs the use of ORVs and pedestrian access to the seashore. However, you notice, Alternative B makes the buffers smaller and we provide some of these corridors. Well, the only way to do that and maintain protection is to have additional staff to keep eyes on these situations. So it’s going to take a little bit of time to obtain these staff so we can make sure we meet our commitments. We won’t have all those staff on board this summer. So I would say we’ll have what I call, “phased implementation.” We’ll do what ever we can with the staff we have this summer, and we would be able to implement all of the changes we proposed here — if we choose that alternative — next summer.

And that’s still an ‘if.’ I know we think of it as ‘our park’ but it’s a national park. And people who don’ live here get equal weight in their comments. So nothing’s assured. But there does seem to be a real effort to bend over backwards. Extra staff to watch birds, seems like a big difference.
Absolutely. And it behooves people to behave and follow the routes. But it goes for pedestrians as well. For piping plovers, the previous buffers were 300 meters. We took it down to 100 meters. That’s a 2/3 reduction for pedestrians. So we paid special attention to the language that Congress presented and we did our best to meet the intent of that.

When we spoke before you, mentioned the friends groups. How do the mechanics of these friends groups work? Because I picture people being able to pool money to build another ramp or access. If people were to develop a group and they raise money, can they earmark or encourage how that money is spent? If they want to raise money for another walk over, is that a feasible idea or is it more complex than that?
Basically the way friends groups work is that there are a bunch of people and they’re often from near and far — they could be from California and Buxton — and they all get together and they say, “We love Cape Hatteras National Seashore for all these different reasons and we want to support it for all these reasons.” And they form a relationship with the Seashore. So they say, we want to help you implement the highest priorities for the seashore. And this is typically the way it works in most parks. And we would explain what those priorities are. And if those priorities happen to be access projects, meaning ramps or walkways for ramps or ORVS, and we didn’t have the funds, they may go out and help us raise funds to meet those highest priorities.

Or even if it needs hiring more bodies to watch nests? Obviously, you can’t hire people based on those donations, but if you’ve got more money in the kitty, you can say, “We have breathing space.”
We do the best we can to use the funds that are appropriated to us inside the seashore. And I think we’re lucky to have the funding we have and I think we do a very good job. That being said, a friends group can provide what I call “a margin of excellence” to provide the additional staff to take an ordinary project and make it special. And many friends groups around the country have helped park service units in that manner. The federal land management agency sets the policy of what we need to do to manage these plans. But a Friends group can help us do things we don’t have funds to do.

The friends group can’t dictate what to do. But if it’s on the list of things to do, having the money to do it would help achieve that.
Absolutely. Or, if having a group of volunteer sea turtle nest watchers may allow us to have an ORV corridor longer than if we didn’t have any eyes on that next.

Or the projects on the list that don’t have the funding.
Yes, the 29 projects that were put out in the environmental assessment of 2013. But on April 22, we put out a press release that we re-prioritized projects to be consistent with the defense authorization language. In which they asked us to expedite construction of these access points. And that’s precisely what we did. We pulled out all of the ramps form that 29-project EA. And either decided we were going to finish them up as soon as possible or decided to fast forward the ones that had not been implemented yet. So you’ll see that we’re completing ramp 25. We’re about to start ramp 32 and have most have completed by 2015. We’ve taken an interdunal road between ramp 45 and 49 — which is sort of the Hatteras to Frisco campground section — and we’re going to build a 4-mile unpaved road, which we cal the interdunal road there. And that’s a really big project that will allow ORVs to go from ramp 49 to ramp 45 without having to get back on the highway. That was something that was highly desired by the public. We originally weren’t going to start that until 2017. No we’re starting that project this summer. Another is ramp 48, which will be constructed between ramp 45 and 49. So that you might be in the ramp 45 area —which is close to Cape Point campground. And you might decide you want to go over to the Frisco area, but actually get on the beach sooner than if you did by ramp 49. And we’re not even going to start hat project until 2018. That will now begin in 2015. So, in total, we’ve basically taken about three-quarters of a million dollars worth of projects that weren’t going to start or be completed for several years and we’re getting all those things started.

And I heard from a lot of folks in Frisco that Ramp 49, which is just to the west-southwest of the campground, that often times there’s a sea turtle that decides to nest right by that ramp and basically closes that entire section of ORV-accessible beach that’s very popular with families and swimmers and fishermen — probably surfers as well. Now, with some of the things we’re proposing, you would be able to go down this interdunal road down a couple of miles and get on the beach and you have a de facto corridor that goes around that nest. And we recognized that provided a lot of flexibility and , consistent with the legislation, made a decision to make that happen as soon as we could.

Like you said, “flexible.” This all sounds like it has the potential to be more flexible.
Exactly. Another example is ramp 63 in Ocracoke. That was another place we wanted to implement these flexibilities as soon as possible. So we’ll begin construction of 63 in 15/16 versus having that project start in 16 or 17.

And you have 2 weeks for people to comment. And by mid June the word will ring out that his is what you’re proposing. And then comes the next level of implementation based on species behavior and funding and all the detail work.
They have a sense of what we’re proposing now. What they’ll find out in June is what we’ve selected, but only after we’ve received all this input from the two-week public review period. But June is when we plan to release that decision. And as you said, the implementation of that plan will take some time. But this plan would really enhance the flexibility and adaptive management concept that was in the original plan. This is basically an enhancement of that.

And it’s Choice A or Choice B. Which is totally different from before, when it was , A, B, C, D. It’s pretty much, keep what you got or try something different.
And we’re already working on the second phase, which is the morning openings, vehicle free areas and seasonal ORV routes. And we’ll launch that public process after we’re done with this, hopefully sometime in July. And we’ll be talking to the public again to get a sense of what they desire. Really, if there’s one last thing to stress here, for any pedestrian or ORV user that wants to utilize Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s beaches and is looking for additional flexibility in terms of our ability to provide access, that wont’ happen by one form or another. It’s really going to happen through a variety of different measures. And that first measure is the expedited construction plan — again, we expedited three-quarters of a million dollars in projects several years ahead to try and provide additional access. The second way is through proposals we made to look at wildlife buffers and corridors. The third way is through the evaluation of the vehicle-free areas the morning openings and the seasonal ORV routes. And that’s yet to be determined and Congress told us to consider that, and that’s what we’ll do. But the take home message is: for anyone who wants to understand how to gain additional flexibility, look at all those pieces, not just one.

Between the ORV proposal — and just our conversations — there seems to be a more welcoming tone compared to the past ten years. Was that part of the reason you were hired? To cleanse the palate for lack of a better term — from the past bitterness?
All I can tell you is the posting was vacant and I was excited to get the job. I certainly had the goal of trying to build trust and partner with the community. One of our priorities here at the Outer Banks group is to work closely as we can with the public and to build relationships. I see this as just one of one of many things in which we want to hope to build relationships with the public. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a proposal for beach nourishment, if it’s a proposal to bring in inner city kids from Hampton Roads for educational experiences on the seashore, if it’s a celebration of flight at the Wright Brothers. So this is just one of the many things we hope to strengthen the relationship. Because we know that the public — near and far — has a lot to offer in terms of ideas and in terms of their genuine love and appreciation for the resource. I guess all I hope is the public sees we’re talking to folks. We’re willing to talk to anybody and everybody — and listen to them.


“Can you talk right now? Meet me at McDonalds and we’ll go for a ride.”

He may no longer be the state’s most powerful politico, but when Marc Basnight agrees to meet for an interview, you still drop everything and hop in the car. Which is exactly what we did this December. And while cruising streets between Nags Head and Corolla isn’t the most formal setting, in this case, you couldn’t pick a more fitting approach.

After all, when the Manteo native became a freshman senator in 1984, roads in Eastern North Carolina were cramped at best — crumbling at worst. It took almost six hours to get to Raleigh. And the psychological distance between the capital and the Outer Banks was even greater.

“My first speech I said, ‘Fellow senators, I come to say this region I represent has been screwed,” he recalls. “I believe we should’ve been part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because no one here much cares about us. That was a mistake — they looked at me like Benedict Arnold.”

Basnight soon proved his loyalty to the state and his district. Over 26 years of service — and a record nine terms as the senate’s President pro tempore — the Democratic leader garnered bipartisan support and drew attention to coastal issues from water quality to infrastructure to education. He also brought in plenty of dollars, helping fund facilities from Roanoke Island Festival Park to Jennette’s Pier to the NC Wildlife Center in Currituck.

All that ended in 2010 when the Republican party won control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. In January 2011, Basnight announced he was battling A.L.S. — the debilitating neurological condition also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and retired from politics. Four years after stepping down, it’s easy to see how he made the ascent. And while his speech may be slower, his mind still fires on all cylinders. Over several hours — and two separate interviews — we drove from Whalebone Junction to the Whalehead Club, covering issues from economics to religion to poverty to mortality. No matter the subject, he was well-informed, open to debate, disarmingly candid and plainly humble.

“Any number of people out here could’ve created change when I was elected,” he insists. “Whether it was me or someone else, the change was gonna come.”

Today, change has come again. This time pushing the tide of power more inland, and further right, making it a perfect moment ask the senator about the next round of challenges. Because whether or not you agree with his views, Marc Basnight commands a level of experience no other Outer Banks politician can claim: both an innate, boots-on-the ground familiarity with local issues — and an understanding of how power works from here to the White House. — Matt Walker

[Ed. Note: What follows is the unedited transcript of two separate interviews over two drives, beginning with a cruise up the beach road to Kitty Hawk and back through Nags Head.]

You’re in a position to talk about the state of the community in a way few people can. Especially in light of how things have changed since you stopped serving in Raleigh.
Change can be very good. Change can affect people —change will affect — people in diffent ways. And change can be negative.

A lot’s happened in the last couple of years. What impacts do you see? And is it positive or negative or both?
All change is created at the wishes of the people. You mentioned you went to James Madison University. A school named after one of my heroes. George Washington, my hero, could’ve been anointed as some of form monarch. In fact, Hamilton felt that he should. Washington rejected the executive being all too powerful and then Madison, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris crafted Madison’s famous constitution and Bill of Rights. How do you connect that to the Outer banks? Easy. That form of government creates just what you see [Waves his hand around to the surroundings outside the car.] A voice of the people through elections. Not a democracy. But a republic. If there’s to be any cursing or dissatisfaction by us — meaning all of us — in the change being expressed at the voting booth, our form of government represents this change. We elected them. My grandfather, who chaired the Dare County Board of Commissioners along with a handful of others, determined what we are at that time. We just had a new election. Bob Woodard and his crew. Southern Shores, Kill Devil Hills. Manteo. Nags Head. Kitty Hawk. They all determine who we are in their brief time that they are elected. On another level, Paul Tine, Bill Cook, the president pro tem, speaker, governor, president — our whole form of government is what you see here.

I’m pleased with all of our elected officials. Now, did I vote for some of the commissioners? No I did not. My philosophy is different. But, that said, the new board now represents me. And I want to do everything I can to help make them successful. Nothing I can do. I’m now a big cheerleader. I want success.

But early on, someone said, “We’re going to have education. We’re going to educate our people.” That was the genius to what America is. Sad to say our public schools have surrendered to mediocrity. But our universities are leading the world. Of the top then schools in the world, I bet you eight are here in America. Maybe 10. Of the top 100, 80. Reading yesterday in Bloomberg magazine, Duke — a southern school — overtook Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The first time a northern school was defeated in the rankings of MBA programs. Significant for the economy of here. And if you look at that top 20 of the business schools MBA programs, scroll down, you’ll see UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. And right behind Chapel Hill, Cornell and MIT. [Grins.]

I feel like the state’s changed its tune on education. Funding is being cut. The governor said a couple years ago state universities shouldn’t offer liberal arts degrees. Do you think it’s undervalued now compared to 20 years ago?
Not so much undervalued as misunderstood. The wage gap is a serious problem. People are fighting to make payments. Car payments. House payments. A refrigerator payment. Insurance. Health. They get disconnected from that value. That training. That four-year degree. Or that two-year degree. For-profit schools represent a weakening of the knowledge of a course. I’m for online courses, don’t get me wrong. But the structure needs to be one that isn’t dominated by money.

I imagine McCrory — and others in government, not just him — doesn’t fully realize the significance of what North Carolina is achieving through their doctoral university and masters programs. I’m not trying to choose one over the other. But UNC Chapel Hill today receives more NIH grants than Yale. There are seven in the country. Who knows that that has happened in Art’s Place his morning? I’m not smashing anyone. That waitress in Art’s and at the Lone Cedar making nominal money can’t read magazines and papers first thing in the morning. She has to get her child to the day care. But the importance of schooling at the high level creates a better change.

The point I’m making is we all learn. And McCrory is realizing — if he didn’t already — the value of these public schools. East Carolina, UNC Charlotte. The girl working at the Dunkin Donuts, where I get coffee through a drive thru — after having Front Porch Coffee. But I can’t walk in. She’s from Moldova. Acing every class at COA. Wants to live here in America. How fortunate are we? Very. Education.

What I want to know most more that anything is a lot of people feel that — in your absence — Dare County and the coast is under attack. That it may even be retribution for your years of influence. Do you agree? Or is it just way politics works?
Not at all. I don’t feel that or believe that. I was close friends with many Republicans in the senate. I also consider McCrory a friend. He’s been in my old office in Raleigh. I don’t believe there’s any animosity.

[Nods.] I have no enemies. I do believe that when power shifts there’s a different priority system. That’s important to occur. Again, it represents the very wishes of the people. I honor that. The greater focus on urbanization — the I-85 corridor. Starting at Raleigh, Chapel Hill , Durham, Greensboro. Winston Salem. Charlotte. And the growing areas in the state. Beautiful people. There is in place, winners and losers. When I first got elected, it was hard to explain our plight, our condition, in this region of North Carolina. That was a change as we got more established.

I remember my first speech. Marshall Rauch, a senator from Gaston County, chaired the Senate Caucus. I was one of 50 who got the wonderful privilege to represent their region. Got a call to Pinehurst for the caucus meeting. He gave every freshman member opportunity to stand and address the caucus. And I stood: “I’m here from the first senatorial district. Home of flight. Where America began with a settlement 19 years before Jamestown. Home of colonial Edenton.” I went on and on. And then I made a mistake. I said, “Fellow senators. I come here knowing that we made a mistake when we carved out Virginia and North Carolina. This region I represent has been screwed. And I believe we should’ve been part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because no one much cares about us.” We had no roads at that point. I-17 coming out of Deep Creek, two lanes, killing people. 158/168., coming out of Chesapeake, a disgrace. Highway 64 too. It used to take me 5 and half hours to get to my capital. I could get to Richmond quicker. NC 12 was 18-foot wide, water holes everywhere. Hyde County. Bertie. Columbia. Not the way.

Yet, because of people, that change did occur. It wasn’t me. The timing was very right for change in North Carolina. It could’ve been any number of people out here who could’ve been elected when I was to create that knowledge that something was wrong. East Carolina had to fight for every damn thing, for what little scraps the University could get. Western Carolina, Appalachian state. Same thing. UNC Wilmington, same thing. Elizabeth City State. nothing. Change was coming. Whether it was me or someone else , it was gonna come. Now lead to today. A different kind of change. We’ll have to wait to see. It may be okay. It may be fine.

What other challenges did you face besides roads and infrastructure?
Education was underfunded. We created a small schools funding mechanism. And now Chowan County. Pequimans County. Hyde County. Washington County. Currituck. And they all get special funding. And then the big initiative took some time: funding the university and community colleges at a level unheard of in America. We put before the voters a bond package to build structures at our university and community colleges, larger than anything ever seen in the America. $3.1 billion dollars. That’s throughout the state. And then, earlier, we set up a transportation infrastructure improvement program. Raised the gas tax, raised fees, and got money into DOT.

It’s funny you say that, because that’s the opposite of what’s happening now. Nobody will raise taxes now. The DOT is cutting budgets by replacing litter removal with adopt a highway programs.
You see, it comes back to people struggling. They don’t want taxes. They’re looking for a paycheck. The trouble with this interview is I can’t go deep in my thoughts.

Would you rather do an email interview?
I’ve never done an email in my life [laughs].

So what are the challenges for Outer Banker will face in the next 30 years?
The challenges are about the same. Statewide and nationally, the national scene is a wreck. The challenges here: erosion. I’m a big fan of beach nourishment. A big, big, big fan. Where you have beach and wide dunes you have no damage from water. none. Kill Devil Hills is a good example. Hurricanes, water is the damaging element. wind, no. In the recent storm, wind has done little damage. It’s erosion. a properly funded beach nourishment plan can help. My ancestors came here because of water, transportation. All of the people who live here now, I mean the vast majority came because of the influence of big blue.

When you say that, I immediately think of about offshore drilling. For me, the beach nourishment is a more complex issue. It’s smarter than hardened structures, but it’s not a cure all. Drilling is black-and-white since it threatens our whole economy. It also renders every other major issue moot: keeping the inlet open, Bonner Bridge, NC 12, beach access — all that’s for naught if we have an accident.
I’ve never been for drilling out here. The risk is way too great.

Do you think it’s a done deal? Between the lobbies and behind the scene deals, it seems inevitable.
Fossil fuels, natural gas, I hope that natural gas is a bridge to renewable technology advancing. The key to renewable is storage. Energy storage. After the BP spill I went to the Gulf Coast. Before the spill I went to the Gulf Coast. Before the spill. Ten years before, I saw little droplet of oil. In Galveston Beach they have kerosene cans when you come off the beach to rub the oil off. I went to refineries in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama. I went to Dauphin Island, Alabama. Beautiful white sand. After BP, ugly. But if you polled the people living here. I imagine they’re for it. They amount of oil you would get here is miniscule compared to the millions of barrels pumped daily in the world. Not worth the risk. But energy always has driven the world. Horses. Rail. Wheel. Coal.

I guess part of my frustration — and I know from the presentation you made with Purdue and Duke on wind energy in Buxton in 2009 and what tidal energy research CSI is doing — this place should be on the leading edge of new technologies. And that’s where you’ll get long term jobs and revenue.
Obama killed the damn wind farm on the Outer Banks. He did.

I funded a 3- or 4-year study by UNC Chapel Hill that determined a wind farm in Pamlico Sound. Dominion Power didn’t want t do anything on wind turbines. Jim Rogers is CEO of Duke Energy — the largest energy company in America. I said, “You’re building wind turbines all over the mid-west — Indiana, Kansas, Iowa. I saw them.. I went out there. I said, “Why in the hell don’t you build wind turbines on the water, here? Like the North Sea.” He took a money clip out of his pocket. Had some loose bills in it. He threw it on my conference table. He said, “You get the permits, and I’ll build them.” I said, “Jim: don’t f–k me now.” He said,” I challenge you.” And my wheels were turning — what a grand opportunity. I want to remind you, we now have a president who wants wind — and not one turbine in the water. Not one. Nowhere. Can’t get a permit from the federal government. Can’t get one.

What’s the issue? Too many competing interests?
You read just like I read. Birds. Ships. Military. But we did the UNC study and I got temporary blessings — not a permit — from marine fisheries, CAMA, military, fish and wildlife, everyone. And then Amy [Fulk] came in — my chief of staff, brilliant lady. She said, “Boss, you’re not going to like this.” After four years of studying, Duke was ready to put up three, 5-megawatt turbines in Pamlico Sound for a one-year test. And then erect 172 turbines in Pamlico Sound. They had spent $3.9 million of their dollars, getting prices form Seimens and General Electric. It was supposed to cost $80-some million for 3 turbines. They met with Fish and Wildlife. And the impression they got from that meeting was that Fish and Wildlife would go along with 3 turbines but in no way would they commit to a wind farm in Pamlico Sound. Duke didn’t want 3 transmission lines! I didn’t want three! Three were a symbol! Didn’t do nothing for energy! So they come in my office and say, “If you can’t get some pathway to a large wind farm on the water, It’s dead. We’re not spending more money playing badminton, beating a ball back and forth.”

Obama comes into Raleigh. I said, “Amy, get this letter ready, telling him what the obstacle is.” We got Duke, wanting no money. Not a damn dime. Largest investment they have ever made, 172 turbines. Billions of dollars. I told him, “Mr. President. Your speech on renewable energy, you noted we have not permitted wind turbines in the water. And you would like them. I told him, Duke Energy’s ready. But Fish and Wildlife surprised us. They’re okay with 3, but they’re non-committal to any other wind turbines.”

So you’re speaking directly to the president now.
Yes. And he said, “Well, I’m surprised. “ I said, “It’s all right here” and handed the letter to him. He handed the letter to a man beside him. Weeks later, we’ve heard nothing. Duke had heard nothing. Months went by . A letter came in the mail to me, it said, “We received your letter and we thank you for your comments.” [Laughs.] And that’s sort of typical of him. I’ve seen a pattern of wonderful speeches with no follow-through. I love him and hate him.

He’s certainly been a frustrating leader for people who expected a lot more progressive policies.
Well, this is a real life experience of that out here on the Outer Banks. Look: all this wind. No wind energy. None. We were very excited. But I also wrote him and handed him another letter about Bonner Bridge and Oregon Inlet. Again, Amy said, “Boss, we’re getting nothing out of this administration.” Minnesota bridge fell. I told Obama to his face, in a meeting with 4 or 5 others, that this bridge could fall with school kids in a bus. I really liked his expression s on his face. Like I was talking one-on-one, like he was listening. I now realize he wasn’t listening.

Do you think you would’ve gotten more traction out of Bush? Did you have a chance to talk to him, too?
Same damn thing with Bush. He came to Concord — I never let them have a free ride — I said, Mr. President, please help with the rockfish. Nothing. But Bill Clinton, I got him. He followed through. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

That’s how it got moved?
[Nods]. Norma Mills, my chief of staff, said “Boss, the president is coming to North Carolina and will speak to a joint session of house and senate about public education.” He was using what we had done as an example. I said “Norma, tell his people I need some limited time to talk privately with him about the lighthouse.” We had no money. None. I had given a task to the engineer department at NC State to determine whether that light could be moved. That was the main concern I had: that it would fall. I asked the dean of the School of Engineering at State to find out. He came back with a report that it could be moved, no problem. No fear. I took it to the people. The people were divided.

I remember that. Big time.
The national park decided to move it. But they came in with no damn money. President comes to talk and Norma says, “Boss, he can’t make it. His schedule’s too tight.” And I said, “Damn.” I was shocked. I said, “Well, Norma, tell his people they can’t come here.” [Smiles.] The governor, Jim Hunt, got involved and said, “Marc, he’ll meet. “ We met. I rode with him from the legislative building to Air Force One in his limo. I gave him a miniature lighthouse — a special one that the Roberts family had given me to give to him. The Roberts created the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society; they wanted it moved. I asked, “Have you ever seen the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse? Or been to the Outer Banks?” He said, “Yes. I went to the Wright Brothers.” I gave him every reason to move the light. He said, “Senator, I don’t do pork barrel. Never have.” I said, “Well, your wrong, Mr. President. You’re so wrong. This isn’t pork. This is a piece of maritime history. And it’s about to be a big ass pile of bricks. It’s gonna fall.” He said, “I’ll get back with you.” Two weeks later, he called. He said, “Mr. President, Bill Clinton here. I’ll put moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in my budget request to Congress asking for the money. But you have to get [U.S. Sentors] Jesse Helms and Lawton Faircloth on board.”

Now, Lawton was saying bad things about Hillary Clinton at the time on national news. I called Jesse Helms. “Senator, I need your help.” He said, “Whatever I can do for you, Marc, I’m at your disposal.” I always liked him. I told him what I needed was for him to support the president’s line item budget request to move the lighthouse. And he said, “Never in this world. That’s pork barrel.” [laughs] I called Lawton. And Lawton said — not in his exact words, but close — “If that son of a bitch would do that, I’ll make sure the congress budgets the money to move the lighthouse.” I never got Jesse, but Lawton did not sit back. He secured the money. That’s the story on the lighthouse.

Ed. note: One week later, we took a second drive. This time we head north to Corolla and back on NC 12. Off tape, I’ve wished him “Happy Holidays.”]
SENATOR BASNIGHT: Don’t say “Happy Holidays.” Say “Merry Christmas.”

MILEPOST: Sorry. I’m just trying to be inclusive of Hannukah and the other winter celebrations.
BASNIGHT: But Hanukkah is earlier. If you read about our founding, if you read the founding principles of America, America created a different government. It wasn’t founded on Hebrew or the Jewish faith. It was founded on the Christian faith. Like the Middle East has Islam, India has Hinduism, China has Buddhism. What I’m saying is [Christians] chose the 25th [of December] because that was when Jesus was born. They did not choose the Jewish or Muslim dates. Then the founders did other things. They incorporated God. God is a god of all people. God oversees Jewish faith, Hindu faith, Buddhism, Muslims, Christians. God is all these. But the reason for the 25th was Jesus. I think I’m right. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Well, I’d always heard that Jesus was born in summer, and the Romans moved the date to December to coincide with the Saturnalia as a way to draw new followers. But I’m certainly no student of the Bible. Most of what I know is osmosis. But clearly, December 25 — at least for the past 1700 years — is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Again: I’m not religious. But I love Christmas. I’m a big fan of the idea of “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
Jesus was the only one who believed in all people. He never, ever condemned a homosexual. He never condemned a prostitute. He invited all people into his flock, most especially poor people.

I’ve never read the Jeffersonian bible, which apparently focuses strictly on what Jesus said, but I understand it’s very interesting.
I read it. Jefferson was a very complex person. He had his own beliefs and his theories of life. He also believed blacks were inferior. But he was such a great thinker, how could he determine any human being was inferior? Money. His income depended on slavery. Did he truly believe that Sally Hemmings was inferior? No, he didn’t. But he had to have some pronouncement [for keeping slaves] and he couldn’t find one, I don’t believe.

It’s a pretty telling insight on how people can still justify things for money. They trick themselves. I’m sure Dick Cheney’s definition of torture would change were the tables turned, but obviously people create their personal lines to justify certain actions. Which is probably the driving force behind a lot of ill doings.
This is where Jesus comes in: a moral compass to set your course. If there was no hereafter, why not torture? If the human being just comes from the sperm and the egg, then there’s no moral compass, no laws. Man can’t make a law. He says you can torture and everyone says fine. But people with a moral compass will say, “No, that’s not fine.” Another point of why you treat mankind equal: as you would want to be treated, you treat others. That’s the principle of Jesus. The golden rule. But I’m not very religious — not like I should be. Have you read the Bible?

No. I’ve always wanted to, if nothing else because it’s the basis of so much of our literature and culture.
You should. It’s your basis also. From what I know about you, you’re a golden rule kind of man. What Jesus said, if a man hits you, turn the cheek. Don’t hit him back. if a man steals your clothes, open your home and offer more clothes. Don’t go after him.

That was my main beef, post 911. I felt like we were getting sucker-punched. And we squandered a whole lot of good will over-reacting in Iraq.
Never should’ve went there. Vietnam neither. Eisenhower, one of the two or three of our greatest presidents. His task was to stop Hitler. When he came home from the war, he got elected president. The Korean War was blazing. What did Eisenhower do? He withdrew all troops. All troops. If you go to his tomb in Abilene, Kansas — not West Point, not Arlington, but his home — you’ll see a message on top. The one he chose — and you’ll have to check this — but it says, “Money spent on every bullet and tank in the military is a dollar not spent on the poor.” [Ed. note: the real quote is, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”]

Knowing that — and knowing that many U.S. leaders do voice Christian principles — how do you explain why the defense budget can run amok but not social security or Medicare?
Easy: money. They lobby in Congress. People like Eisenhower and Carter didn’t believe in war. If you remember, Reagan was in office when they attacked Beirut. Two-hundred-plus marines killed. Reagan didn’t fight. Reagan didn’t fight Russia. He told Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And today, we’re building a wall between Mexico and us. Reagan said, “Tear down this wall.” Democrats and Republicans want to build a wall.

Because of money. Fear? Both?
A combination. But the wall is being built because we have no control of the numbers. We need a system of immigration where the Lone Cedar, the farmer, the hotel owner is given a law for his needs of workers. In America, we seem to have a system that is out of balance. Now, they can’t get workers in America to go clean. The farmer in California or in North Carolina, in the mountains, he can’t get an American worker to go pick apples. Can’t get him. Unemployment rate is imbalanced. And they penalize me if I hire someone illegal. But I can’t find someone do the work. I’d also up the rate to $12 an hour.

So you think they should raise minimum wage then?
Hell, yeah. I don’t pay minimum wage nowhere. But I also don’t pay $12 an hour. If we were all made to pay $12, yes, there would be some losses, but the winners would be the poor guy that really, really struggles. A balance — that is what I’m saying. Now, there’s a population of people who won’t work. Won’t work. They have a bad attitude. Struggle with basic principles of how you treat a fellow worker or a boss. They’re spiteful all the time. But that’s another subject.

But that’s probably always been the case. And you’re never going to fix those people. I feel like people assume if you don’t have money, you’re not working. There’s a real venom toward the working poor in this country. And there’s a lot of working poor here. It’s a community of haves and have-nots. You either own the restaurant, or you’re working in it. There’s not a whole lot of in between.
But a lot of restaurant owners struggle, too. And many employees work two jobs. Or more. They have to pay for their house. They don’t have a choice. I don’t see a lot of wealthy people out here. Not a lot of wealthy, wealthy people. Maybe a hundred? I don’t know.

To me, this is a place a conduit for wealth. Not much wealth is generated here. It comes from other places and flows through every summer. And it doesn’t last very long. I guess fishing was the same way: you caught your catch and sold it and went and caught some more.
People that live here, I’ve found, are very generous, caring people in general. Very passionate about their beliefs in life. A wonderful mix of people. Wonderful. All incomes. Not high incomes. I don’t see any of that. Now in Raleigh, there is a lot of wealth. A lot. Some of them are very generous. We wouldn’t have a lot of our museums, we wouldn’t have a lot of services for poor people, if it wasn’t for them. And churches. Churches are the foundation of the poor. When someone is down and out, churches are always there. Always. And other places for shelters. Our community has an undercurrent of generosity. People who have done very well out here are givers. I’ve found. So there’s enough money in this community to lift up the other people.

There’s a lot of benefits here, I know that. Seems like every weekend. Which is great in some ways, but it’s troubling as well because it shows how much need there is. And people who visit here think we’re all rich, but the reality is many people struggle.
Now, I disagree with that. If you want to see poverty, go to Bertie County, Northampton, Hertford. The poor people there live on only government programs. Not here. In about 6 months here, you can work hard enough to survive. In fact, the labor shortage out here is so great we have to bring labor in from Eastern Europe, Northern Mexico and Central America.

Isn’t that cheaper labor, too. Don’t Eastern Europeans save the employer money in insurance and taxes?
They don’t get unemployment or security. That’s 7.2% on very payroll, the employer won’t pay. But the salary of a worker is based on talent, attitude, effort. You don’t pay everybody the same. You can’t, if you do, why would someone give effort?

But unemployment is a big part of living here. It’s how a lot of people survive. It’s also how businesses keep employees. So it’s a different world out here.
Restaurants out here open and close on an abnormal rate. You work very hard, long hours, to succeed. But it’s the same thing for Virginia Beach. I bet you the failure rate out there is great. I saw where one of favorites, the Jewish Mother, is closed. They’d moved around [too much]. But all small business requires a lot of work.

Now, big business, particularly what I’m seeing today, is wrong. Is wrong. Bill and Melinda Gates, wonderful people, the richest man in the world. In the world. No sheik in Saudi Arabia is worth what Bill is worth. Putin isn’t worth what Bill is worth. A good man. A good woman. But, what you see is that if government doesn’t level that playing field, then all of these great people — Warren Buffet, too — they just keep taking, taking, taking, and these people will amass all the money. Within the law now — it’s the law that’s the problem. I think at least — I’m looking from the outside looking in, but that’s what it looks like now. Looks like. But four of the wealthiest people in the world are the Waltons [from Wal-Mart]. Now, it seems they want more and more. Why won’t they pay their workers more money?

I think the stock market has a lot to do with it. It’s more important to show profits and pay dividends than to pay workers.
But why? Why? You’re a human being. Why do this to people? Costco, an incredible company, they pay an average of $20 an hour — on their own. It can be done.

On a state level, does that make it harder for a county like us to affect change? I mean, tourism is a big number — $950 million. But it’s split over a few hundred businesses. It’s not like Big Oil or Big Pharma where a handful of companies control that much wealth. How do you flex muscle back on place where there’s pharmaceutical companies and universities? How did you do that? You obviously had some success.
We’re all what we are. I don’t know that I had great success. In some areas, they say I was. I can’t judge myself. I can’t do that.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Well, you don’t look back. You look forward. I never toast my accomplishments. Never weep about my failures, whatever they may be.

I think people would like to know what you’d done differently.
The answer is you don’t look back. Only forward.

Well, you clearly have opinions on the national state of things. Do you wish you’d run for a US seat?
No. I was probably at my limit. Now, I look at Congress and I am baffled by their inability to make simple changes that guide opportunity for all people. An example: Wall Street. To me, it’s very simple to rein in the banks on Wall Street. But no, they own Obama, Bush, Hillary, the other Bush, Republican, Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, McConnell, Harry Reid. They own them. It’s so disgusting to see Democrats and Republicans craft a budget bill that removed one of the strong tenets of Frank-Dodd. Removed it. No debate. They all got together and the President of the United States pushed and lobbied to remove one of the very core tentes on derivatives. What they did is push more wealth to the top, and took it from that framer. [Points to a house being built.] Now, is that right?

I would say no. But that framer very well could’ve voted for that to happen in some way, shape or form.
If he voted Republican or Democrat, he did. Shame on both parties.

So knowing that — and knowing that the electoral process is supposed to represent the will of the people — is it system failure?
No. Not at all. The system behaved just like it was supposed to do. The change will come. There will be some maverick. Some leader that the people will galvanize on. It won’t be extreme left or extreme right.

But you don’t wish you were one of those leaders to try?
I didn’t have that talent. I have limitations. I’m not of that caliber.

You don’t think so?
I would raise too much hell. Way too much.

The more issues I cover, the more I realize that political decision are never as simple as do it this way or do it that way. I think many people are uninformed as to how process works and the importance of compromise. Funny how the same people who usually scream about wanting compromise are the ones who are least willing to give it.
That’s a very powerful statement. Opinionated people want compromise, but then they won’t compromise. Not at all.

Did you come up against that a lot in Raleigh?
Absolutely. [smiles] I always had 49 wonderful people of diverse views and backgrounds that I worked for, 18 years. I’ll give you an example. See that building. [Points at the Center for Wildlife Education Corolla]. It’s free. No charge. The wonderful director of North Carolina Wildlife, Charlie Fullwood. Came to my office one day. My door was always open to him. Smart guy. Loved a beer in the afternoon. And, when I first met him, I loved a beer also. More than one. [Smiles.] He said, “Chief” — he called me chief — “Chief, we need a building to house our department that is separate from the Archdale Building.” A complete eysore, the Archdale Building. Looked like crap. About 15 stories, I guess. And no energy savings adaptations. no where. He said, “We want to build an office and wildlife center on state property off Blue Ridge Road.” I said, “That sounds wonderful, Charlie. Where are you going to get the money?” He said, “That’s the good part. I don’t have to ask you or the general assembly for a dime. I need the authorization to sell bonds and I’ll pay it back from the present fees we now have.” And I said, ‘That sounds great, Charlie. I want to add to that wonderful proposal. I want to build one in Currituck County, as well.” He had a mustache, and it just fell. And he tried to explain that the house wouldn’t like it, trying to talk me out of it. A great friend. And I said, “Charlie, that’s my job to convince the house.” In the end, we built both of them.

So did you have to work out some compromise, I guess.
Always have to compromise. Always.

Has that been lost in today’s political climate?
It obviously has. But there will always people of conflicting views. That’s okay. We can disagree, but we don’t have to be disagreeable.

What were some of the more contentious things you brought forth? I was always impressed at the level of environmental concern. We discussed the wind project, but the Mid-Currituck Bridge was another one. I remember talking to you before where you said you wanted filtration on the gutters — for lack of a better term — so the run off wouldn’t pollute the sound. I have a hard time believing that would’ve happened now.
I had it in the design. Like, Bonner Bridge, I sat down with Fish and Wildlife — Mike Ryan, Mike Murray from the National Park and the DOT chief of staff. I said “Guys, why don’t we leave the old Bonner Bridge, all but the navigation parts, leave it for the people?” The artists. The photographers. The handicapped person. The fisherman. And the biker. The walker. And then, leave that gap and build a separate 15-foot-wide bike trail over top of the water. The kind of facility for the common man to meet the rich man and the poor man. All people love these kinds of facilities. All people. Sunsets. Sunrises. That’s one of the greatest vistas in the world. You get the sun just right – that is an incredible view.

I think my biggest fear living here is the balance between encouraging visitation and preserving the natural elements that make it such a mecca to begin with. That’s probably the greatest challenge of all.
One of my favorite accomplishments, I had to fight the bureaucracy to make the legislative building green. We put in the grass area, the green area of the lawn, I had them put cisterns underground. Big concrete tanks, like 40,000-plus gallons. When it rained we stored the water. That once went into the Neuse River. No longer. It goes underground and in the dry season it sprinkles the lawn. And then, I took out half the light bulbs in the senate chamber where we debate. And I put in LEDs. and didn’t say a word to a damn soul. Debate went on and on. And one day I stood up and I said, “Fellow members, fellow colleagues, have you noticed any difference in the lighting as you read your motions?” Not a word. They were thinking to themselves, “What is the president talking about?” And I said, “All of you who say you couldn’t read under LED, all of you who dislike LED, I’m here to tell you this half has been under LED lighting and mine has been under incandescent lighting. Also, I put motion detectors on the lights in all the bathrooms.” One member stood up and said,” I’m witness to that fact! I was sitting on the throne reading the paper and the lights went off. And I couldn’t get up to hit the motion beam.” [Laughs.] Then I announced we were now saving about $40,000 a year on electricity. I enjoyed that moment.

Do you think those policies would still be adopted under the current assembly?
Maybe. And maybe not. But what we were doing at the time, no one in America was doing. Nobody. We couldn’t find one assembly that was collecting the water off their roof.

What year was that?
Have you met Amy Fulk that was my chief of staff? Would you like to? Hold on. She knows more abut what we did than anyone I know. Powerful lady. I put women in charge when it was out of style. In fact my first Chief of Staff, Norma Mills, was the first woman to ever be a chief of staff, number one, in any office of government in North Carolina. [Dials phone, and gets a voice mail.] “Amy, when you get through finishing off that that bottle of wine, would you give your old boss a call? Thank you.” [Grins.]

That’s funny. But you obviously made conservation an important part of your legacy. And environmental issues. The current legislature has done the opposite. The whole decision not to consider sea level rise. Do you think that was a black eye for the state?
No. You know, I have looked at the 30-year review. That does not bother me. 100 years, I don’t believe you predict 100 years out. And also, people in general will not focus on 100 years. They can’t focus on a week.

But isn’t it the job of legislative bodies to look 100 years ahead? Miami’s certainly dealing with sea level rise now and they’re taking these steps. Other communities around us are using the 3-meter standard. CSI is currently studying sea level rise in our sound. It seems shortsighted. And it seems like the people who make money on development are telling the scientific community what to do.
There are elements that will definitely do that. No question. There are some who develop land that would not want any review. None. Even 5 years. I believe it was a good compromise. 30 years is okay with me. As long as it’s independent and not anti-climate change or extreme climate change. Science.

I think in a lot of, what happened down south has made it impossible to have an environmental viewpoint — at least in Dare County. And whatever the SELC and Audubon’s motives were, the result is it’s impossible to say “This is bad for the environment” without people shouting you down or tuning you out.
You mentioned Audubon. We just drove past that piece of Audubon property they sold. The last connecting piece to the ocean. Sad to see. What’d I tell you? Money. Money. Look around. This is beautiful, Matt. Trees are beautiful. No power lines.

There you go: that’s one thing that gets people riled up — and maybe you can explain it — is what’s up with those huge power poles down the bypass? Why couldn’t they bury those things?
I’m with you. We have to bet it cost more. I would like a great debate on the power line costs going underground — the costs and the benefit. The benefit would be no power lines in a major hurricane laying the ground. But whatever we paid, to bury it would be nominal, a surcharge on our power bills. Look around, none!

I agree. I think Duck, Nags Head and Manteo are the three towns with the best sense of vision. They know what they are and what they’re trying to convey as a community. The others seem to be less, I don’t know what it is. Kill Devil Hills, maybe it’s in their DNA to have that ‘fast buck’ mentality, for lack of a better term. But there’s always that debate between investment and waste. One person’s investment is another person’s waste. And improving and selling out. How do you jive those values. I now I pay $100 a year for recycling. I’ve been told that if that had been folded into our waste costs, it would be less. And we’d have less trash. But then we’re also a unique community in the sense we have such huge differences in population between summer and winter and the type of services we need to provide.
I believe Dare County and all the towns missed the boat in the total recycling effort. I would like to see us stand up and show h world that we really care. What we now sell is clean water. But that water [points to Currituck sound] is dirty right now, Currituck sound. When I was in office, it was pretty darn dirty.

True. But the more you build the harder it is to protect water quality on both sides. I know 20 years go when I went surfing I didn’t worry about runoff nearly as much as now.
Well, you think about it. I do, too.

The plastic bag ban must be something you’re proud of. Dare County beat San Francisco by years. Of course, that’s a county not statewide, but is there hope for it to go statewide?
In time. The new population is growing in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, Greensboro and Winston Salem, Asheville Charlotte, Wilmington. They’re an educated population. They read. They will create that change.

It comes back to education and being informed. I worry more people are misinformed now. Look at Facebook and you see people just repeat things they’ve heard on both sides. In some ways the internet has been a great educator but in others it’s a real misinformer.
But what we’re seeing is the thoughts that were once hidden. They are now transparent. Now when it rubs us wrong, we don’t care for it. If it’s our opinion, we embrace it . I’m like you: I wish their names would be attached. Then you would see the toned down opinion. It wouldn’t be so blatantly wrong.

Every once in a while I read stuff and I think limiting the vote sounds like a good idea….
Oh damn…

…generally, when I disagree. It’s amazing how protective people get over the electoral process but only when they disagree. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, as long as its yours.
You’ve always seen a mixture of that.

What’s your vision of this place in 50 years then?
I always try to think positively. I believe Southern Shores, where we are now, will always have this look. Duck will protect theirs as well. Dare county, Kill Devil — we are so family oriented, I don’t believe that can be changed.

So you don’t worry about building heights or anything. Like when Kill Devil Hills flirted with raising the oceanfront a few years ago.
From what I see now, very limited heights. Anywhere. I hope, very much hope, that remains. That being said, I believe it would be prudent to let any house go up one story. Not for space. Not for more bathrooms. Not for more bedrooms. But for rising sea level. I believe if you lifted whatever existed, let them build higher but with the same building limits. Not adding stories, but adding height for space underneath for storm water to move in and out.

That’s one of the lessons from Sandy in some ways. I know in New Jersey they’re making them do that to rebuild. But I think Manteo’s going to have the hardest time with that because of so much brick. What about Hatteras? The bridge? Route 12? The bridge plan now is a 50 year plan with four hot spots. What’s the future for that? What are the up against?
I believe beach nourishment and adding to the bridge connections would be prudent. There’s a lot of unwanted sand in Oregon Inlet. Move that sand to the beach. Always, always, have a nourishment plan.

Do you worry about the battle for sourcing sand? In Florida they’ve had problems finding sand for all the towns.
I’ve never heard that. I’ve always been told by my reviewers that we have ungodly sources of sand out here. But I wasn’t ware of Florida.

I’m not sure about Carolina. But I know the discussion over Cape Lookout has some places nervous that they’ll take their sand.
But they don’t have good supply. They have pebbles and chips, they don’t have sand.

I’m still suspicious. But I give Nags Head credit for doing it right. I know people talk about the sand bypass for the inlet but we don’t have the tax base that the Gold Coast of Australia or South Florida has. I think in many ways people cling to solutions that won’t work here. My buddy at he Army Corps said, “Nourishment works as long as you have money.” But it’s definitely better than hardened structures. The irony of the inlet is that the jetty that’s on the inlet is rubbing Hatteras Island the sand it needs.
That is not so. Not at all. The history of erosion on the beaches of Hatteras predates that by far. There’s always been that aggressive erosion before the southern jetty.

The other thing you hear people say is that the nourishment is filling in the inlet.
My answer there is we didn’t have any beach nourishment four years ago and the inlet has been filling in for thirty years. The data will tell you that. I would say, always check the history on statements. Whoever made that statement obviously looks uninformed.

I think people assume causal relationships. To me the sand we dumped would be inconsequential compared to what’s out there. But there’s also conflict of interests — opposing interests. I guess that the reason for government.
There always will be opposing interests. You have to filter what you’re child says. You have to triple filter elected person. [smiles]

I do think people gauge groups’ emotions and galvanize them in that way. So if you’re anti nourishment, you can rally fishermen to your cause by saying the sand clogs the inlet. So you do have to check the sources and follow the money…
And the passion. The money and passion have the same goals. The money is I want physical things. And the passion side, is I want natural things. But they’re equal in how people on both sides will not be so truthful about what they say. Husband and wife get married, half will not be able to live among their opinions in one house and will separate. People make choices. That’s what life is: simply choices.

We keep talking about the electoral process here. Less than 11% of people 18 to 34 voted last time around. Maybe they’re disillusioned — like you said with the Frank-Dodd evisceration. What do you say to those people who aren’t making any choice. Who feel like ‘”why bother?”
I always say, your opinion is not heard if you don’t vote. Maybe if you look in the final total — Thom Tillis won by 75,000 votes. Yes, your vote would not have changed that election. But maybe— just maybe — one day that one single vote on the board of education or the town council, maybe that would turn the tide. Maybe.

Obviously Beverly Boswell beat Max Dutton by 30 votes. Stan White lost by 21 votes two years ago.
But that’s a pretty simplistic answer. The reason to vote is much deeper than that. I once was voting in Manteo. I was walking in to vote and this woman outside the voting building screamed, “Yes! I did it!” Then she turned and said, “Kiss my ass.” She had obviously stated her protest. And it overjoyed her. That always gave me a chuckle. But it’s such a fulfilling day. Such a wonderful chance of expression. Your vote counts as much as Bill and Melinda gates’ votes. The one time we’re all equal. No one gets greater value for their vote than anyone else.

Before we go further, I want to follow up on our past interview and make sure I’m correct. You said George W. Bush came here and there was an issue with rockfish?
He didn’t come here, he was in Concord, North Carolina. He had banned the commercial take of Rockfish in federal waters. I gave him a letter, explaining why that weren’t helpful. He responded — the Bushes always responded — but they were never helpful. They would respond. Obama never responded. Now Bill Clinton really responded on the lighthouse.

Why was saying we should’ve been part of the commonwealth of Virginia a mistake? Did it just make things harder to get done?
Awfully difficult. For about two years I was a Benedict Arnold. But always look forward. Forget he past. I naturally like people, even people who do not like me. I have no enemy in the world. None. I wish no evil upon any man. Now, I realize that you have to fight. When someone blows up people — for whatever the reason — they have to be brought to justice. I strongly believe in the death penalty. There are certain crimes that are so hideous, not only is the taking of his life justified, it finally brings closure to the family. Now very rare. Extremely rare. If 500 people are murdered in North Carolina each year, maybe 2 would even rise to that level of death penalty.
I try to put my self in the shoes of the victims’ family. That is my foundation. When the bill had been introduced to get rid of the death penalty, a victim’s father told a group of us, “You, don’t know what it’s like, what my daughter went through in the few hours she was sexually assaulted before they totally dismembered her while she was alive.” I don’t want any of the details printed— it’s so gruesome — but he was so emotional and he wanted some closure. He didn’t want this guy writing a book. He didn’t want this guy writing a letter to him saying, “I’ve found Christ, will you forgive me?” And Timothy McVeigh can’t do that now to those 800-some families. Can’t do it. He’s gone.

That’s a point.
An extreme point. Now, passion killing? No. And if you’re not totally convinced – totally convinced — that it occurred, then no. DNA is so beneficial today for the wrongly convicted.

So how’d you win back the state’s trust over that two years? You obviously still don’t feel we should be part of Virginia.
It sort of dissolved on its own. And no I don’t. But at the time we were not the state that we now are. If you get your grades in order, and you are poor and have no income, family has nothing, UNC Chapel Hill, one of the major schools in the world, will pay for your education free. Room, board, books, tuition – everything. Free. Now, you have to have the grades to get in. But everyone from low income is free.

You also mentioned there’s a shift toward urbanization. Does that shift ever come back toe the coast – or does it go to some other part of the state?
The new speaker of the house, Tim Moore, is from rural North Carolina. King’s Mountain. That’s in the western part of the state. Cleveland County. Also, the president of the Senate, Phil Berger, is from rural North Carolina, Rockingham County.

So they’re likely to bring those issues to the table.

So it really is a matter of who you put forth as your representative. It’s cycles basically.
I met bill cook and found him to be very open and accepting. I didn’t vote for Bill Cook, he knows that. I was for Stan White. But that didn’t seem to bother him one bit.

I don’t like that he voted for fracking bill. And I don’t like that he’s for offshore drilling. I don’t see how injecting wastewater beneath our aquifer and drilling offshore helps his constituents. Both are shortsighted at best.
Not for oil derricks, not at all. I think you can do fracking. But here’s a caveat. The value of gas and oil to the common man overwhelms me. The price of gasoline now, the heating bill, manufacturing bill, restaurant gas bills — energy is so low in America now because of fracking. the little man is winning. The oil company is losing, the big guy. What I would do, my wish would be, that they fix the problems. Fix it. Disclose everything in the wastewater. Be transparent, be safe. And use new technology.

The transparency of the chemicals, for me it comes down to the ash ponds, and the tar river, or Fukushima, there’s a pattern of energy companies either cutting corners, human error or simple act of god stuff, an accident happens. And then the people who live there get screwed.
There’s a danger in that. There is. But right now the Middle East is not controlling the price of energy in America, the first time. And that’s because of fracking. So fix fracking, don’t get rid of it. Fix it. I equate that to Obamacare. On the liberal side of politics is Obamacare, on the right side is Fracking What I say to both is “fix it.” Don’t crash it. Fix it. Fix health care, fix fracking. Fix problems. And let the generosity of the solution benefit our people.

I’m for universal heath care.
I’m for single payer system. Everybody’s covered. A little co-pay. For the poor people, no. But you and I, we have to control the abuses of mothers. Mothers now take their little ones to the emergency room and abuse it for a little sniffle.

I don’t know how much you care to get into this, but ALS is something you’ve been dealing with. How are you handling it?. I’d assume from talking to you it must be frustrating, if for nothing else then just being able to communicate.
Not really. It is what it is. I always look at the condition of other people who are much worse of than me. A child with cancer, dying. A mother with breast cancer at 44 years old. Two children. How frightening is that? I’m 67. Who got the worse deal? Me or her? Her. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 45 years of age. I got a pretty good deal when you look at it like that. I have no fear of death. None. And I am what I am.

What piece of advice would you give people moving forward?
Face challenges head on. Do not ignore them. But we all procrastinate. And people fear change. But people here, make this place. The beauty, the pure beauty out here of nature, is a blessing. But it’s the people that have moved here and have lived here that are so passionate about issues. Every Saturday some benefit, something going on. Incredible. I mean, incredible people. You see that dumpster? Some guy, some average guy, is making his Christmas in December out here. When I see dumpsters and painters, carpet layers, I know everything is okay. The men that I know and love — and the women — have an opportunity here that you don’t have anywhere else. By combining the work and the beauty. You can go to Raleigh and make more money. You won’t see the same sunset. You won’t feel or hear the sweet voice of Nature. You won’t do it. You also become part of the crowd that really, truly separate themselves. In Raleigh, Charlotte you have a lot of wealth. A lot. A lot of private schools. Now, I believe in choice in schools. But here you are blessed with good community schools of high caliber.

I agree. I wonder if people here realize how good they have it. Every time I worry about the character of the Outer Bank changing, I remind myself that. I’m no religious person, but I do feel like here, we connect with nature. you’re forced to recognize there is something larger than yourself. You have to humble yourself.
I’ll tell you a little story. I was surfing in South Nags Head one summer. Not much wave. But I loved it anyhow. It was just me, warm in the water. And I was in a school of bait fish. Little menhaden, maybe. I don’t know what they were, but they were schooling. I was sitting quietly on the board and I laid down the board. One of those slick calm days. A little swell was running. Not enough to get my fat ass moving. [Grins.] I had a 10-4 Dewey Weber surfboard. I loved that board. Bought it at Western Auto in Virginia Beach. A pelican, you rarely saw pelicans then. We didn’t have them. But a pelican flew down out of the sky right next to me. Scooped up a pouch of fish. And me and him looked each other in the eye. Ill never forget that. Never.

I love those days when the surf is pumping and. I look around and see everyone I know playing a little hooky and remember why I live here. I’m out of questions. What else we can talk about?
These light poles. They need to go underground. [Smiles.]


How does living near water make our brains function better? Dr. Wallace Nichols discusses the importance of being “blue minded.”

On this thin strip of sand at the edge of a continent, we have a deep connection to the sea. We walk beside it. We wade in it. We ride, float and bathe in it. Whether visitors, residents or natives, that relationship draws us ever closer. But why? And what exactly does water do to our brains?

“Water quiets all the noise, all the distractions, and connects you to your own thoughts,” explains marine biologist and author Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. “Water primes us to feel certain things without letting us know it inspired the relevant neurochemical reactions.”

In fact, Nichols believes just being near the sea positively changes our brain’s chemistry. Gone is what he calls the “red mind” — the one that’s always busy, distracted and hyper-connected. Instead, we plunge into “blue mind” mode: a mildly meditative state primed for moments of intense creativity, clarity and innovative thinking, as well as increased feelings of calm self-reflection.

In his recent best-selling book — Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Show How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do — Nichols details exactly how the ebb and flow of the tide is deeply ingrained in our psyche from distant atolls to right here at home. In fact, the first sentence starts with a scene from Jennette’s Pier.

“What I’ve tried to do with the Blue Mind project is try to teach people a bit more about themselves so they can live their lives even better than they do,” he continues. “And do it in a way that is hopefully good for the water itself.”

We caught up with Dr. Nichols between scoring the cover of Outside Magazine and a 100-city world tour to find out how the ocean can provide feelings of awe, wonder and solitude — and why Outer Bankers may be more “blue minded” than others. What follows is the full transcript of the interview featured in Winter 2014’s Issue 3.4.—Michelle Wagner

MILEPOST: Where do you live now?

I live outside of a town called Davenport, Calif. The town is really small so I guess you could say we don’t live in a town. It’s a region of California we call the Slow Coast. It is south of San Francisco and north of Monterey and Santa Cruz. If you are in the Silicon Valley, if you go over the mountains to the coast you would be on the Slow Coast. It’s very sparsely populated with a lot of wildlife, organic farms and ranches. There’s a lot of good surf here and good mountain biking.

It sounds like a beautiful place to live.

Yes, it’s really great.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Manhattan, N.Y. Until my freshman year in high school, I grew up on the East Coast. I moved to the Chicago area and from there I kind of lived all over. I went to college in Indiana, received my master’s degree in North Carolina at Duke and studied in the marine lab in Beaufort, N.C. I received my PhD. at the University of Arizona. I spent a lot of time living and working in Mexico. I moved around a lot, so I call myself a North American. I lived in Mexico, on the East Coast, the West Coast and the Midwest.

What would you describe as your own personal connection with the water?

Probably like many people, I have great childhood memories of being in the water, whether it was a swimming pool, a creek or at the ocean. I associated the water with summer vacation or any kind of holiday or fun event. At a young age, I was really into biology and animals and Jacques Cousteau. I remember thinking, “Wow, it would be great to be a marine biologist.” But it was not like it is now. If kids now say they want to be a marine biologist, parents and kids can go on the Internet and discover everything. They can plug right in. When I was young, Jacques Cousteau had that job and it was taken care of. No one would say, “Oh, you should be a marine biologist.” Really, no one advised a kid like me to pursue that career, at least not in the world that I was living in. You were steered toward more practical vocations like being a doctor, lawyer, business person or engineer. But in college, I kind of discovered that marine biology was what I really wanted to do. I knew I loved being out in nature, so I figured out a way to connect the dots of my interests and passions. In a way, you look backwards and it all makes sense. From where I am sitting now, it looks like a nice path, from jobhood to this book. But it didn’t always feel that way.

Was there a particular event in college that steered you down the path of marine biology, neuroscience and ocean conservation?

When I was in college at De Paul University in Indiana, I knew I really liked the outdoors. My friends nicknamed me “mountain man,” even though there were no mountains. I was always going off with my kayak and my dog and exploring what Indiana had to offer in terms of rivers and quarries and open space during all of the seasons. It wasn’t backcountry mountaineering, but it was Indiana’s version of that. I’d go hiking through the snow and cross rivers with my dog and go winter camping, exploring the waterways and rivers and quarries. I’d go scuba diving and snorkeling and camping, hiking and floating rivers.

During my sophomore year, I was asked to visit a nursing home near campus where a young woman spent the last 15 years after being in a serious car accident. She had lost her memory but had been a musician, specifically a guitar player and I play guitar. So I spent Wednesday afternoons for eight months doing guitar lessons with Barbara. As we played together, sometimes it would help bring back memories and it was almost like magic, but it wasn’t magic. It was neuroscience. And I remember I would spend an hour or so with her and half of it or more would not be playing music. It would be talking about what the music had triggered. The nurses started paying attention and were all pretty excited about it. I would go back to campus and try to figure out what the heck was going on. Nobody on campus studied neuroscience per se. And there really wasn’t a lot of information even in the library on neuroscience and music. That work has come more recently, but I was fascinated by what was happening in the real world. That experience stuck with me ever since and that became my question for water. If we can study the brain on music and the brain on lots of things — the brain on chocolate, the brain on red wine, the brain on stress — then why not the brain on water. I thought that maybe there was a book in the library I could read that would answer these questions that I could apply to my work for the ocean in conservation biology. I started looking for that book.

And you didn’t find it.

I didn’t find it. And then I tried to get someone to write that book. I was unsuccessful, but I really tried. I didn’t think that I was the person to do it, so I tried to convince grad students and post ops and neuroscientists. I even wrote a proposal and tried to give it away. It just didn’t hit the sweet spot for anybody at that point in time. The proposal turned into a book proposal and the publisher said it was really great. One editor in particular looked on, who loves the water and is a swimmer, and said it was terrific and I was the person to do it. So I dove in — no pun intended. That’s kind of how that chapter began.

How would you describe the Blue Mind project to someone who has never heard of it?

I would say what we are trying to do is better understand why being near, in, on or under water makes us feel the way it does. For a lot of people, that is a good feeling. But it is not exclusively relaxing, blissful or happy. It’s mixed with other things. It can be melancholy, it can be scary. It’s all of that, depending on what is happening with the water and with us. So whatever you bring with you to the edge of the water is certainly a part of how the water will make you feel. In a way, it’s a mirror. But also it is biologically significant. Blue Mind is about understanding something about ourselves. People ask what is this book is about and the short answer is it is about you.

The book is about you, specifically about you. And if someone picks it up and it really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, well that’s fine. Then it is not about them — but chances are it is on some level. I am thinking about someone like my mom who doesn’t really like getting in the water very much, ironically. But she loves being by the water and will take vacations by water every time, or will get on cruise or go to Hawaii and loves it because of the water. Even my mom – who is scared to get her face wet — loves the water. So this is a book about her, too. What I’ve tried to do with this project and with this book and subsequent conversations like this is to teach people a bit more about themselves so they can live their lives even better than they do – and do it in a way that is hopefully good for the water itself.

The broader idea is if we better understand how much this water is worth, even in a non-monetary way, perhaps that will turn into caring more and fighting more. People will get through this conversation or get through reading the book and say, “wow, that’s right. The water around me helps me in ways that maybe I didn’t fully appreciate. So I want to make sure it can continue to do so.” That may mean joining an organization or starting an organization, getting more involved in cleaning up the beach or cleaning up the water itself, working on sea turtle conservation or whatever the way in is. Or it could be through education by bringing kids to the water. There are lots of ways. You can become politically involved or physically involved in taking care of our coasts and oceans and waterways. I like to approach it in an ecumenical way. To ask whether you are an environmentalist or not, that’s not helpful. To ask whether someone is from a blue state or a red state is not helpful either. It’s a nonpolitical, ecumenical approach in a way. And that is the goal — to say that your water, whatever it is, gives you so much that you may not have been aware of or you may have been aware of but didn’t know it had an explanation. So let’s be sure that it can continue to do that, or let’s be sure that we can restore its’ ability to do that. I don’t think this is a prescriptive book. It’s not a do this, do this book.

People often say, “What are the three things we can do for the water,” and my answer for the last several years has been, “What do you think?” and then I just listen and guess what? Everyone has a good answer. Everyone, even the person who asks that question, always has a great answer. And their answer is always better than any one I could have offered because it comes from a real connection to their place, wherever it is. If I make three broad generic recommendations, they wouldn’t be nearly as good as what they would come up with for themselves.

Is that because it is more meaningful to them?

Yes, because it will make sense and will be personal. It may sound like I am punting on the question, but I’d be more than happy to give them three ideas that would work. But if the goal is to actually lead to something practical and lead to real action, that’s much better. While I’ve been doing this book tour, I start out every book talk or keynote by asking people to turn to the person next to them that they know the least and tell them about the water they love the most. And then I let the audience talk and depending on how into it they are, it could go on for a while. All the sudden the room erupts with all these incredible little conversations between people. When I bring the group back together, I ask some volunteers to tell me what they just heard — not what you just said, but what you just heard and it’s incredible. People stand up and tell the story they just heard from the stranger sitting next to them. Now the room is sort of on a whole different level of “ready to talk about this” because people have just shared one of their best stories, one of their favorite places and it’s beautiful. It’s a different approach and now everyone is engaged. They have some water in mind they want to be sure is well, is healthy, is protected and is being restored because it connects to their nostalgia and their memories and different parts of their lives and people they love. That’s kind of where this is coming from. If we hope to build a movement to take care of the water parts of the world, we are convinced that fear and guilt and a ton of information are probably not our best tools. They are useful. We do need information and sometimes just telling us the shocking truth of what is ahead has to happen. But equally as important and sometimes even more motivating is going in the blue mind direction rather than the red mind direction.

Here on the Outer Banks, this book is about us. We have water everywhere. I was wondering what drew you to the Outer Banks and to open your book with an experience you had at Jennette’s Pier.

As a grad student, the Outer Banks were in my backyard and when I lived in Beaufort, that’s where I went when I had any extra time — enough time to drive to the ferry, ferry to the Outer Banks and drive a little more to get to any of the amazing places you know. Ever since then, it’s always been one of the places in my mind when asked the question, “Where did you fall in love with water?” I can think of several places throughout my life, from childhood through yesterday and the Outer Banks was one of those bright blue spots in the story of my life. And when all the people leave is when it gets really, really good. There is the Outer Banks literally, physically, biologically and ecologically. There’s the Outer Banks as a chapter in my life, but then there is sort of the metaphor of the Outer Banks, which is such a powerful metaphor. For all those reasons, I knew this was the way to open the book.

Could you expand on the idea of the Outer Banks as a metaphor?

With the name Outer Banks, people who don’t even know what that is…they do because of the name. Just saying the Outer Banks evokes something in everyone. It’s a great name. Even people who haven’t been there but have seen a documentary or National Geographic or the Travel Channel have a sense of what that means. It’s a place that has water on all sides, literally wherever you are. Water is in front of you and in back of you and to the north and south. And if you move in any direction, you will cross water in the very near future. You can be on Maui and drive inland and go for quite a while. But on the Outer Banks, you can’t go far in any direction without being on the edge, being on the banks of the water. So in the world, it is unique in that way. It’s exposed to the water in every way. If the weather gets bad, you are out there. If the weather’s good, you are out there. But exposure brings with it psychological side. Your desire to spend your life or part of your life in a place that is like that requires a personality. It’s something that pulls people who decide to stay or go there even for a visit. I wrote a piece before the book came out called the Outer Banks of the Mind. It started in the same way and was a bit of a warm up for the book. Some people say the new frontier of exploration on earth is the deep ocean. I would say the new frontier is the deep mind, the deep brain. And understanding our planet will require going deeper into neuroscience and understanding ourselves.

So there’s a personal story. We did a Blue Mind conference there because of that personal connection, but also because of the proximity of neuroscientists to that region. Also it is a place that is the epitome of the blue mind conversation and not just because of the ocean and the sound, but also because of the rivers that empty into the sound.

You quote Robert Wyland in your book when he says, “The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.” Here on the Outer Banks we have a thriving creative community. Would it be fair to attribute this to our close proximity to water?

In talking to people who are creative or make a living from their creativity is that there is this thing people describe as some kind of “aha” moment when the inspiration seems to fall out of the sky and land like rain. But it doesn’t fall out of the sky. It comes from within. But setting the stage for that to happen is important and that includes being minimally distracted and being freed of the micro-problems we have to solve throughout the day. Being freed of those important things is part of allowing for new ides to happen. And our physical surroundings can help that process. It doesn’t mean you can’t be creative and live in downtown New York City. Of course you can. Lots of people do, but sometimes getting away from that and taking a break in a place like the Outer Banks can free up people’s minds to be more creative.

Everyone needs to step away from the red mind and get their blue mind on and allow their brain to think differently and come up with new ideas. For a lot of people that requires stepping back and turning off the distractions – the background noise. Literally, the noise — the visual stimulation, the auditory stimulation and the physical stimulation. If you are standing on Jennette’s Pier looking out to the north and the south, and even east and west and straight down and straight up, it’s a much simpler field of view. That allows the part of your brain that processes all the visual input to have a break and have a rest. And your auditory center of the brain, assuming there isn’t a boom box on the bench next to you, is listening to the sound of the waves. So it is also simplified. There’s been a lot of research on rhythm and the brain. But what you are not hearing are voices, the auditory center of your brain is not processing language. It takes a break. And if you are floating and the water’s nice and warm and not rough, you are not dealing with gravity because your brain also has to keep you balanced when you are on land and coordinated. We take for granted what our brains have to do and if it stops, you fall. Your brain is doing it all the time in tiny little ways and big ways so that you can just stand up. But when you are floating, it is a little restful.

What does that mean for the people who live here that have this all the time?

What often happens in all aspects of our lives is that we acclimate to the world around us. We can become used to being by the ocean. And I find that people on our coast who go away and then they come back and they appreciate it more and see the ocean through kind of new eyes. You can do that without going away, too. You can say, “You know, I am going to appreciate the Outer Banks more just by deciding to.” And we can do that. Our brains are amazing if we pay attention and see things that are right in front of our noses by deciding to. What we’ve done this summer with the book tour, called 100 Days of Blue, is ask people wherever they are to pay attention to their water everyday – to get in it, to get on it, to get near it, to look at it, touch it, swim in it, paddle. If you are living on the Outer Banks and you are a realtor, or a teacher, or doctor or writer, you can get in your routine and not see it the way you did when you first arrived or when you were a child. Part of the reason that being out by the water and all its’ simplicity is relaxing is that you are not doing that processing of information, visual or auditory. It allows your brain to go into what is called a default mode and after you get to the default mode, you begin to do self-referential thinking, which is innovative, insightful and creative thinking. The default mode gives you the ability to do more of that. And that’s when people feel like they have that “ah ha” moment. So while you’re in the water, the quality of your thoughts is different.

So if we re able to better appreciate the water we live near, we could benefit more from it?

Yes, especially if you pay attention when you get in the water or when you are near the water to what you are getting from that experience. You are getting exercise, right. You’re burning calories if you are exercising, so you can put that in your app. But what you are also doing is stress reduction. Cortisol levels are dropping. You are boosting your creativity and you are protecting your brain in a sense. You are building memories which become nostalgia. And if you are out there with someone, you are building social connections.

And this could apply to any activity in or near the water?

Yes, even walking on the beach and having a conversation with a co-worker or friend or family member or someone you are falling in love with. That context enhances your relationship, it enhances the conversation. And if that water is stinky and nasty and sad and dead, well then that’s a lot harder to deal with. You probably wouldn’t go to it for a walk. I’ve been places where the river running through the town was nasty. People didn’t go for a walk by the river, but then when the river gets cleaned up, they do. That makes life in that town or city better — significantly better. People will come there for vacation and the people who are from there will have a better quality of life because they have a place to go to reduce their stress. They also have a place to go to fall in love or go on a romantic date. They have a place to take their kids to form memory and nostalgia and do all of that better. So now there is another impetus, another driver for cleaning up the river. Restoring the river and protecting it and making it accessible is a key. One of the things I talk about is access. And access means physical access, meaning there’s a path between the parking lot and the beach or between the city and the edge of the river so you can get there. It also means that if you have a physical limitation, you can get there, so there’s a facility that allows you to get there. Finally, when you get there, access means it’s not polluted. Pollution doesn’t preclude access. The water needs to be healthy enough that you can go for a swim. If there is something like an oil spill or a bunch of trash, even if you can walk to the beach and get to the edge, you can’t get in the water. You shouldn’t get in the water. The third key access is perception. You can physically get there, the water is clean and healthy, but culturally you perceive that your family or your people don’t swim. Or what we are finding recently is you get to the edge of the water, you have access, the water is healthy… but you have a smart phone in your hand and you are afraid to leave it on the beach. So your perception is, “I can’t go in the water because I don’t want to get my phone wet” or “I can’t get in the water because I don’t want someone to steal my phone.” That perception keeps you out of the water.

I am not anti-technology, but if the technology keeps you in red mind and doesn’t allow you to access blue mind, then maybe it’s time to come up with a better plan. That could mean just lock your phone in your glove box or don’t bring it in the first place. Just leave it at home. For your day, week or a vacation, have technology-free periods where you say I am really going to the beach to unplug, which means leaving anything tethered back in the office, or at home or in the car. We need to be aware of that and say this is why I’m here. I read this book and now I understand that part of why I am going to the beach is to have some contemplative time and to really, really truly relax. If I bring my technology with me, then that’s less likely to happen because I will be walking down the beach reading my text messages or answering work emails and I won’t be getting my blue mind on. If you really want to do that, you need to turn it off, put it away or leave it at home. That allows us to take a spontaneous swim or a wave when you don’t have that $300 phone in our pocket.

The science has found that we are happier near, in, on or under the water. I was wondering if there was a tier system to that? Are scuba divers happier than surfers, who are happier than fishermen, who are happier than sunbathers?

It’s hard to rank and compare one to the other. So I would say there’s a biological component, there’s a cultural component and then there’s a personal history component. Each of us have a different mix of those three things, each has a different blue mind thumb print . Some scuba divers obviously are getting much more out of their time in the water than other scuba divers. And some surfers are so blissed out after surfing and some are not. I would say on par, on average across the board, people who spend time by water and who live by it report a higher level of life satisfaction and happiness. That’s what the research says. And you can drill down into different groups. I meet people who spend time by water or on the water and they bring a very type A agenda to the water. They are getting a different experience than someone who says this is my hour of bliss. That person is going to get a very different experience out of that hour of water time. So it varies greatly. You’ve got scuba divers who are meticulous measuring everything and they have their checklists and their dive logs and cutting edge gear and it’s a competitive sport.

Each of us brings a different set. We are all different genetically which means our brains are responding differently. We have a different life history and sometimes there’s a fear of water and sometimes there’s a deep fondness and sometimes it’s a mix. And then culturally, we each have a different context for our relationship with water. You may be from a family with a surfing tradition, or a fishing or boating tradition and so there’s a cultural expectation. All of that plays together.

And you bring that all to the water with you?

Yes, for each of us it’s different. But there are some things that are similar. People will say, “What’s it worth talking about anyway if we are each different. What can we say that will be useful and relevant to a lot of people.” There’s a biological component that is very real. Part of it comes down to the fact that we need water to get through the next few days. If I said you are not going to have access to water for the next few days, you are going to be in trouble, super big trouble. And so on a very, very, very basic biological level, the signal of water puts us at ease. If it’s calm water, even if it’s salt water, it kind of tricks your brain and puts you at ease. And that’s a deep biological response. We don’t talk about it that way, we don’t think about it that way, we don’t advertise it that way but that’s part of what’s going on.

If you can look at the water and its just water, that’s fine. If you can look at the water and there are whales and dolphins and birds and fish jumping, you know that there are healthy turtles out there that are coming up and that the reef is healthy, well then that’s worth more in our lives. It’s not just the surface of the water. It’s the whole thing. If the water’s polluted and you know it, you’re not going to want to look at it. It will make you sad, not happy. It will stress you out rather than relax you. That’s our challenge. How do we keep the water healthy, how do we reduce pollution, how do we keep our beaches clean and make sure the wildlife is abundant and healthy, too. I think we know the answer to those questions. Back to when people say, well what do we do? Well, you don’t throw your trash on the beach. Make sure the pollution is taken care of.

Our Outer Banks community here really connected. Could we attribute that to living where we do and the fact that we are surrounded by water?

Being on an island surrounded by water, how could it not form the personality of the community. It most clearly is a major influence on how people live in the physical sense, but also how they live in the social and emotional sense. It is the Outer Banks reality and the Outer Banks metaphor. If you are on the Outer Banks, you better know your neighbor. If you are on the outer banks of anything, the outer banks of Antarctica or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you better know your neighbor. There is that aspect certainly. What the research is finding is that when you experience awe and wonder, it changes your brain. In ten minutes, you could be at the ocean and be experiencing awe, or tonight at sunset or in the middle of night you could get out there and experience awe. So the experience of awe has a physiological component. And when your brain is experiencing awe and wonder, it sets you up for compassion and empathy. And compassion and empathy is basically about thinking about more than yourself. So if you live in a place that is full of awe and wonder and you practice paying attention to that, that can set you up to be more compassionate and more empathetic. It’s true. Some people describe it as a spiritual experience and some people describe it as wonderful. To experience awe and wonder and the feeling like here’s something bigger than themselves, feeling one with themselves and one with their community, one with their island, one with the ocean – those are real feelings and special and rare. They are increasingly rare because of the reasons we talked about earlier, because people have their heads down in their screens. And kids are unfortunately experiencing less awe because of those screens and not learning how to experience solitude. So one of the things a place like the Outer Banks can offer if it’s done mindfully is it can be a place where people can go, particularly young people, to experience awe and wonder and solitude. But you have to try because if you don’t try, you end up at the beach with your phone, taking a little selfie and then getting back in the car. If you don’t have a good guide, you may just do it that way. If you have a good guide and they say leave it behind, let’s go experience awe and wonder and solitude, that’s a gift. We need to be aware that it’s a real thing and talk about it and recognize it and do it. All those things kind of come together in a place like the Outer Banks. And then the trick is how do you do that and not have the throngs of people who are in the need of awe and wonder and solitude and blue mind and not have them overrun you – your finite space. We think about that on the Slow Coast. We need safeguards in place so the Slow Coast doesn’t just become the coast of Silicon Valley and is built up and overrun and no longer slow. I imagine that’s a challenge there on the Outer Banks, too.

What should we do here on the Outer Banks to protect that gift?

In terms of the Outer Banks, I would say you know what to do. You do. Step back from anything political, any agenda, or black-and-white argument. Just step back from that and ask, “What should we do?” Deep down you know. Not even deep down but right in the front of your brain, right in your rational prefrontal cortex. You know what to do. Take care of what you love – really take care of it. Lean in and passionately take care of the living island. And you know what that means. And everyone can answer what that means to them. And some people will say, “ OK I’ll recycle. I’ll drive less, whatever it is.” Other people will volunteer more or run for office and be a voice for the living island you are on. There are more complex issues related to development and building and setbacks. We can get really down in the weeds with all that stuff. But for this conversation, it is much more provocative to say, “You know what to do. Get in touch with your blue mind, get in touch with the emotional, the social the cognitive benefits of living where you live and work to protect that and remove the things that mess it up.” There are some people that make a living off of the things that mess it up, and that’s where the friction comes in. In the long term, the destructive activities need to go away, all of them, everywhere on earth — those things that we do that make the biggest mess. Those things have to go away one way or another, but the sooner the better. We could go down the list of the most egregious, like open pit mining and mountain top removal and dumping waste into our ocean. That’s the obvious stuff.

Tell us a little bit about the Blue Marble project.

About five years ago, we began thinking that when we talk about the ocean, there’s a lot of bad news. A lot of conversations one has begin with the ocean crisis and all the bad things we are doing. My observation is that it tunes people out and they don’t want to talk to you the next. We thought there has got to be a better way to build the blue movement to be healthier and stronger, so we started using blue marbles as a gift of thanks for doing what you do to take care of this place. And we ask people take the blue marble and pass it on. Gifts are great, little beautiful gifts are nice and unexpected gifts wonderful. A blue marble is really sweet and gratitude is powerful. It’s also a way of saying thank you to someone who maybe you’ve never said thank you to. That gesture propels itself around the world. There are a million blue marbles kind of rolling around now and there’s no way to turn the project off. It’s not directed or funded project. Anyone can jump in and get a bag of blue marbles and use them in their classroom or organization or business. You can also go to our webpage and get blue marbles with customized cards. If you get them from the website, the money goes into buying more marbles for classrooms that don’t have funds.



How party politics color debate — and keep voters clueless

“Get real!” “Get informed!” “Get a clue.” Read the online discussion surrounding any hot political topic, and you’ll see a lot of tense debate over the most basic facts. For every rock-solid stat in one corner, comes a hard-hitting response from the other — often with an insult or snarky comment for extra punch. But the problem isn’t that people come to debates lacking the proper information — it’s that they enter discussions overloaded with passion.

“It’s called ‘motivated reasoning,’” says Dr. Brendan Nyhan, Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and political contributor to the Upshot section of the New York Times. “So while we like to think people start with facts and then reason to a conclusion, in a lot of cases, the factual beliefs people hold are more a result of the identities they have.”

In other words, forget “right” or “left.” It’s more like, “We’re right — you’re wrong.” And even the most indisputable evidence won’t make us think otherwise. Suddenly, it all makes sense: the college-educated teacher who won’t admit tenure can protect even one bad apple. Or the NRA member who disputes the most powerful gunshot statistics. Just about every foul-mouthed Facebook tantrum to date. But don’t get too smug. Because if you’re motivated enough to join in the conversation, there’s a good chance you’re also engaging in motivated reasoning.

“This is something we all do as human beings,” Nyhan continues. “You do it. I do it. Everybody does it. But it can become pathological when people come to hold false or unsupported beliefs and aren’t willing to listen to the evidence. That’s what we see a lot in our current politics because it is so polarized.”

With a lot of election debate on the horizon, we asked the doctor to help us figure out how to stay informed and still stay accurate — and how to best educate others without fooling ourselves. What follows is the full transcript of the interview featured in Fall 2014’s Issue 3.3.— Matt Walker

What’s your title? What’s the best way to describe you?
I’m Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. I’m also a contributor to the Upshot [section of the New York Times].

So how did you end up doing this type of research?
I used to actually do fact-checking myself. I was the cofounder of a website called Spinsanity — which ran from 2001 to 2004 — and was syndicated on in 2002 and The Philadelphia Inquirer. And we wrote a book, too, so I was engaged in the process of trying to convince people of the facts myself and saw how hard that can be when people aren’t especially willing to listen. And then I went to graduate school at Duke and in my academic research I came back to this question of “Why is it so hard to change people’s minds?” And in particular, “Why do people hold factual beliefs that aren’t factually true?” So forget opinions. Can we just agree on the actual facts in question? And that often turns out to be a very hard problem.

Why is that? You would think certain numbers would be so obvious, it’s like the sky is blue. Why won’t people see the facts for the facts?
There are a couple of problems. The first is that in politics there are very weak incentives to a have accurate beliefs. It matters a lot more that you make an informed choice about buying a reliable car or which house you buy or what refrigerator you purchase. So accuracy matters a lot more with what consumer choices you make for your wellbeing than it does for political choices. So there’s very weak incentives for voters to be well-informed. And it’s hard for voters to keep up with everything. And in some ways I think it’s unreasonable for voters to know a lot. So this isn’t a critique of people for not having an encyclopedic knowledge of minutia. What I’m especially concerned about are people who are misinformed. So not, “I don’t know” but “I think something that’s not true, and I believe it with confidence and I’m unwilling to be dissuaded from that belief despite factual evidence to the contrary.” That’s the challenge I’m interested in.

So why is that? Well, there are different factors that contribute to it. One of the most important factors in misperceptions in politics is called “motivated reasoning.” The idea that people are biased toward information that confirms their pre-existing views and biased against information that disconfirms those views. And this is something we all do as human beings. You do it. I do it. Everybody does it. But it can become pathological when people come to hold false or unsupported beliefs and aren’t willing to listen to the evidence that there’s no basis for those claims. And that’s what we see a lot in our current politics because it is so polarized. And people’s political identities are more partisan and tribal among the people who care the most about politics than in the past.

And this isn’t everybody. There are a lot of people who don’t care about politics. But the people who are in the comments sections, who are arguing in letters to the editor the newspaper, or on social media, etc. that’s the group to whom politics is a more important part of their life and identity. And so they’re especially likely to engage in this motivated reasoning process.

And they’re the ones we’re gonna hear from the most too because they’re the ones who are most caught up in it. So even if you’re partially engaged in the debate, you look on line and see that voice.
That’s right. The media especially gets a very skewed view of the electorate because those are the people who are visible to you. The people motivated enough to engage in the political process are the ones who are at the meetings or the speeches or the events. And they’re ones who write letters or call you, etc.

Can you give me a good example of a fact that people simply won’t accept? I think of climate change. Because if 97 mechanics told you the problem was the muffler and 3 said it was the windshield, you’d fix the muffler.
Right. Or if 97 doctors told you that you had a disease that threatened your life [you would fix it.] That’s probably the issue that’s most salient for any coastal community. In terms of where misinformation matters for the world, climate change is very high on the list. We can have a discussion about the extent to which something like death panels poison the debate over health care reform. But climate change is arguably an order of magnitude more significant for the world. And I’d be interested in hearing from your experience: do the greater personal stakes for coastal communities make them more open-minded about an issue like climate change? Are they more focused on accuracy? Because that’s an abstract debate for someone who lives in Nebraska. But you might wonder whether someone who’s property could be threatened is more likely to listen to the evidence because their house could be underwater.

Actually, coastal communities are more worried about insurance it seems like because that’s a more immediate threat. On the other hand, many of these same people now love their medical insurance company because they hate Obamacare. Is that normal?
Well, our incentives drive our beliefs. And our identities drive our beliefs. The point I often try to make people in politics, in health — in all sorts of areas — is that we like to think people start with the facts and reason from there to a conclusion. But in a lot of cases the factual beliefs they hold are a result of the identities they have or the interests they have. And that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised when facts don’t change people minds. Over the past 20 or 30 years, people have said again and again: the scientific consensus is extremely strong that global warming is real and manmade. And yet, we’ve actually become more polarized in our beliefs than less. So even as the scientific evidence continues to become stronger and more detailed and more elaborate, the public opinion along partisan lines is sharper. So it’s going in the opposite direction of the scientific consensus. Why? Because not believing in climate change — or opposing policies associated with mitigating climate change — has become divided along partisan lines and people take cues from elites.

So this reminds me of another study that said people would rather be right than be informed. That the more information we get, the more divisive things become.
There’s a Dan Kahan study that’s really good on this. They did a little math problem of “Did this policy work or not?” And they showed people the numbers. And they found that when you describe it in terms of “Did this policy work in terms of a sunscreen test?” people who were better with numerical reasoning performed better. But when you describe it in terms of gun control, that mathematical advantage goes away. Because they actual reason toward their preferred conclusions as Democrats or Republicans, and not thinking about it dispassionately in term of what the numbers are telling them.

So even if you’re super smart and super good with numbers, change the topic to something you’re passionate bout, you’re as likely to flip viewpoints as much as any uninformed voter.
Sometimes more likely. Because people who read journalism often think of themselves as being informed. But being more knowledgeable and sophisticated sometimes means you have more cognitive resources to acquire what I call “viewpoint-consistent beliefs.” To hold factual beliefs that are consistent with their affiliations. So they’re more likely to have politically consistent views. And they’re more likely to have the cognitive resources to defend those views when they’re challenged. So it’s harder to change their minds. Because they’re better able to think of reasons to hold the view they want to hold. In some cases. That’s why it’s not just a question of more facts not being the answer, but it’s not a question of more education or knowledge being the answer. Because in some cases those can actually lead people in different directions. The most open-minded people are often the people who least interested in politics. And the reason they’re open minded is because they don’t have any views because they aren’t interested in politics so they don’t pay attention to it.

But they’re also less inclined to vote, too, so it doesn’t make much sense for a politician to appeal to people in the middle.
That’s right. We have this idea of this very committed swing voter who considers both sides and makes up their mind and that’s who determines elections. And it’s not that those people don’t exist, but they are very rare. People who care about politics and are engaged in politics are much more like sports fans than they are the ideal of a rational voter.

It does seem like a team thing. Where if you can’t be NRA member who’s a fiscal conservative but thinks gays should be able to marry. There’s no room for a nuanced view. But if everyone felt the same way, there’d only be two types of people. So how does that work?
Well, as you move away from the most committed, educated people, you get more heterogeneity along the lines you’re describing. So most Americans don’t have fully, 100% consistent issue positions. Every view they hold isn’t aligned with their party. But the more sophisticated voters are going to be more consistent. And because sophistication is correlated with engagement, those are also the people who are going to be the most active and the most vocal.

So do the political parties and decision makers understand this fact? I assume they must. And do they play off it? Do they want their parties to be misinformed and rabid and do they cater to that? Because you see these attack ads and the divisiveness they create. They have to know what they’re doing, right?
Yeah, we’ve seen more of an emphasis on mobilizing strategies. You’re trying to mobilize your supporters and demobilize — or demoralize — the other side. So yes, the parties are aware of who’s actually involved in politics and what they care about. In terms of misinforming people, we can’t say what they do in private or what they think, but there are certainly cases where elites say things that aren’t particularly well supported by the evidence and continue to say them and it seems to benefit them politically.

Give me a good example.
Well, the one I often use is “death panels.” It was coined by Sarah Palin. A lot of misinformation comes form elites. Whether it comes form the party itself is unclear. What is a party anyway? We could have a whole seminar on that, right? Some of my colleagues write books on that subject. But a lot of misinformation comes from elites and people take cues from elites so it can spread very rapidly. So Sarah Palin created the “death panels” myth. And within a few months an overwhelming majority of Americans had come to hear of it, and it’s still echoing. It’s still lingering. The Washington Post wrote a story about the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia right now, and people were saying, “I don’t want to sign up for health care that I qualify for because I’m worried about death panels.”

And there are no death panels, right? I mean, insurance companies are already known to deny coverage for certain illnesses or try to avoid paying for expensive treatments.
Right. People say to me, “she means rationing.” And I say, “Well, insurance companies ration all the time. If that’s death panels, we have them.” But Sarah Palin’s language is much more vivid. It’s more like “I don’t want to go in front of the death panel” — and you’d have to pull the exact quote — but it’s much more vivid. It describes government panels will decide if people live or die. And that’s just not the case. So they vary to the extent that they’re elite driven. A claim that was widely held among Democrats is the belief that Bush was implicated in the 911 attacks — the “inside job” conspiracy theory. That had limited elite support. Very few elite Democrats actually espoused that. But there are beliefs that are pushed by elites.

And I think that our political culture — and especially our journalistic culture — is insufficiently harsh on people who do that. There are very few negative reputational consequences. So we shouldn’t be surprised when people still push these things. CNN will still have you on. You’ll still get quoted in the newspaper. You’re still on TV. And a lot of the stories that cover your claims will be written in a framework that suggests your story might be true. They don’t adequately characterize the evidence for readers, but instead frames it in this is “he said, she said” framework.
If we go back to climate change, there’s a really good evidence that giving people quote-unquote “balanced” portrayals of scientific or factual debates for the evidence isn’t balanced and can really mislead people. Somebody did an experiment where he varied whether a climate change coverage had a skeptic in it or not, and the inclusion of one skeptic completely changed how people thought of the evidence.

So just suggesting something might not be true is enough for people to think it’s not.
Well if you go by the sources quoted in the story it’s 50/50. There’s one climate scientist, there’s one skeptic, and if you read the story not very carefully you can come away thinking the scientific consensus isn’t very strong. So it’s not only a function of elites. They do play a key role, but they’re enabled by the weak negative incentives against misinforming people.

What’s another good example on the left that mirrors death panels then. What do left leaning people cling to that’s not supportable?
Well, it’s not the same as death panels but Obama saying you can keep your health care plan is sort of a dubious claim that people on the left seem to forgive him for. In some ways you could see it as the most prominent and misleading claim that was made on the Democratic side. It’s not as flatly false as the death panels claim, but it’s one he made a lot of times. And there’s others people associate with liberals. The public opinion data don’t show these as being more prominent among liberals at this point, but the elite action on them has been a little bit skewed left. Like vaccines and genetically modified foods are two areas that people often bring up where there are myths that circulate widely and they are often associated with a certain type of liberalism. Vermont just passed the first genetically modified food labeling requirement and that’s a very liberal state overall. And there are a lot of unsupported myths about the safety of vaccines and of genetically modified foods.

You mean as far as how dangerous they are?
Right. Basically there’s no data that supports that they are any more dangerous than anything else. Everything we eat has been genetically modified, depending on how you use the adjective. Humans have been breeding plants and animals for particular traits — which is a slow and inefficient way of genetically modifying food — for millennia. There’s a reason the turkeys we raise for food are so huge they can barely walk. But — which is a prominent liberal group — just sent out a fundraising email to raise money off the Vermont law, making Monsanto out as the boogey man.

But I’m scared of Monsanto. So even as you tell me there’s no safety issues, I still don’t buy it. In fact, I’m inclined to go look for research that says otherwise.
Right. Motivated reasoning.

I also saw a study where Democrats are changing opinion over how old is to old to be president. When Dole and McCain ran — or even Reagan — there were too old. But now studies say Hillary might not be.
Yes, Democrats consistently said every [Republican] candidate was too old — until it was their person. [laughs] My favorite on that was a political scientist who looked at the people who were concerned about age. And the people who were most concerned were old people because they knew what happens to them. And my mom who’s 67, she agreed to that.

So knowing this, how do people have a reasonable discussion? You talk about inoculating yourself against bias and boosting ego. What do these things do and what can we learn from this?
Well, that’s hard. We need institutions that facilitate more broad minded kinds of discussion. I don’t think that should be up to people themselves. We need settings where you can engage constructively. So basically the opposite of internet comment sections. [laughs] And people are trying to figure this out. People are trying to moderate comment sections — the New York Times does that. And I know a researcher named Talia Shroud at Texas, who’s been working with news companies on how to create more deliberative online interactive options. Like using a ‘respect’ button instead of ‘like’ button so people could say, “I don’t agree with that but I respect where you’re coming from” as kind of a civic-minded way of engaging. So there may be things you can do.

Is Facebook the worst thing ever for political debate? It seems like it lets people spew opinions and not listen to each other or take each other seriously. Has technology made it worse?
I don’t think we really know yet. People are investigating the extent to which there’s diversity in social media and the extent to which they interact across political divisions. I don’t know the full state of the research. But there’s a lot of heterogeneity in families — think of people arguing across the Thanksiving dinner table — and a lot of those people are your Facebook friends too. Or coworkers, right? And those can be politically diverse depending on the field you work in. But I wouldn’t say that trying to reverse political differences on Facebook is a conservative way of finding common ground. Most of the stuff I see tends to be cheerleading on one side on the other. But it’s hard. We’re often pretty well sorted by our politics as a result of where we live or our profession or our background. So the danger is being trapped in this mono-culture politically where you only talk to people with likeminded views. And there’s some evidence that deliberating with people who agree with you makes your views more extreme. So having heterogeneous groups is important. But that’s easier said than done.

What about your research that suggests boosting someone’s ego makes them more likely to accept a point of view. Is that sort of like the adage of giving people a compliment before offering a critique? Is it as simple as going, I respect your opinion but…”? Or is that all minor detail stuff compared to “My identity is my identity.”
It might help. My research involves people do themselves: so the extent you feel good about yourself buffers the threat you might otherwise feel when you’re told something you don’t want to hear. It’s hard for someone to do that for you. The reason it works is because you’re thinking about something that’s meaningful to you in some other area of your life and saying, “I’m a good person. I’m someone who tries to uphold their values’ so when someone says “Your side is wrong” about a controversial issue, you’re maybe willing to be more open-minded because you’re feeling better about yourself in this other area. That’s hard to replicate.

Is it at least safe to say that insulting people is not the best way to engage in debate? That calling someone a ‘republitard’ is not going to advance your veiwpont?

[laugh] Oh yeah. Yeah! But there’s all kinds of behaviors that can poison the well. Being respectful certainly helps make for more reasonable discussion.

So if everyone’s prone to digging their heels in and proving each other wrong, how do you get people to agree on this stuff?
I’m less worried about liberals and conservatives agreeing – they’re never gonna agree. What’s more important is agreeing on the underlying facts and having institutions that work when they disagree so sharply. But there’s no perfect solution to this. And there doesn’t need to be. I would say the reason we have politics is because we disagree. What we need are institutions that work when people disagree very sharply. Because polarized politics aren’t going away anytime soon. So the challenge is how do we govern our selves? And how do we have an actual debate about what we should do? How do agree on the terms of the debate?

My instinct in these debates is to say, “We shouldn’t put the burden on the individual to solve these problems; we should solve these problems collectively.” I we’re going to have a fact-based debate we need to create incentives for people to be accurate in public life. If we’re going to figure out how to govern ourselves when there’s polarization, we need to figure out how to make institutions work when the divide between liberals and conservatives — Democrats and Republicans – are so sharp. And those are problems that are beyond the scope of any individual, right? They’re really about us as a society. Could individuals do more? Yes. Should we expect them to? No! people have other things going on in their lives. And a lot of what w e see is a symptom of the way the political system is working as much as the cause. They’re taking their cues from the political system.

So we have one more reason to hate politicians. Just kidding.
[laughs] Yes. But the problem with this misinformation stuff is when I talk about it people think democracy is doomed. I don’t have quite as depressing a read on it. Because, again, we’ve had voters who aren’t so informed ever since democracy started — and we’re still here. And we’ve had polarization before. And this is a particularly ideological polarization. And that’s hard. And that’s the challenge we have: it’s that parties that aren’t just fighting really intensely with each other, but liberals and conservatives are matched really closely to whatever party they belong to. And that’s what makes it so challenging — both in terms of the facts and in terms of making government work. But the point I was saying about coastal communities and the extent to which there’s partisanship and common ground, I’d love to see you cover that. Because it’s at the leading edge of the climate debate. And there’s some indication that some places have fond more common ground for having those kinds of debates about mitigation than other places.

Because they’re more in the cross-hairs. So much like buying refrigerator, there’s a real consequence. Except this is much bigger than the refrigerator. It’s everything.
Right. I mean Downtown Miami could be underwater in forty years or whatever. So there are places where the stakes are so high, and in some cases the impacts are already being felt. I don’t know if that’s hit the Outer Banks yet. But I’d love to see if you cover it.

Well, I’m sure you saw North Carolina was the state that passed a law saying they weren’t going to consider sea level rise when making their laws. That was actually our coastal counties that led that change because of the potential economic damage on development and insurance hikes.
Wow. Oh the insurance thing! That’s right. That’s interesting because people are having that conversation of will insurance change the debate? Will the liabilities make it prohibitive to build in places that are at risk. But I hadn’t really thought about it on the consumer side.

Is that a classic case of people ignoring the facts? Or is it a little more nuanced? Because it seems like they almost readily admit they’re ignoring the facts for economic reasons.
You would know better than me. I hadn’t fully considered the economic and planning implications for people who live there, especially homeowners. So those unfortunately create perverse incentives to avoid long-term forecasting that call the viability of some of those residences into question.

Is NC-20 saying, “We’re not going to take this into consideration now” a case of elites dictating discussion? Or is that different?
I almost feel like I lack the local knowledge to speak to that one. The extent to which the local knowledge is mirroring national debate or deals with local dynamics and property values and insurance, I can’t say. But I will say it’s an interesting test case. We spoke earlier about how higher stakes might give people incentives to have more accurate beliefs and there’s a paper by a professor at Yale who talks about his work in Florida on climate change mitigation and the relative lack of polarization there on support for mitigation measures, which he sees as a hopeful sort of development. That there might be a possibility for a more fact-based dialogue in these local areas that are threatened. But it seems like the Outer Banks has not achieved the same level of consensus.

I wonder if that’s because in Miami there’s water backing up storm drains on extreme high tides. They’re feeling it firsthand, where here it’s less tangible — and therefore more debatable as to whether our issues are sea level rise or something else.
How salient sea level rise is in Miami on a day to day basis — or month to month or a season basis — is probably important. So the question is then, how do you move the discussion forward before it gets to that point in other places. Because when you get to that point, things are getting seriously wrong. And I don’t know the answer. We’re much better at diagnosing the problem than the solution, unfortunately. But what I would say is if you were looking at who to interview next, I would talk to someone in Holland. Because they’re threatened. And they’re having a very different conversation.

Are they being more proactive?
I’m no expert, but the European consensus around climate change seems to be stronger. They’re still having trouble moving forward on some of the more difficult mitigation and conservation methods that are harder to sell anywhere, but their consensus over scientific evidence seems to be broader. And I guess I wonder if there are lessons we can learn. And I’m no expert on the policy response and how to physically address the threat of rising sea levels. And all those aspects of the debate are going to play out in places like that too. It’s not like you guys are the only ones confronting these issues.

At least they agree there’s an issue to react to. Here it seem like both sides can find support for their views: see, it’s no real science. Or see, you guys need to act now.
Right. Well the way people’s property values and insurance are tied up makes it potentially very costly for them to admit they’re at risk. And again, the thing I would say is this such an important issue. And you’re having a debate that a lot of other people are going to be having in the future. So its important to learn from what’s happening and share it more broadly. That’s why the Washington Post is covering what’s happening.

Because we’re really small community. It’s not like we’re not a teeming metropolis.
And the fact you’re in North Carolina, which is a politically competitive state. It has a conservative element and these newer, more liberal migrants. I’m not going to say it’s a microcosm of the United States, but I has a lot of the elements that are at play nationally.


A check-up with Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman on what makes for a healthy beach

Just who is Stephen P. Leatherman? And why should any of us care? Well, you probably know him better as “Dr. Beach.” Every Memorial Day weekend he issues a top-10 list of “America’s Best Beaches,” inspiring huge headlines for coastal newspapers across the country and endless slideshows for click-hungry travel websites. (Not to mention drawing biting cries of malpractice by destinations that don’t make the cut.)

What you may not realize is Leatherman isn’t some quack paid to write press release fodder for tourist boards — he’s a respected scientist and professor at Miami’s Florida International University who’s spent 20 years developing and revising a format of 50 criteria from access to water quality. And what you most surely didn’t know is he began his illustrious career right here on the Outer Banks, doing research for his alma mater, North Carolina State University.

“I spent my last two years as an undergrad studying erosion,” says the 67-year-old Charlotte native. “Every weekend I’d drive down to do beach profiles and track currents in Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke. That’s how I paid my way through college. I see the Outer Banks as almost a second home.”

Maybe that’s why both beaches consistently make the top 10. (Ocracoke even hit #1 in 2007; Cape Hatteras’ highest ranking was #4 in 2010.) But just because we’re among his favorite patients doesn’t mean we get special treatment. Each year, Leatherman dives back into his research to perform a veritable colonoscopy on every inch of U.S. shoreline, meaning beaches rise and fall every summer. Some even drop off the charts entirely. We called the doctor to find out what makes for a healthy beach and how to stay on his list for years to come. What follows is the full-transcript of that one-hour interview. — Matt Walker

MILEPOST: What’s the best way to credit you?
DR. STEPHEN P. LEATHERMAN: Well, everyone knows me as Dr. Beach. It would be good to credit my website — — because it has a lot of information on it. But I’m a professor in coastal sciences at Florida International University in Miami

I found that interesting because, despite all the publicity, people wouldn’t automatically know how much of a coastal science background you have.
Right. A lot of people know me as just Dr. Beach. They don’t know there’s a Dr. Leatherman who does scientific research. And I really started off looking at beaches. In fact, I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and I went to NC State University as an undergraduate. There was a project at the time and they wanted people to go out in wintertime and survey the beaches on the Outer Banks on North Carolina. Because there’s always been questions about erosion. And that’s really how I got into all of this. I spent my last two years as an undergrad studying beach erosion. A lot of people didn’t want to go. They said, “Oh no, I don’t want to go to beach in the winter. It’s cold in the winter.” But I was paying my way through school, so it worked out perfect for me. And every weekend I would bring another person with me and we’d drive out and survey the beach profiles and use fluorescein dye to check for longshore currents and try to estimate the size of the waves. I did that my final two years at NC State. I paid my way through.

Have you been back since then? Do you know how much it’s changed?
Last time I was in Cape Hatteras was probably three years ago, but the changes are incredible. Whalebone Junction was just two roads that came together. There was nothing there. All just nice little cottages. I kind of wish it was that way now, to be honest with you, that they hadn’t brought in all the commercialization. But I do understand people need a certain amount of convenience.

But it is sort of a double-edged sword how this tuff works; you build up these tourism industries, but how do you preserve the atmosphere people come for?
It is. I think one good thing is it hasn’t gone high-rise — like Miami or some of these other areas.

Not yet. So how do the criteria affect each other? I’d assume the more access you have, the more potential for water quality problems — or even just crowds.
Ironic, isn’t it? But you’re quite right. If there’s not good access, then I can’t give a beach a good rating. And bad access could mean not enough parking. There’s some beaches where you get to and drive with the kids and everyone in the car and it says “park closed” on your favorite weekend or wherever you want to go. And there’s a place here in Florida where you only get there by ferryboat and it’s fairly expensive. And to me a $60 ride on a ferryboat is not good access. So I have to count a lot of points off for that. And people there say, “Well, you know, it keeps out the riff-raff.” and I say, “I’m sure it does [laughs], but I can’t see paying $60 on average per person to go across to the beach.”

And you developed this criteria over the past 20 years, correct?
Well, it didn’t take that long. But over a period of time. But it took quite awhile to do it, but nobody had done it before. And I thought that was interesting. People had rated rivers but not beaches. I don’t know why that is. But it took a while to think about that, and the ratings are scientific but they’re also meant for people’s use of that area. It’s not just grain size or mineralogy just for its own sake; I try to think about how people would enjoy it. So, very fine sand, people prefer that. And of course, pink sand, but there’s not many pink sand beaches. But black sand beaches are very exotic in Hawaii, but they really are very hot. [laughs] But for the 25th year — next year — I’m going to pump up another criteria and that’s smoking on beaches. I’m going to try to get smoking off beaches. Because the number one form of litter is cigarette butts. The number one problem is plastic. But cigarette butts are awful. And people put them out and think they disappear, but next thing they’re up on the surface. Kids are eating them. Ugh! Give ma break. There’s nothing I hate more than putting my hand down in a pile of cigarette butts.

I would assume water quality would make all the difference because that’s where people spend their time in the water. Is it weighted in some ways?
For water quality, I look at EPA data. I couldn’t possibly test all the beaches myself. But fortunately, all the counties have their own health departments to take water samples. And all that is put together by the EPA. And the NRDC also has it. So you can go to either website and find it. But I look at all the water quality data. And if they’ve had more than a couple of beach closures a year, then they’re out — that’s for sure.

So there’s a tier system of sorts. If they don’t pass a couple of primary levels, they’re out.
Exactly. If they’ve got water quality problems, they’re out. Flat out. And the reason I say one or two, because a sea gull can poop in the water and if you take a water sample, you’ll get a high bacteria count, even though it wouldn’t be harmful to you. So you have to allow for one bad test show a year. But if it shows up again, they’re out.

It’s funny you say that. Because we don’t have bad water quality, per se. But if it rains, it can get bad at certain spots because of run-off. And I lived out for Southern California and if it rained there you didn’t surf for 72 hours. But there was this complacency about it. But here, we have outfalls that connect to these drainage systems. And occasionally, if they test, the numbers aren’t pretty.
And that is a real problem. I get a lot of criticism from people in California who say, “Why don’t we have more top 10 beaches? Is it because we don’t have enough mosquitoes? Or we don’t have enough hurricanes?” And I get that a lot from the LA Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. They get really mad at me. They say, “You know we have the best beaches in the country. The Beach Boys songs tell you that.” Yeah, for surfing. But the problem with Southern California is there’s so much development. And you may have great beauty with all the sea cliffs, but it’s where the mountain meets the sea, so you also get run-off problems. And it’s very hard for them because when it rains in winter, it runs off so quickly — how do you stop all that? And in San Francisco they tried for a while, and it overflowed their sewer systems, which is even worse. And I know in your area and also in Myrtle Beach and other places when get those thunderstorms and a lot of water, it’s very hard to deal with. And you don’t want to shunt it back toward the bay, because then you foul up all the water for the clamming and oysters and all that.

Well, when they do the DENR testing here, there’s a sound beach that’s consistently worst in the state. And that’s because the water’s stagnant, and hot and we only have one inlet. I know the sound in the summer is great to kayak in but I wouldn’t want to go swimming in it. And it all comes down to the number of people; the more people in a spot or resource, the more you’ll foul it up.
Sure. That’s right. And then you had that huge disaster a while ago, Floyd, when all those pig pits overflowed and went into the Pamlico Sound. That was unbelievable.

So how does these criteria play off each other? It’s water, sand, rip currents.
Well, here’s the way you look at it: number one it’s clean sand, clean water. If you don’t have that you’re out. And obviously, number one is clean water, but I also look very carefully at the sand. Both sand quality and in terms of is there litter? Is there glass in the sand? But the way it gets weighted is there’s 50 criteria, and if you look at it there’s a number of issues about the sand — so if there’s a problem with the sand quality, you’ll get knocked down real low. Same thing with safety. Beach safety is a very big issue. If you look at the criteria, I talk about rip currents, I talk about the presence of lifeguards — two or three other things — where it’s all about beach safety. You don’t have those things and you have problems with drownings, you’re going to go down very fast. Beach safety is a big issue. Beach access is a big issue. And that’s how it’s weighted, because there’s a number of factors in those areas. There’s not just one factor that captures those aspects.

It’s funny you say that, because they’re all factors we’re coming to grips with. We just had a big nourishment project but they actually did a good job with matching the sand…
Oh good.

And they’re about to do that for the whole county. How will that impact years to come?
Let me talk about that. How did Dare County get the money?

We fund it ourselves. We have a county fund beach protection measures. And we just put an extra penny of tax on our occupancy to help fund it. Nags Head just did it and three years later all the towns have teamed up to do it from Duck to Nags Head.
Well, here’s the thing. In some ways I’m going to applaud you for not going to the Corps — not that you could get the funding, because you don’t have enough high-rises or what they would call ‘economic value.’ And that’s the terrible thing, is you sort of have to be the bad kid to get the Corps money. And to me that’s wrong. It’s also very political, because even if you have a lot of development and come up to their benefit-cost ratio, there’s a huge amount of politics. There’s lobbyists who make six-figure salaries talking through the senators and congressmen to see who get the money. And there’s some good people in the Corps of Engineers. I have colleagues there, but by and large, it’s an agency that’s a mostly political animal. But that’s not your Field Research Facility; that’s research. And that’s a great thing. That’s the most studied beach in the world. But Wilmington has one of these Corps district offices and by and large, those offices aren’t base level funded. If you look at most federal programs, the money’s going to come in no matter what they do — I hate to say that, but that’s kind of how it is. But the Corps, they shrink up if they don’t get projects. So they’re forced to go after projects. In the old days, that meant building dams. Well, as someone says, “They dammed every river they could.” Now in the last 30 years, it’s all pretty much been — well, they do some inlet work, they get money there — but a lot of it’s beach nourishment because that’ where the money is. And they’ve become political animals trying to get that money. Here on the Panhandle of Florida there was a town that didn’t want beach nourishment but they got it anyway. Because the Corps wanted to keep money rolling.

It’s funny you say that, because we have a lot of issues with Oregon Inlet here. And the Corps is responsible for dredging. And some people want to put a terminal groin on the north side, but even the Corps said that wouldn’t stop them from having to dredge, which to me said a lot: because if the Corps says ‘no’ to a job, it must not be a good idea.
Well, that’s going to be a big black eye if they do that. Because we know it’s not going to work that well. Because that’s a huge inlet. Probably the most treacherous inlet on the whole east coast. I’d hate to be a fisherman going in and out of there in winter. But it’s one of those inlets that’s very hard to hold. But that’s a tough one, for sure.

So with nourishment here, seeing as it’s self-funded, is it a good thing?
Well, I know people like Orrin Pilkey, who’s a retired professor at Duke, have campaigned against beach nourishment for most of their life. And I understand where he’s coming from in the sense that the public seems to think that beach nourishment is an end-all. That it’s a permanent solution. And it’s not. You have to realize that putting sand on a beach treats the symptoms; it does not cure the disease. The symptom is beach erosion, but the disease is rising sea level, coastal storms and some other factors. So the thing is, there’s going to be a lifetime of that nourishment project. In other words: it’s not going to last forever. So you have to think of it that way. And that’s not the way the public thinks. And also people have come to think that beach nourishment equals coastal management. That all you have to do is keep pumping sand on shore and they don’t have to worry, they can develop as much as they want to. In fact, in Ocean City Maryland, people started developing closer to the water after all of these projects. You see what I mean? So let’s go back to your situation: assuming that the project’s done well, assuming that you’ve got material that’s of similar size, then I credit beaches with the nourishment. Because I look at beach width: if there’s no beach at high tide, then I have to take off points for that.

As long as the sand quality’s good and they’re not dumping fill dirt.
That’s right. I used to work down at the Duke University Marine Lab, I taught there for about five summers —I guess back in the 90s, I can’t remember now — but it was a course called Barrier Island Ecology. I really enjoyed being there. Beautiful area. And the inlet which comes into Beaufort — Beaufort Inlet in Morehead City — the Corps periodically has to dredge that out, so they looked at Atlantic Beach on the north end of the island and said, “You want some free sand?” And they said, “Sure! Free sand!” Well, it wasn’t just sand; they also got a bunch of clay. And they kept pumping that out on the beach. And for years the water, which used to be very clear — in fact, other parts of the area were called Emerald Isle — these mudballs would be moved by the surf and be caught up in suspension. And the water was all turbid. It was awful. I’m not saying it was polluted; but it was awful.

So there’s ways to do it right, and ways to do it wrong. And you have to keep your eye on the ball. And the end goal is to achieve a place that people want to enjoy.
But that wasn’t strictly a beach nourishment project, it was a disposal project, and they got away with it. But I’m not against beach nourishment. I do ask the question, who profits and who pays? For instance the south side of Long Island is getting 100% of their beach nourishment paid for because they’ve got all this money left over from Superstorm Sandy. And I went up to Montauk, and the Corps came in and said, “We have $100 million to blow. We’re gonna give you beach nourishment and we’re going to build you a seawall.” And the concerned citizens of Montauk called me up and I said, “Let’s do the beach nourishment, but let’s get rid of the seawall.”

I think there’s a lack of awareness as to how coastal processes work. People want groins because hard structures seem permanent, but they actually do more harm.
That’s right: groins rob Peter to pay Paul. You put a groin in front of your property, your beach gets very wide, very quick. But you look at your neighbor’s and it’s shrinking. So groins don’t create any new sand, they just redistribute it along the beach profile. And that’s the problem there. And they say, why don’t we do the whole beach? And it will hold the beach. But you still can lose sand offshore, and over time you’ll lose the sand and have to do nourishment anyway. And the other thing is, aesthetically, I don’t find them very pleasing. And they’re also a hazard for swimmers.

That’s the other issue we’re facing. As you know, Cape Hatteras has a lot of park land. Part of their federal budget cuts included eliminating lifeguards at the three remaining beaches. Is that an automatic ding?.
I’m sorry to hear that. Got rid of all the lifeguards? You mean Lifeguard Beach on Ocracoke is no longer a lifeguarded beach?

That’s right. The situation’s still fluid. They’re trying to find the funding. But right now they’re saying lifeguards on federal property. Now, the towns still have them – including Rodanthe and Buxton on Hatteras – but not on Ocracoke.
Oh no! Well, that’s going to be a downgrade, there. I’m sorry to hear that. Can they put the lifeguards back?

People are trying. There’s been some outcry and stuff, and petitions. But who knows how the government will react? It’s all part of lots of changes in the whole park system here in response to budget cuts.
Well, you know, I can go into a whole other issue about this too. I was looking at a park down here in Florida with the park service people, not too far from Cape Canaveral. And I looked, and I said, “This is a national park?” And they said, some local congressman slipped it in. And they spend this huge amount of money on this place, which — as far as I can see — has no real significance other than that someone knew someone. And they’re spending millions of dollars fixing it up. And so we have a lot of national parks that shouldn’t ever be parks. Therefore they’re draining money from the real gems like Hatteras and Yellowstone to subsidize and pay for what should be state or county parks. But that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

Well, the park service is a lighting rod here. People aren’t happy with the issues with pedestrian and ORV access and protected species and so forth. But it’s kind of a Catch -22, because at the same point, if it wasn’t’ for the park service, the beach would all be condos.
That’s right. And I know exactly what you’re talking about because sometimes they clamp down too much. It’s always been a challenge of the National Park Service to make available the resources and also protect it. And sometimes they go too far on the protection because it’s the easy thing to do. But you know, the Outer Banks is a special place and that’s the reason it became the first National Seashore. And if you look at satellite imagery from around the world — and I have — you don’t see anything quite like these three big capes. So it’s completely unique in the world. And it also has such a great history of shipwrecks and the things people did.

So how does that work? When you gauge those issue, is a pristine beach you can’t get to, how does that work?
Well, I start taking points off for that, too. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t have access , you don’t have anything. And the other thing, I like the Outer Banks because you do have towns, so you do have some — shall we say — creature comforts nearby. Now I can take you to a beach in Olympic national park, Shi-Shi beach. There’s a 10-mile walk in and you have to take everything with you. And you’ll see a lot wildlife and wood on the beach — in fact, you’ll see logs that are five feet in diameter — but the point is, I don’t put that on my top 10 list, because this area is so isolated and there are no amenities. And how many people are going to want to walk in 10 miles to a beach? Yeah, there’s some real hardy people out there. and I enjoyed it one time. But I’m not going to go out to that beach very often. So if you want to make the list, you do have some creature comforts. But you also let nature be nature. Down her in South Florida — South Beach? I go down there every now and again. But it’s a party beach. It’s all a bunch of nightclubs emptying onto thee beach. And the beach is big. It’s nice. It’s warm. But I can’t make it a top beach because it’s overcrowded. You go onto the beach you can’t find your kid. It’s like Where’s Waldo?. So if there’s too many people it’s not going to be a top beach. And then people come out of the bars and pee in the streets. [laughs ] But the bathrooms are just awful. It’s hard to keep them in good shape in Loomis Park because when they did the $60 million nourishment project, they had to set the beach up as a public park. But the bathrooms are just awful because the homeless use them to live out of.

Well, one of the questions about beach nourishment here is what to do in Duck because there is no real access. And of course, it’s public money. And even up in Corolla, there’s not much access. So how do those rate?
I don’t rate those beaches because I don’t think they’re truly open to the public.

Well, to the county’s credit, when they started talking about funding Duck they said access will have to improve. But you mentioned the high rises earlier and the amount of economic value. There was a point here where Kill Devil Hills discussed raising the height limit to allow for taller buildings. And I do think part of it wasn’t so much about putting bodies on the beach but getting that nourishment funding. Is that an old trick?
It’s an old ploy, that’s exactly right .You have to have infrastructure at risk to get the federal money. So you have to go up. If you just have regular housing, it’s not enough money. Because if you look at beach nourishment, it’s usually $3 or $4 million per mile to do it, depending on how wide you build the beach. So you‘ve got to get the value up to generate the return or cost-benefit ratio. And I think initially a Corps project is a subsidy for the people who get it. But at the end of the day, the area puts in a lot more money than they realize. And you have to wait years to get things going. And it becomes political based on what lobbyist works the scene the best. The point of it is: I don’t think the Corps should be in the business. But I’m not against beach nourishment. If we didn’t have beach nourishment here in South Florida we wouldn’t have any beaches. And the reason for it is we’ve got beach erosion and people built clear to the shore. So we created the problem. But if we didn’t have the beaches, people wouldn’t come to South Florida. They’d go to the Caribbean or somewhere else. South Florida wouldn’t be a hot beach anymore. It would be sea walls and water and no beaches. It wouldn’t be what it is to day, that’s for sure.

Are there any high-rise towns one your beach? There are some pretty obvious gaps — VB , Myrtle Beach…
No, there’s no high rise beaches. I know people in Baltimore who go to Ocean City and they say, “We live in high rises here and we want to go to a high rise in Ocean City. We don’t like those little flat buildings; we want a great view. And I kind of understand that. But high rises really take a way from the whole felling of an area. They dominate the landscape. And in the afternoon, they’re blocking the sun — and that’s the best sun of the day! At least on the east coast. And aesthetically, they dominate the landscape and to me that’s not nature. It’s not like Diamondhead in Waikiki where you have this big volcano in the background. That’s fantastic; that’s all part of nature.

There’s a lot of people in those things, too. And that’ the irony – and I don’t’ know if you feel any guilt about this — but towns use these ratings to get more bodies.
Well, I tell people this. If you have the luxury to travel when you want to, go in the off season. Go to the Outer Banks after Labor Day. The water’s still warm. And it stays warm ‘til October or something. You don’t have the numbers so much. And the fishing starts coming in the fall, too. But if you can choose you season, you can avoid crowds. I lived on Cape Cod for a number of years and I don’t’ go in July and August because overrun with people. There’s’ traffic jams and you can’t go anywhere.

That’s why I figure winter is our saving grace. Because if it was nice here year round, we’d be in a world of hurt.
In terms of population? I think you would be. But you know, I like the beaches there in winter. Certainly, you have to put on your coat, and the wind can really whip through you sometimes. But the beach looks so different and I like to see the big waves crashing through there, particularly at the point where they refract around and hit each other on that spit that goes out in the water. It’s just a different place altogether. I don’t know. You get away from everybody. You can walk the beach and not see a soul. Just the whistling of the wind all around you. I became a person who loves the beaches in the wintertime. And people couldn’t understand that at all, but it’s totally different. Of course, you can’t go swimming obviously — and I love to go swimming. But I like the solitude. I like the serenity of it all.

That’s funny you say that, because a lot of people who live here say the same thing. It’s sort of a litmus test for survival. So you might make the cut if you ever wanted to live here.
You mean I might be acceptable? [laughs]

That’s another interesting thing looking at your annual list: there are a lot of national seashores and state parks —Hawaii, Florida, Cape Cod, here. Why is that?
Well, the reason I put them on there is for their great scenic beauty. Their water quality is high usually because there’s no overdevelopment. And they usually keep up the resource well. And they usually have pretty good access. And they don’t have huge crowds normally either. There’s no big high rises on the beach; it’s more scattered in terms of where people are. It’s not throngs of people where you can’t walk past the blankets to get to the water.

It seems like they make good anchors, too. Even here in Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, we have Hatteras nearby.
It’s a great asset. A great asset. I like your combination because you’ve got the villages and people can have all that. And if you want to get away more, you drive south a short ride and see just pure nature. So I like your combination — I think that’s one of the best combinations — because, again, you’ve got the facilities, you’ve got places to stay. You don’t have to camp out — but you’ve got campgrounds if you want to do all that. So I like that balance. It’s one of the reasons I really love the Outer Banks, in addition to all the other things.

I was surprised to see South Hampton, Long Island on the list. My vision of that is exclusive homes with P. Diddy Martha Stewart with little access
Well, let me tell you about Southampton. The Hamptons are very exclusive. It’s one of what I call the “three gold beaches” in the U.S. The others are Palm Beach and Malibu. So these are havens for the rich and famous, there’s no doubt about that. But if you drive out on the Sunrise Highway — Route 27 or whatever –you go through an area where its stunted pine forest and there’s no development for miles and miles and miles. And then you get into West Hampton Beach, South Hampton Beach, and all that, and finally East Hampton and then Montauk. So you have a long stretch there where — yes, you have the rich and famous — but in many ways, they’ve maintained the big sand dunes. They have not built on the beaches. And there’s no high rises. And the houses they build are very interesting. Some look like castles. every one of them is an architectural wonder. You have 25- to 30-foot dunes there. You have beaches that are 300 feet wide. There’s no pollution. No factories. The beaches are almost pristine in that regard. Except for behind the sand dunes, you’ve got huge houses sitting on sometimes 10 acres of land. But they do have public access. So you go to Coopers Beach in South Hampton , which was number one beach a few years ago, there’s a parking lot behind the big sand dune that will hold probably 200 to 300 cars. But you have to pay to get in there. And it’s very high, like 30 dollars. But what I tell people to do is go to South Hampton and bring a bicycle. It’s like this little New England town with a proper square and a little historic district and wide streets. So you ride everywhere on bikes. You don’t need to drive your car and pay. Because I’m not going to pay $30 a day to park.

Here we have an access in every block in some place. And the parking’s free. And sometimes people recommend charging as a revenue stream, but I’m happy to say the towns seem to feel that’s short-sighted.
Or New Jersey you have to have a beach badge. And that to me is ridiculous.

I assume that’s why you don’t see New Jersey beaches on the list either.
That’s one reason. They also have a lot of pollution problems. And it’s over crowded. People pour in from Philadelphia, New York — and New Jersey has a big population in its own right. And they charge you 10 to 15 bucks to get a beach badge. That’s public beach! How can you charge me?

I’ve always said, I’ve never been to New Jersey beaches and see a NC tag. I think there’s a reason people drive past so many options to come here. That says something.
It does. When I lived in the DC area, I was a professor at the University of Maryland for 16 years, and we always went to Duck. And the reason was it was the closest high quality beach. And a bunch of us would come down and get a five-bed room house. And it was up high so you could see the water. And it’s a beautiful area. The whole area. I used to go windsurfing in the sound. And at night we’d drink good wine. My kids would go out and chase ghost crabs. They thought was so much fun. So that was one of the criteria for a good beach when they were 8 or 9 years old. We don’t have those down here.

So maybe the lesson is to play your strengths. I think when people see these lists they have the tendency to homogenize and pick up other beaches’ attributes. But you have to play your strengths. we may have rip tides, but that’s price of natural sloping beach. Or an issue with access down south is part of the price of a national park.
It is a balance. And it is a tradeoff.

Have any beaches ever fallen off of the list? For what reason?
Oh yes. I had a beach, Poipu Beach in Kauai. A fantastic beach on the dry side of Kauai. An idyllic place. It got hit by a hurricane that kind of wiped out the area for five or six years. And I had to drop it off the list. But finally the beach did come back naturally and they rebuilt some facilities and it later became a national winner. But it didn’t come back for along time. And of course, if an oil spill hits — I had to pull some beaches off the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida Panhandle. And they were off for a year or so. Fortunately, a lot of the oil never made landfall. Although the tarballs are bad. And just the threat of them are bad.

The dispersants are what I got worried about.
Well, that was unnecessary and stupid in its own right.

Well, that’s another issue because our Governor wants to drill offshore, which seems foolish when you consider what our tourism economy brings in. Should we be worried?
I can’t imagine you have the oil they have in the Gulf of Mexico. The geology’s not the same. But I don’t even think oil drilling would be economically viable off there. And I know where the governor’s coming form. Everyone’s trying to get more economic activity and more jobs, but you guys are better off than most areas because you’ve got the tourism. And it’s so much more expensive offshore. And when you look at the potential for oil and potential cost environmentally, at least for thee foreseeable future, I don’t see it. But if you start having problems with oil spills, or those other things, it’s certainly gonna sink you.

So, looking out long-term, how do think we fare? Are we pretty high upon the list? Do we have a shot at the title?
Well, I’d like for you to work on those lifeguards. Because this is very upsetting to me. Maybe the county can come up with some money for just one area designated for the lifeguards. Because a lot of people, particularly the visitors, can come in who have no idea bout the water. They can drown almost in their bathtub. Much less worry about currents, and big waves and that kind of thing. So I hope you can get the lifeguards back. But I love that area. It’s like a second home in many ways. You’ve got Jockey’s Ridge. How many people have that? It showed up on early maps. That’s not something recent. All the early explorer charts show Jockey’s Ridge. I’ve always wanted to try hang gliding there because it seems like a safe place to try. But just climbing up is an experience. When my kids were small, we climbed up Jockeys Ridge and they’re tired and screaming like, “This is like the Sahara Desert!’ And I’m like, “I know. Isn’t it wonderful?”


In an age when politicians and activists increasingly twist environmental debate, one anthropologist asked people for their honest opinions.

Are you a Lorax — or an Onceler? Are you the bunny-hugging, pro-regulation eco-terrorist who “speaks for the trees?” Or the soulless pro-developer willing to pave over plovers and parks to make every penny? Quick, pick a side. Because when it comes to environmental debate in Dare County, there are only two teams: those who will protect nature no matter who it hurts economically; and those who will fuel the economy now matter how much nature it kills.

Or so the various politicians and activist groups would have you believe.

“The message war is the biggest war of all,” says East Carolina University Anthropology professor Dr. Christine Avenarius. “So we have all these special interests who try to put discussion into a particular framework and stimulate people along a particular thought path.”

Last summer, Avenarius decided to bypass those paths. For six months she and six grad students talked to 208 Dare County residents. No SELCs. No NC-20s. And no direct questions. Instead of “How much do you hate catch limits?” or “Which McMansion would you burn to the ground?” — they asked things like, “Do you see changes?” and “Where would you put tax dollars?”

What’d she find out? A whole lot. Mainly that residents are quite aware how economics and the environment affect each other — especially when it impacts them firsthand — leading to more varied and nuanced perspectives than you might believe.

“A lot of people do have middle-of-the-road opinions,” she notes. “And very few realize how many others share the same opinion as themselves.”

We sat down with the good doctor to hear more about what we think, why we think it and what it means for Dare County in the future. What follows is the full unedited transcript from the interview printed in issue 3.1. — Matt Walker

MILEPOST: Thanks for taking the time to talk. I know it’s early in the analyzing process, but I’m sure there’s enough info to give some perspective as to what you were trying to do with the project.
DR. CHRISTINE AVENARIUS: The whole idea was to give people a voice to hear what they’re thinking. And, also, by talking about it, to come to some realization and awareness. That was the original goal. And if you look at the demographics, we’ve got 208 people who went through the questioning process. We’ve got slightly more men than women. It’s not as equally distributed as I designed or wished for, so I might at some point start leaving people out and see if I have an equal distribution on how those opinions change. But what came out is a pretty interesting proportional representation of what’s going on and who really wants to be heard. So, in some ways, we don’t have as many Hatteras people as in other areas, there are fewer year-round Hatteras people over all. So if you look at this, KDH has the biggest population and we have the biggest proportion there. So 35% of the people come from KDH north, then Nags Head, then Hatteras and Manteo.

But even so, if there’s 35,000 year round residents, and 5,000 people south of the bridge. That’s one-seventh. You didn’t just set up at a single beach access and talk to people as they walked over the dune.
Right. It’s not completely exact. But it’s not completely off. And I’ve teased it down into more detail. So if you look at the number of people who are born and raised in Dare and spent 100% of their lifetime here, it’s around 27%. And the biggest proportion is people who’ve spent between one quarter to a half of their lifetime here. They’re mostly represented. And many fall into the age group of 40 to 60. And I’ve played with age in different ways, but here we have youngest to 35, and the middle-aged people and then the over 50. And then I also did under 30, 30 to 39. But, the bulk of people come from this 40 to 60 group.

But that’s when the bulk of people moved here.
And Dare County is an interesting place because it was so empty in the 80s and then all these people came in, almost gold rush style, moving in and building up businesses. And those are people who came from the outside, often at the age of 25 to 28 — I have a lot of those biographical stories — and now they’re in their 50s. And it’s still traditional gender roles, where the guy does most of the business and the wife does the background either helping with the books or helping with the kids. And that’s still the dominant Dare County model right now. It’s on the out, but it’s there. And interestingly, over 60 — and this is typical of American demographics — I’ve got more women than men. So for more active women over 60, 65 — League of Women Voters and that kind of thing — there were a lot of people who came forward from all areas and were willing to talk. So what happens with this type of sampling, when you do it as long as we did it, you come up with an organic representation.

And then I was struggling with socioeconomics, so I had true business owners — people actively running a business, not retired ones — and that’s 25% of the people we interviewed. Most of them are 40 to 60. Freelancers, about 9% to10%. And most of them are younger, under 45. Then you’ve got a big group of people who are employed. And then there are retired folks.

When I see those numbers, I see retirees as “no dog in the fight anymore; just cruising.” The middle guys are holding on to what they’ve got. And the younger guys are coming up and trying to get what’s theirs. The new growth.
And this is going to be a huge, huge topic for Dare County. How is leadership going to change? How are the demographics going to change? But it is an interesting social laboratory here in Dare County because you had this rather scarcely populated area. Then, you’ve got all these people coming in following the traditional business and gender roles. They’re all about to retire. So in the next 10 years, we’ll see a lot of people segueing out. And then the next generation and younger is not so interested in business or running a restaurant.

I see two things going on. I’m not so sure the people who moved here in the 80s were looking for a gold rush so much as they were more engaged in the lifestyle. And they figured out how to make that happen. I would argue that we’re seeing more of a gold rush now, where certain banks and developers smell money and are coming strictly for that reason. Their motivation is to make money.
Some people had quotes that said, “If I see another bank I’m going to vomit.”

Well, it’s true. There was a time when it wasn’t so clear whether a business would make money. We now have a population that’s large enough it can support business whether it’s necessary or not. So the Outer Banks went from a situation of “How can I make it there?” to “How can I make a buck there?”
And then some of the people in this older group maybe came in to surf or fish, and carved out a niche. And as that solidified, they shifted as their lifestyle position changed. So they got more conservative.

Okay, so let’s pull back before we go any further: What’s your title?
I’m an Associate Professor of Anthropology at ECU.

And you live in Greenville but you stayed here for six months?
Yes, I rented a house for six months. I had grant money that paid for a house and funded gas money and a little for the students’ living expenses, so they could help me.

So no tax dollars.
No, the Z Smith Reynolds foundation funded this. The idea was to restart the dialogue on coastal management procedures. And in order to restart the dialogue, with all those different factions, you needed to hear from a large cross-section of the population about what they see in terms of environmental changes and what they see in terms of economic issues. And part of the grant money will now be used to gain insights as to what they all said. And this next summer I’ll do the inner banks around the Albemarle. But the grant money paid no salary for me, but for accommodations, gas money and for student stipends.

When I think of environmental debate in Dare County, it’s you’re either a Lorax or a Onceler. There’s no middle ground. It’s either, save everything or kill everything. And in many ways that’s because debate over these issues is being shanghaied by interest groups. So on one side you’ve got Audubon and SELC pushing their agenda and on the other side it’s NC-20 or the Chamber of Commerce. And the idea you can have an issue-by-issue stance has been lost.
So what I was trying to do is give people a voice — and give people from a large range of demographics a voice — and not go to the groups. And of course, there are some Dare County celebrities — for lack for lack of a better term — who are part of the group because people would say “ you have to interview this person.” So people would put a front man on the issue. But a lot of times I would decline, because I was looking for people who aren’t running for office or aren’t invested in certain issues.

Well, that’s how the media works. And you end up going to those people when you’re looking to cover an issue because they’re the spokespeople. And it narrows the debate, because the only people talking are the people who have something major to gain or it’s part of their job to put the word out. But those are the only people you hear because the press can’t talk to everyone.
So we’re trying to cut through that, without giving them a platform.

Who funds the company who funds the grant?
Z Smith Reynolds? It’s originally tobacco family money out of Winston-Salem.

So it’s not like Audubon is funding it.
No. And it was unusual for Z Smith Reynolds to fund me, because they normally fund actual community efforts where someone says, “I want to establish an afterschool program for kids.” But they were intrigued because opinions were flaring up in regard to the policy of NC-20 to ignore sea level rise recommendations. And I said, “give me money to collect more voices.” And they thought that was interesting so they did. But, truth be told, it was $32,000 for one year. Once you rent a house and give stipends to six students, that money’s gone. It’s not riches.

Well, it’s just a matter of figuring out who funded what. It’s not like the SELC said to go out there.
No, the mission was to stimulate dialogue and get people together. And that’s what interested the grant people.

And the other part was to get people to think about why they think a certain way, as opposed to just parroting a certain viewpoint.
What everybody else says. And another thing was we wanted to look at was the mistrust of scientists. There’s been an increase among the general population of people who question the objectivity of science — or they’re not interested in the objectivity of science — and many of them are more interested in what they believe, or what they think is right, or what they think is common sense. And they have the feeling that they have been let down by these scientists and their discussions. And so I wanted to go out and ask them, “What do you actually see? Do you see change in the environment? Or are these scientists crazy? This is your chance to say something.”

So you wanted to get past the “official stance” and into the individual perspectives. How did the process work? You didn’t want to direct the conversation by asking direct questions. So what did you do?
These long sit-down interviews had several parts. One was to collect observations about environment and how things have changed. So those were open-ended questions where we asked people, “What are your favorite places?” And “What are your least favorite places or eyesores?” And from there, we’d say, “What on the beach have you seen changing? How do you know it’s changing?” Same with the soundside: “What’s changing and how do you know?” And those were the basic questions we asked. And we’re hoping they’d mention climate change or sea level rise, but at the most you’ve got 20% of people mentioning that at all. But everybody — almost 90% if not more — can describe a few different areas in Dare County that they’ve seen changes over the years. And they describe it as “erosion.” So one of the take home messages I’d turn over to our dear scientists is that people really don’t see evidence for sea level rise. And some would say as much, “How do I see sea level rise? I don’t see it. The waves come and go but I don’t see it.” But they do see erosion. They see beach disappearing and sand accumulating.

So they are aware.
Very aware. They see change. They say, “Of course it’s changing.” And most everybody can describe what’s going on. And they have very interesting descriptions, like ‘Mother Nature takes.” Or, “The beach is always going to be there, it just won’t be where it is today.” Or, ‘Watching the coastline change is like a mother who might not notice her child grow. She might not notice from day to day, but over time a great deal of change takes place.” Or, “Oregon Inlet is like taking a wild child and making him sit still in a seat.” [laughs] I love that one. But a lot of people who live in Dare County say things are always changing. And it always comes back to, “You cannot fight nature.”

But you never actually asked, “Can man fight nature?” Or directed the conversation in one way or the other.
Right. This is all without being prompted. Then we had another place where we asked about preferences for where the tax money should go. In order to dip into people’s ideas about economic constraints or economic opportunities vis-à-vis the environment. And the way that worked is over time reading up on issues, I identified 18 different projects that could be used for taxpayer’s money. And I often asked people, “If you were king or queen of Dare County, and you could propose where the tax money goes to or the next five years, where would you put it?” And I had people go through those 18 different cards, which included such things as widening of Hwy 64 toward Columbia, as well as non-Dare projects like the Mid-Currituck Bridge. And then the various beach nourishment projects for KDH and Mirlo Beach, the dredging of Oregon Inlet, various Bonner Bridge ideas — long bridge, short bridge, ferries — and also such things as school money for comparison. And then we asked them to say which they favored, which were maybies, which would be bogus. And people made different piles of what they liked and what they hated. Or some people had an “I Don’t Know” pile. Or an “I Don’t Care” pile. We basically left it to people to sort for themselves. And we also had people comment on it. Because it was a great opportunity for people to say, “Here’s why I like the short bridge.” Or “Here’s why I like the long bridge.’ Or “Here’s why I think ferries are bogus or ferries might work.” And those are the results we need to finally tally.

Was it pretty easy to see where people were getting their info? For example, ORVs and Hatteras, could you hear the echoes of Audubon on one side and the NCBBA on the other? Or even both sides?
Well, particularly in Hatteras, they all said the same thing. They’re all lined up. But a lot of regular folks are also in line with what they say. Most people are pro-access. Particularly, all self-employed people, partially because there’s this whole attitude of, “Don’t tell me what to do.” But the beach buggy people have a very strong message that is very easily heard. And the whole other message that is sometimes swirling around is that no beach access might get us the high-paying, environmentally interested tourists who might come in with big bucks. And that message gets drowned out. It’s not here. Very few people have that message. Because some figures show Hatteras has done well the past couple of summers. And there are northerners who like vacationing there. But people are hung up on the fishermen tourist: “That’s what we’re for and that’s what we want to offer. And by us not offering it, we’re losing money.”

I’ve used the analogy the muffler shop is shutting down, but there’s a windshield shop that could open if they changed tacks. They’re stuck on the muffler shop.
They’re very much stuck on the muffler shop. And that’s a thing I think you see in the news media. That’s more in Raleigh, there were a couple of op-eds saying, “You guys, eco-tourism in Hatteras could be a good thing. High paid tourists would come. And you wouldn’t need to drive on the beach and you could still make money.” But people don’t hear that. Or they don’t’ believe it.

Well, Dare County’s numbers may be up, but Hatteras is still feeling the effects. I know people who are feeling the impacts. I’ve also seen some progress where business are catering to different markets and look for new ways. But I do think there’s a lot of resistance to change. Because you can’t trust the people who aren’t engaged in this fight to be telling you the truth. Because they will tell you what you want to hear if it advances their mission. And only that far. So there’s a lot of bad blood there, too. If you told the people on Hatteras they could make a million bucks catering to bird lovers, they’d probably still say, “I’d rather be poor” out of spite. So part of the problem with these issues getting shanghaied by groups is you don’t trust anyone’s argument because it always fuels their own agenda. And the other thing people say is “I think for myself” but if you go through these talking points, most people don’t think for themselves, they regurgitate what they’ve heard.
Absolutely. The message war is the biggest war of all. What message gets through and why. And that’s something I can’t show, I wish I could. Because we’ve got all these special interests who put things into a particular framework. And then stimulate people along a particular road. But my hunch would still be it has to do with networks and the people they talk to. And that’s one component I wanted to do with these interviews, but we couldn’t because there wasn’t time. I had questions in the script. But we don’t have that data as well as I’d like it.

It would be great to trace the DNA of a thought or idea to its original source, whether it’s the SELC or Chamber of Commerce.
We did ask about media sources. Outer Banks Voice. Coastland Times. Facebook, of course. But the DNA is a good way to put it. That should be my next study: How do you really trace how people get their information? Who do people listen to and who do they believe? In the old days, I think I was the pastors who were influential. But some people watch Fox news, some watch Colbert. And there’s a lot in between.

And people say, “Why haven’t I seen this on the news?” People are conditioned to have the information delivered to them instead of taking the steps to find it or verify it. I think Facebook makes things worse because people share headlines without even reading the story or knowing it’s true. Or they share a funny meme that cements their viewpoint and antagonizes another. But what I liked about the pile sort is it makes people analyze their decision. It also gives an understanding of how hard it is for decision-makers who have to make that call. Because people say they’ll do things all day long. But when they’re forced to actually do them you have to critically consider a choice. It’s still hypothetical but it’s more concrete.
Yes. The pile sort task is my favorite task to tease out people’s opinions. It’s something about putting cards down. And you could move them around. People could make 3 piles, 4 piles, 2 piles. It’s up to the person. And it served two purposes: a) to really record the numbers and the other part was to use it as a talking tool. Because we always wrote down what people said as they were talking about it.

And that’s where the information comes from that while 60% of people are for beach nourishment, two thirds of these people have reservations. They’d say, “I guess I’m for it” or “I guess I have to finance it.” Or “It’s useless but I cannot not put money towards it because it’s our economy.” That’s how I would tease out this information. Basically about 40 percent say it’s a waste of funds. Twenty percent give full support, no reservations. And then 40 percent support it but feel it won’t last — they say, “We have to do it, but it’s stupid.’ So while 60 percent of people are for beach nourishment, two thirds of these people have reservations. And if you look at business owners — people who really own a business, not freelancers — very few of them say no. And that’s a smaller number of people, too. These people are mostly for it regardless. And who are the 20 percent who say “No support, waste of funds”? Younger people who aren’t invested with homes or businesses and older people who are retired.

The people with the least to lose. Is it safe to say that when people supported something that didn’t’ make sense, it was for money? And the more solid the viewpoint, the more that person has at stake — or less?
Yes. It was for money. Yes. And that’s what makes these beach nourishment figures so revealing. And that’s one reason the business people are that much different. You can see it with the middle level of employees. People with a regular paycheck, who work for the government or teachers, they know their money is going to come every two weeks for years to come — and for retirees who’ve made their money — but they have easy talking because they’re safe. And you can see that in their answers. They’re the ones who say, “Beach nourishment is the stupidest thing ever.’ And it’s not that the people who are for beach nourishment don’t have the same facts, but they have to survive. They say, “I’m for it — I hate being for it — but I’m for it.” And the people with a steady job and no fear of losing that job, they have easy talking — and retirement folks of course. Particularly, the people who recently retired here.

I feel like a lot of this conflict is driven by two things: fear of not surviving. And fear of what the other guy is going to do: “If I don’t do this, someone else will.” And then there’s probably a sense of propriety: “If anybody is going to do this, it better be me.” Is it human nature people to justify these actions?
To some degree. And I think that has to do with the scarcity of the environment and the lack of security. A lot of people have moved over time into place of “A buck I can make right now is better than the “maybe, baby.’” So when there’s a conflict between the environment and development, that’s where you hear, “I know this may not be the right thing to do, but I can make money and put that away.” Or “Just this once.” A lot of people said, “I want the environment to stay the way it is, but let me make money first.” So that was the punch line I got out of this study, particularly with economics.

But when it comes to difference of opinion, business owners and the middle aged group stick out — and there’s a certain overlap between those groups — and then the proportion of lifetime spent in Dare County. That middle bracket of 25 to 50 percent of their lives. And these guys have very pronounced opinions about nature versus the economy — and it’s economy first, nature second.

And then the guys on edges are more nature-friendly. The less than 25% and more than 50% seem more nature-friendly.
Yes. And then the Hatteras people are coherent independent of age and economics. Or, as we sometimes say, “They all drink the same Kool-Aid.”

Did you notice that mentality changed by region. Was it pretty localized?
It’s very localized. If you go by KDH to Duck people — and not surprisingly — beach nourishment’s needed, but it’s frivolous. They say— “Yes, yes, we must have it” — but they don’t care about Mirlo Beach. And most Hatteras people are not putting beach nourishment first, either, because few local Hatteras folks own property at Mirlo Beach. But Hatteras people — and again, someone needs to study them and how they get their messages, because they all have the same opinion — for them, only the bridge counts. And they’re the only ones who are 100% “We want the short bridge, and don’t talk to me about anything else.” Whereas a lot of people say “Long bridge, short bridge, I don’t’ care, just give me a bridge.”

But we all know that Hatteras people do their own thing. And to some extent Manteo as well. The older Manteo people stick together: this is their universe, it’s Manteo and that’s all there is to it. And the beach towns you see shifting alliances. Because a lot of them have moved around. Nobody says, “I’m a Kill Devil Hills person,” “I’m a Kitty Hawk person,” “I’m a Nags Head person.” A lot of them define themselves through their churches or their clubs — Rotary Club, Lions Club, or whatever it may be. But for the guys under 45, not so much. You don’t see that happening.

Do they seem part of larger group? Or do they just not define themselves in stricter terms?
I don’t have enough data on it, but they’re just not involved in these groups.

But you don’t need to join groups here to be social. You can go drink beers and be social. I’m always impressed by how stretched out the demographics are here and how inclusive the community is. You can be hanging with people who are 20 years older and 20 years younger. Or more.
That’s absolutely true. And unfortunately our study couldn’t do that, but I would love to have done some network things to see who’s hanging out with whom. Because it’s very peculiar, particularly in Dare County, how people hang out differently. They’re not just meeting in associations or churches.

At one point, just taking the leap to move here was enough of a shared commitment and belief systems to bond people. I think people who moved here 3 years ago, still buy into that. Because it’s still not easy to live here. It is if you have a ton of money to support you and gain your foothold. But I’d argue there’s a kneejerk mistrust of people who do come here like that. I bet it’s harder to buy your way in than it is to starve your way in. Did you research show a mistrust of the wealthy?
Yeah. It’s very much a sense of “us versus them.” And it’s not just “Oh no, another bank.” It’s those rich people who are second homeowners. Or investors who try and move and shake things a little bit. But they’re certainly not part of the social fabric. And I think that’s what a lot of those Rotary Club/Church group, middle aged and older people don’t really see: it’s an organic socializing. It doesn’t need a particular location and it’s not tied to a particular organization. People share, because they love the ocean or some other common kinship, and that’s good enough.

So there’s a question: if they’re 50 and 60 now , does that mean today’s 40 year-old becomes that 50- or 60-year-old?
That’s the big question. Particularly people who are your friends or younger who might be freelance now but might jump onto a big business opportunity moving forward. Because a lot of these guys came here the same way and they may still be cool but now they have mouths to feed and people on pay roll an their opinions have changed. But it’s very difficult to pinpoint.

What about Manteo and Manns Harbor?
Manteo and Manns Harbor are certainly against beach nourishment — for obvious reasons — and some of them are surprisingly pro-regulation. Particularly the older ones. I think it has to do with age and seeing that sometimes regulations are necessary. That left to their own devices, humans will sometimes make a series of selfish decisions. Some of these older people from Mann’s Harbor and Manteo they say, “Thank God for the Park Service. They should buy up more land. So what if I can’t go there like I could in my youth, this is the only thing that works.” I have a lot of solid responses like that from people over 65 who are born here and grew up here. They say, “Thank God for the Park Service. That’s the only thing that keeps these crazies in line.” And they’ve also seen some erosion there, too, and they see that it’s very fragile and it’s all going to go away. I also talked to some young people in the fisheries and they’re really struggling. They want to protect their way of life. But they’re certainly not completely business-minded. They’re not having this, “I want to make a buck at all costs.” And they also recognize that fisheries have a bad rep. They feel misunderstood.

Because they felt feel like regulation issues are displayed as one or the other: kill ‘em all or lock it down. There was no sense of sensible management.
And that’s actually where I came up with that idea that people have to move way form that local focus. Because where they’re really the most confused is that this whole idea of common sense and self-regulation only works when you really close ranks and know everybody in your community. And everyone agrees you don’t overfish or you don’t do ”x” or “y.” Then it does work, because they’re all good stewards of their environment and they don’t want to overdo something. But they have the hardest time seeing that they’ve lost that battle. That there are these people coming in from the outside and they might take away their livelihood because they’re coming in with pockets full of money.
But a lot of people realize we should’ve had better planning early. That once you get on a certain trajectory, it’s over with. Some of these other quotes, you’ll see people are very aware of our situation and our own role creating our problems: “We made a big mistake. We built up the dunes and put houses nearby, that should have never happened.” And 70% of people, except the younger ones who come from outside, — the younger ones who grew up here know this — they know the dunes were man-created. Tourists don’t know that. They think the dunes have always been there. But most everyone who lives here knows it all started in the 30s with these dunes being built. Because once they were built, we had a different dynamic. The water just didn’t come and go, and come and go. We had these dunes now and that meant more permanent housing structures. And once we started filling in the houses underneath, basically it was done. And a lot of people can explain that to you: “Yeah, we should’ve let Mother Nature do her thing. But when the houses stopped being on stilts to let water flow through, that was the beginning of the end.”

Was there any place where everyone agrees?
Oregon Inlet. Ninety percent are for dredging. Even the people who say, “Beach nourishment is bogus, we need to let Mother Nature do its thing” also say we should dredge Oregon Inlet. Why? They feel fisheries should be sustained: “This is our tradition, we cannot let these Wanchese people die out.” So that’s another big contradiction. Because if you want to line it all up: “I’m for the environment, I’m for the long bridge, I’m for no beach nourishment whatsoever, everything should be as natural as possible.” They should also say, “Let Oregon Inlet close up again.” That would be the logical consequence of that train of thought. But that wasn’t the case.
And nobody wants more density. We don’t want to be Myrtle Beach. We don’t want to be Virginia Beach. And for a lot of people, the largest thing that keeps us from being a Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach is a sewage system. As long as don’t do central sewage we’re good. The moment we allow that to happen — in a wider area than the few things we have, right? — then the high-rises will come, then we have absolute density. And nobody wants more density.

Even the unabashed pro-tourism business types you were talking about? I thought everyone wanted more tourists.
Nobody said there weren’t enough tourists. A few of the younger people said they wished more people would come into restaurants. But you’ve heard about the problem with these big oceanfront homes, is that families frequent the grocery stores more and aren’t going out to eat. So they certainly felt the pinch. But they know the tourists are actually there, they’re just spending their money elsewhere.

That’s an interesting point. Because in many ways the economy is an ecosystem. So what happened there is someone said, “More bodies is better.” And it may be for some groups but not for others. And all these issues are a spiderweb and it’s hard to know how they’ll impact everything.
Be careful what you wish for. Or the law of unintended consequences. And we heard that a lot, too: “We really didn’t know what we were getting into.” And when you look at how the county and towns make a decision, they weigh their options quite well but often they’re pinched and then they make a decision and don’t know where it’s going. Some builders told us that the height restriction made them all build on a slab to maximize space instead of keeping it up on stilts. And if all beach houses were all on stilts and allow the water to go through there would be probably be less damage. But because of the height restrictions, that’s what they did.

What other issues did you talk about? Anything about energy?
We asked about different evaluations of environmental opportunities, such as wind turbines and solar panels — how were they supported or not. We asked about fracking, too, but of course everyone was anti-fracking.

That’s surprising. Because I think a good portion of our community as being pro energy.
Only the affluent, elderly folks, ultra-conservative oil people were for fracking. Almost everyone was against.

What about offshore drilling?
Most people were very much against it, fearing that it would influence tourism.

So, again they were worried about the economy —not the oil hurting the ocean or themselves.
Yes. What it would do with the tourism industry. Surprisingly, with wind turbines it was 50-50. Younger people and business people were very much for wind turbines. It’s some of the older people, or people who were more into the aesthetics and bird people who ware worried about wind turbines. For wind turbines, a lot had to do with unsightliness and birds. Most of it was unsightliness. They say that wind turbines look horrible. It’s not worth the money.

More horrible than a day-glo Wings on the side of the bypass or miles of giant light poles?
It’s funny you say that, because when we asked about eyesores, 80% of the people said the box stores and Wings were an eyesore. 75% said French Fry Alley. They didn’t have to pick one. They could say as many as they wanted. 50% mentioned the light poles. And again, people had to mention, they didn’t confirm. We just say, “What is an eyesore?” This is what people came up with. And in Hatteras it was the Rodanthe Water Park was an eyesore and the Mirlo Beach houses are an eyesore.

But these are things people might say is necessary too. Whether it’s jobs or tax revenue or power. So they say, “I’ll take that eyesore,’ we need French Fry Alley and utility poles.
But you could turn this around: “You’ve been able to live with a Wings store. You could live with a wind turbine.” And that’s where there’s a lot of room for education and where messages may not get across. For example, how much wind turbines might contribute in terms of economic benefits. Because if you could sell it as such, you’re home free. Because a lot of people hear “Wind turbines don’t give us as much energy and they’re not efficient. They produce some electricity, but not enough.” Or, “We pay too much to put wind turbines out there and the return isn’t justified. “And so a lot of people had those numbers down, but they didn’t know any of the positives.

Like the numbers of jobs created or what the potential energy output would be selling wind to other states.
Yes. So this is where you actually start to see how — if you wanted to reform things or get the message across — you could use that material to say, “Here’s where people are hung up.”

A lot of it’s awareness. Drilling says we’ll bring 5,000 jobs to the state. That sounds like a lot, until you find out there’s 11,000 tourism-related jobs in Dare County. Or people talk about wind subsidies as a waste of tax dollars. But nobody considers the billions our military spends in the Middle East. So information is power, but if you’re only getting information fed to you by an interest group it becomes easy to get your viewpoint skewed.
And that’s with everything. That’s the big problem of our time. We never get full information. And the only hope we have for future is people who are willing to think for themselves and not align themselves with a particular group. But if you want to reform or introduce a new idea, you have to understand all the different arguments that people have for or against a particular project and then really pitch against it.

Well, people cherry pick in a lot of ways, too. The Mirlo Beach homeowners are for nourishment instead of a bridge. And they’re quoting Stan Riggs.
Right. And Stan Riggs may not be pro-bridge, but he’s not pro-nourishment either. And here’s where you have to say: What are the various arguments? And what stacks up? Is it the birds might get harmed? Then turn it around and say, “I can show you how birds won’t get harmed.” But then people would have to be open to listen to that argument. And that’s another big problem.

To me, the beach access issue is one the most frustrating. Because I don’t trust the SELC or Audubon. At the same time, I recognize that you can’t have the same rules for a tourism industry of 1970 as you do for 2020. But Audubon and the SELC have been disingenuous. And they are putting out misinformation that’s convenient for their own good. So these wedge issues inevitably play into the interest groups hands by dividing people. Because people assume that because a person holds this viewpoint, they most hold these other viewpoints.
And a lot of people have a middle of the road opinion. Like the beach nourishment: the gung ho people are about 20% — or less than that. And then there’s plenty of people who say it’s a waste of funds that could be persuaded to accept that it’s necessary. But the big thing is one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is saying. And very few people know how much the others have the same opinion as themselves.

So what were the other big issues?
And some people brought up the whole thing with insurance. And if you did the story right now, there’d be even more talk. It’s a snapshot as of summer 2013. And the whole sewage system business is an issue. Some people talked about how the sound is quite polluted, quite yucky and what will we do? They said, “We might need central sewage at some point. We’ve reached a breaking point.”

And that’s a good example of a tough issue. Would people accept high-rises to get cleaner sound water? And is that even possible? I’d argue it would be a net loss, but that might just be me putting my spin on the issue.
And it goes back to the original discussion: you almost need to say to people, , “The only reason you’re not thinking about a sewage treatment system is you don’t trust your neighbors not to build high rises.” If there would be some way to absolutely prevent high rises and higher density and at the same time have a better sewage system, a lot of people would buy into it. Those are the only two reasons why people are against centralized septic system: one is the cost of water would be higher — nobody wants more costs — the only other reason is it’s their last defense against more density.

Was there any issue where people seemed willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Where they said, “I recognize this will hurt me now but in the long run it will be better for my kids and the Outer Banks in general?”
Younger unattached people — some surfers, some fishermen — those who weren’t economically invested, are willing to say, “That might not be so good for me, but I’ll put up with it.” And some older people as well.

So the people with no vested stake and the people with little time left on the planet – again, the people who won’t really feel it. At the same time, did people recognize their hypocrisy?
Yes. A lot of people said — particularly after the card sort — they’d say, “I guess I’m a hypocrite.” So lot of people came away uneasy. And, of course, I wasn’t a part of every interview, so I don’t know how well the students channeled that and said, “It’s okay” or “Other people felt the same way.” But it happened very, very often. Because I always asked the students to record comments. And I saw that a lot. But we tried to cheer them up.

It’s hard. I look at my grass, and all the weeds in it, and I want to dump weed-n-feed in my lawn every year because I think of what I spent on sod. I don’t because I’m worried about the sound. In fact, now I think, “I wish there were no lawns.” But if my landscaper friends read that, they’ll say, “Are you crazy?! That’s my livelihood!”
And that’s a very normal story that’s emerging from this. Think of your own biography – once you’re locked in with kids and a job, that’s when you make these decisions. As opposed to when you’re coming into the tunnel or headed out the other way.

And that’s the 40-60 range you talk about. So what does the future look like for the Outer Banks, knowing this research. Is it a death knell? A wake-up call?
Well, I’m always optimistic. It should be wake up call. And the number one thing people might get out of it is if they could just talk more to each other, and take the time to really get information and really participate in decision-making. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. Most people don’t have time to go to meetings. And everything gets decided right now. Nobody says, “Let’s take our time.” Think about these beach nourishment decisions. Nobody took time to study what happened and consider before moving on to the next project.

It also comes down to the shift between a community that’s locally focused, and that urban sprawl, globally influenced society. You have these smaller communities. But in many ways, we’re bigger. So really the problem lies in the fact that people are at that crossroads of localized community and urban sprawl. And people behave whatever way the wind blows. If it suits you you’re too busy doing your thing to worry about others: “It’s my life, I run my life as I see fit, and I can’t participate.” But when it’s your school it’s an issue. Or if your friends are in trouble, then everyone rallies and donates to help. It’s very local. Where it gets complicated is that Dare County is not Dare County anymore. There’s all these other influences from tourism, transient people, and whatever else, and I think some people would benefit from making coalitions that are wider than just their Rotary Club or “This is what we do here in Manteo” or “What we do here in Hatteras.” Because this whole closed ranks idea of being a locally focused community still works on one level. But on some other level, it doesn’t.

So are we all hypocrites? Is that what it comes down to?
Most of us, yeah. [laughs] Without taking it too far. We have different opinions and we shift them based on how they affect our own backyard. And of course, we all feel we should be able to come to Dare county but we should close the gates behind us.

Are humans hardwired to protect their own interests?
I think it’s more to do with the national culture. And this is a tricky one because I’m European and I spent so much time in China where people have other psychological outlooks. In China, they don’t own property so that’s why they throw around so much money on luxury items. It’s a very different psyche if you can’t buy a house. And they have a different long-term perspective compared to Americans. And the American culture idea is based on having so much space around. And if this doesn’t work out, I’m moving elsewhere. This is a fundamental idea here: I’ll pack up and go to the next hill and start over. That is something other cultures do not have. And that’s why other cultures do more long-term planning, because they can’t move anywhere else and they have to do the right things and be nice to all their neighbors. You have to dig in differently. But even in Dare County there’s always another opportunity. People think, maybe next year. Maybe next month. That whole living paycheck to paycheck, for most it still works. Very few people stop and redo their whole behavior. It’s a couple of adjustments here and a couple of adjustments there. And hope it works out. And most of the time it works out. And if we don’t make it, then we leave.



Tis the season for behavioral health issues. PORT New Horizon’s Michelle Decker discusses symptoms, myths and options for those in need.

Shorter days. Shrinking schedules. Smaller paychecks. Bigger benders. Despite all our self-professed love for the offseason, it’s often the most psychologically trying time of year. A period when bad moods and worse habits can get the best of anyone. And yet — while we all recognize our community isn’t always 100% happy-go-lucky — we don’t always know how to tell when someone needs help.

“If a person’s not functioning — if they seem like they’ve changed — that’s when you encourage them to go talk to a counselor,” says Michelle Decker, program supervisor for Nags Head’s PORT New Horizons, which provides behavioral health and substance abuse assistance in Dare County. “You say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but you seem out of sorts. And I know some places you can go to figure it out.’”

We sat down with Decker to discuss various problems from depression to suicide to substance abuse to see just what the signs are and what resources are available. What follows is a transcript of that conversation; for the edited interview, find a copy of Milepost 2.4.

MILEPOST: What’s your title?
MICHELLE DECKER: Program Supervisor for Port New Horizons. PORT stands for Prevention Out-patient Residential Treatment. PORT Started when Pitt Mental Health was privatized. When we went through mental health reform, they took over some residential adolescent substance abuse inpatient programs. The existing name was PORT. And as we expanded they liked the name so they wanted to keep it.

And how long has that been on the Outer Banks?
PORT was initially involved in the New Horizons demonstration project, which was five years ago. There was sort of an uprising in the community because there wasn’t any substance abuse or mental health services. So the health department and county spearheaded getting funding, the county committed a certain amount of money and the state committed a certain amount of money for he development of New Horizons — which was just substance abuse. And it was funded for three years. And at the end of that funding the state didn’t have money to continue it. So PORT was always in the background, they supervised and hired the clinical staff, but this was actually part of health department. And when state funding dropped out they asked PORT if we would come over and make it a regular behavioral health clinic. So for two years we’ve been doing mental health too. The county supports the substance abuse side; and the syate has some [mental health] funding for people who don’t have insurance, who are 200% of poverty level or below. So there’s availability for everybody. And private fee for service: Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Medicaid, Health Choice. But right now, PORT New Horizons is the only place people without insurance can come for health treatment and get reimbursed. Unless they can talk someone into treating them for free.

So, otherwise you go hire a private counselor.
Yes. Because ResCare — the other place that was able to access state funds — closed June 30.

So in all Dare County, this the option.
For people who are uninsured. Our county has some great private practitioners and therapists.

So you provide the service to anyone who doesn’t have insurance for any kind of mental health concerns: form substance abuse to depression.
Any mental health issue or substance abuse ages four and up. And this is the second year we’ve had a counselor in every Dare County school at least one day a week — sometimes up to 3 days a week.

That’s in addition to a traditional school counselor, who would be more about encouraging you to pick the right college…
Yes, they’re more focused on educational issues. What we’re doing is actually just like going to an outpatient counselor — except we’re located in the school. They’re giving us the space. And we served 150 children last year.

What’s the average age on that? Because I saw this YouTube clip that featured a 5th Grade teacher who had students who were suicidal — granted, this in East LA, but…
Well, I can print you out the study. But for the school project, ECBH — East Carolina Behavioral Health — is the overseer of the Medicaid and the money for the indigent services. It’s called IPRS dollars. They ‘re actually the managed care organization. They authorized the payments and the treatment. They’re who we submit our claims to. They gave us some start-up funding to start, so we had to keep some pretty specific data and it’s a public report.

150 students sounds like a lot.
And this is the thing: we had to stop referrals four months before school was over because we didn’t have enough spaces. We had 189 referrals. And some people didn’t come for whatever reason — we called and the parent didn’t want to, or whatever…

So who does the referrals?
The school counselors. And the teachers.

So it’s not like the child says, “I want help.” The school or teacher says, “There’s something going on here.” But some parents didn’t want to follow up. Why is that you think?
I don’t know whether it was stigma or availability. Because the parent has to come to the first appointment. And really, for some parents, if it’s hourly work and the end of the season, it can be hard to get away for two hours. Others may be struggling with their own substance abuse or mental health problems. And I’ve lived down here eight years but I was shocked at the complexity of the mental health problems our students are having.

But it’s a range of issues too: anxiety, impulse control, sexual and gender identity, eating, mood.
And a lot of elementary kids are having adjustment disorders. Which means they’re having some sort of stress in their life and they’re having issues as a result. They’re not being able to function. Either mom and dad are getting a divorce, so they’re feeling, and they’re interested in going out and playing any more.

Well, the idea for this story came from a couple of places. You always hear about depression this time of year. There seemed to be several suicides in the past year or so. And at the same time, we had a couple stringers suggest an article about depression – seasonal depression, male depression. So, we thought: What is ‘depression’ exactly? What is the connection? And what is the over all picture of mental health on the Outer Banks? How much is stereotype and how much is reality?
Well, I think the best place to start is just to talk about mood disorders. Seasonal Affective disorder is a type of mood disorder. Now, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a depression that has an onset in the fall and winter. And normally, it wouldn’t be as severe as Major Depressive Disorder — which is the technical term for depression — but the symptoms are the same: difficulty sleeping or inability to sleep; feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; thoughts of suicide; weight gain, weight loss. Lack of ability to feel pleasure is really a hallmark of depression. People can have things going on around them in their lives that are normally exciting and not be able to feel pleasure from them.

That’s what’s interesting: because it seems like any of those symptoms are nebulous and — at least by themselves — can be misinterpreted. Is it the combination that makes a difference? How do you know it’s more than just a normal bad day?
We look at a couple of things. One is how long you’ve been feeling that way. So, generally, at a minimum, we say over two weeks. And the other thing we look at is severity: is it keeping you from working? Is it keeping you from participating from activities? Is it impacting your ability to function in your daily life? And if it is then it’s time to get some help.

And that’s when the stigma comes into a play. And maybe this isn’t the case, but I had a conversation with someone about male depression and he said there’s a macho culture where asking for help is taboo for lack of a better term. It’s seen as a sign of weakness. Is that a problem?
Sure. I think its’ more difficult for men to come in and ask for help. But we don’t keep breakdown by sex to see.

From your own anecdotal experience, does it feel like more women come in for help?
Because we have that foundation of substance abuse, I’d say substance abuse runs pretty close — probably 60-40% men. But mental health we probably see more women. And, again, it’s a newer thing — we’ve only been doing it a couple years. And a lot of people were at ResCare until they closed in June.

Is there a profile people fit? Are there similarities? Or is it as diverse as the individuals?
Well, unfortunately, there’s usually a crisis that makes people make the phone call to come in here. Either someone who loves them finally sits them down and says: ”Look: this isn’t okay anymore. You’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not taking care of the kids, you’re not getting to work on time.” Or the boss calls them and says, “You’re not functioning at work.” There’s some crisis that usually brings them into treatment. Or it’s themselves and they’re not happy.

But there’s not an identifiable pattern. Or only identifiable pattern after the fact.
That’s one of the things that’s hard about any behavioral health service — substance abuse or mental health — is that what gets somebody to seek treatment can be so unpredictable. Like, for substance abuse, someone can have a blackout and it scares the daylights out of them and they’re in here to get treatment. Whereas someone else, they’ve been arrested four times, they’re losing their kids, and they still don’t want to come to treatment. It’s very individualized.

So pulling back, what is the mental health situation on the Outer Banks. What are the problems in the community?
I don’t think there’s any more significant amount of problems on the Outer Banks than anywhere else. I think the issue is a lack of resources. There is one licensed psychiatrist on the Outer Banks. We do all our psychiatry through telemedicine. They’re PORT employees in Greenville or Ahoskie or what have you. But it’s not for lack of trying to recruit. We’ve been trying for years to get a psychiatrist to come here.

Is it the usual problem: it costs more to live here and you can’t pay as much? That seems to be the formula for everything else around here.
I don’ t know why psychiatrists don’t want to live here.

Maybe they know something we don’t.
I’ve heard people say there’s not the cultural things, the shopping, things like that, which I think is crazy. But…

Well, if you don’t like being outside and being in nature, there’s not a lot of reason to live here. I know couples who were split on moving here, the wife didn’t want to come.
Because there’s no Target. The Target’s too far [laughs]. I felt that way personally a little bit. But I worked for Albemarle Mental Health and they paid their psychiatrist much higher than the national average and they had a hard time getting them to stay. But I think there’s just a shortage of specialty doctors. And even more critically, there’s a shortage of trained child and adolescent, board-certified psychiatrists. And PORT has an office in Elizabeth City and that doctor telemeds a couple hours a week with us to see younger children. And they can certainly drive up there, if they’re able to. But a lot of people aren’t able too, whether they don’t have car or they don’t have the resources – the gas money – to get there.

And a couple hours a week isn’t going to see but so many kids. I don’t know what the average session is.
Fifteen to 20 minutes. Kid can be 30 minutes — for medication checks. Not for therapy. Our primary care physicians around here take up a big part of the mental health treatment. I think if you talked to any of them, they’re doing a lot of prescribing of behavioral health, especially for anxiety and depression. I think. You’d have to look this up and make sure it’s correct. But I believe it’s like the number 3 or 4 reason people go to their primary care physician is depression or anxiety.

Wow. What does that say? Is that our culture in general? Is that a reflection of how hard it is to live down here? And there’s a certain pride people take in that fact, too, but it’s not a place where you’re going to launch a whole new career or something. So I can see where that adds a level of anxiety – when the shifts stop coming or restaurants close or whatever. Is that part of what feeds that anxiety?
Any major life change is going to feed anxiety: divorce, job change, job loss. Here’s a local example. Apparently they’ve changed the way they’re formulating how much you get for unemployment benefits and its’ caused a significant amount of stress. Our clients have been talking about it because they’re no going to be able to live off unemployment; they’re going to have to figure out how to supplement themselves so they can get by. And it’s causing a lot of stress.

I wonder what the Internet does for this stuff. Because there’s a lot of comments that say “good riddance.’
I think that’s something that people don’t get about depression. I worked with a psychiatrist once — you know it used to be called melancholia — and he said, “I wish they’d kept that or come up with a different name other than depression.” Because everyone thinks they know what depression is. That they’ve been depressed when things have gone wrong in their life. They think they’ve known that experience. But in clinical depression, it impacts your ability to perceive what’s going on around you accurately. So, you will have people that love and support you. But you don’t feel like that. You don’t feel like they’re helping you, you don’t feel like they care about you. That is clinical depression. When some commits suicide, the question is always why? Why did they do that? They had a great business, they had a family, people liked them. But if they were experiencing depression, they didn’t see it that way. That was not their reality. What reality was is not what the depressed person sees.

So it’s a complete distortion.
Right. And it’s due to — all of our emotions and feelings are chemicals that are generated in our brain. And the easiest example is the day you get married, hopefully you’re really happy. When someone dies, you feel sad. Life can change our chemistry in our brain. And sometimes it does it in a normal way and we can cope with it. And sometimes it responds in an abnormal way. And the other thing is we’re all born with a certain amount of stress tolerance. There’s been some research that says some people are naturally better able to tolerate stress than others. The good news is you can change that by going therapy and learning skills and tools to strengthen those skills. So you can improve it — it’s not hopeless. But some people are just better able to handle what life throws at them.

That does seem to hold true. So when it comes to solutions, how much is treatable? And how much is medication? Because I’m prescription med freak. I don’t want to to take a pill to feel normal. I don’t want to take cholesterol meds. So is that a problem?
I think it’s too much in the opposite direction. I think American culture is, “Oh something’s wrong with me, I feel uncomfortable, give me a pill.”

So what’s the philosophy? And what’s the balance between medication and training?
You have to look at how the symptoms are impacting that individual and how they’re functioning. Because there’s two strategies. Everybody who comes here has an assessment by a licensed counselor. And they talk about symptoms and treatment options. And the best treatment for depression and anxiety usually is a combination of medication and therapy. But a lot of times people don’t want to do the therapy. They want to take the medicine. And a lot of anxiety symptoms can be resolved with therapy. And if you just take a pill every time you get anxious, it’s like taking cold medicine — it doesn’t cure the problem. We do believe in therapy, individual and group especially, it’s highly effective.

But it’s almost more stigmatized. People are more likely to say, “I’m on Xanax” than “I have therapy on Tuesday.”
Oh, absolutely. I guarantee you, if I called 10 of my friends and said, “Oh man, I just lost my job,” three would be like, “You want some Xanax?” Because it’s culturally acceptable. But part of it roots back to not having enough [behavioral health] providers so the primary care physicians are dealing with the anxiety and depression. And they don’t have therapists. They have medication.

But it’s a good point. There’s something to be said for using medication to solve a problem but there’s also a lot of just attacking the symptoms instead of the cure.
I mean, we’ve got stuff to do, so we want to feel better so we can go about our business. And if you can take a Xanax and get rid of your anxiety and go to work, you think, “Okay.’ But the thing is you build tolerance with any benzodiazepine — Valium, Xanax, Klonopin — that’s so heavily prescribed in this area. One’s gonna work for a while, and then you’re gonna need two and then you need three and then everyone’s calling you a drug addict and you can’t get the medicine you need or you feel sick.

And all your trying to do is go to work. You’re trying to do the right thing. Your motivations are good.
Opiates are like that, too. It’s an epidemic down here and everywhere in the United States. You have surgery and you start taking Percocet and then….

That’s my biggest shock. All the heroin rumblings, I wonder how many are people who got hooked on painkillers and moved on.
I’d say a good bit of ‘em.

I’d be interested to know. Because there’s always been some sort of drug culture here, but it was mostly pot, and drinking and cocaine was the hardest stuff. That was the pattern. And the last five years it’s been…
Pills. And it’s young kids. We have a very small Suboxone program. Suboxone is an opiate antagonist — it’s actually an opiate too — and it’s mixed with another drug called Naloxone. And it keeps people from getting dopesick. Because that’s part of the problem. And it’s not life threatening but when you get hooked on opiates, whether it’s because of a medical problem or recreational use, you eventually need them to function. When you try to stop, you will get the worst case of — it’s not even fair to compare to the flu. You are vomiting, muscle cramps, pain for five to 14 days. I mean it is horrible. So people wake up and they can’t function. Or their surgery’s over and they try to get off this medicine and they can’t do it. Well, Suboxone, we give it to them and it fills the receptors. They don’t get high, they don’t get dopesick, and it inhibits the cravings, too. So we give them that and we drag them in here and we try to give them therapy and give them education and get hem to build the tools they need to stay clean, and then eventually you work on tapering them off that medicine. But we have 30 [treatment] slots. They’re full. Constantly. You have to have a special license from the DEA to [dispense] it. Anohter doctor does it here, I think he has 100 spots. They’re full. And we have a crap-ton of people who go to Virginia for it. And we get two calls a day for it.

Well, that’s what William Burroughs said in Junkie: “I need heroin to get up in the morning, to shave and eat breakfast.” I think some people don’t get that it is a sickness and it is impossible to function without it. But I think we have a very tight nurturing community in a lot of ways — but we also have a tight judgmental community in other ways.
Well, people make judgments based on their own experience. They think, “I lost my job and I got through it and I was fine.” Or “I had surgery and I had to be on Vicodin for three weeks and I was fine.” And they think their experience is the truth for everybody. And it’s not. Really, a lot of this is biologically based. Addiction is a great example. I’ve seen 30 year-old men who’ve been drinking for two years and they’re on the verge of liver failure. And I’ve had 70 year-old truck drivers who came in because they got a DWI and they’re fine otherwise. It’s biological. The difference is biological. When alcoholics try to stop and can’t their whole biology fights them. You have to be receptive to the idea that people experience things differently because we’re different biologically.

And it’s probably hard for people to accept hat too. They think, “I’m a failure because I cant ‘stop this. or I’m inferior because I’m depressed.” Is that where the hopelessness comes from?
People who experience addiction or clinical depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — one of the first things we try to do is show them this is a medical problem. That this is a brain chemistry problem. That it’s not caused because they’re deficien in anyway as a human being or their moral character is bad. Whatever moral reason they think — that God is paying them back for the bad things they’ve done. People come in with all kinds of reasons. So one of the first things we try to do is educate them that this is medical problem and there’s solution. Now part of the solution is behavioral. How you eat, how you decide to cope with things, how you decide to think about things, monitoring your thinking. The treatment of depression — besides the medication — is getting people to be mindful of what they think: What am I believing about what’s going on that’s making me upset? So let’s say I spend 3 hours with you today. Tomorrow I see you in Walmart and you walk right by me. And I’m like, “What did I do to him?” And I get myself all in an uproar because I believe you’re blowing me off and you think you’re better than me. Well, maybe the truth is you didn’t see me. Or you were busy because you’re kid was screaming. So we teach people to break down their thinking and confront that. Does this make sense? Because depression will skew what you believe.

You go straight to the worst possible answer. So you say, look at the spectrum of options; don’t assume the worst.
That’s right. We train people to do that. And they’ll see they have a tendency to personalize everything. If something’s going wrong, it must be because I had an impact on it.

It sound pretty egotistical. To people in these situations tend to be self-absorbed?
Depression is a selfish disease. People do come off as very selfish and that can make things very difficult for loved ones. Because they are working t heir tales off to figure out how to help the person and it’s never enough. And it’s very frustrating for the people around them. And there can be a lack of appreciation because their perceptions are not accurate at that time.

I bet it can sound accusatory at times, too, because you’re telling people they have a problem. And it’s not a nice problem. And like anything, you have to want to change to do something. You can’t force people.

So you do you broach the subject? Are there tips? Are there ways? I’m sure if you say, “you need to see a doctor” without sounding accusatory or making them feel worse?
I think the best way is to try and come from — well, number one, take a step back when you’re not frustrated with the person because they’re not going to work for the third day and you’re ready to pull out your hair. Or the laundry didn’t get done. plan it, as opposed to doing it at a time when you’re really frustrated. I think you have to come at it from a place of love and compassion and concern: “Hey, I’m really concerned about you.” Who are the people in that person’s life who they’re usually receptive to? It might not be the husband or wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. It might be mom. Or dad. Or a friend who can sit down from a place of concern and say, “This is what we’re seeing? What’s going on? What do you think? I’m concerned that you’re depressed.” And know the options. Do they have a relationship with their family doctor? Because that’s a good place to start and a lot of people do.

And it sounds like it may be less of judgment thing to. I don’t know why I keep coming back to that, but it seems like people do feel that way.
Well the other part of this is sometimes people just don’t have the skills to manage what life throws at them. They’re not mentally ill, but they were brought up in chaotic, dysfunctional environments and they were never taught the skills to manage life. So they developed these really — we call them maladaptive ways of functioning.

People who use intimidation to get what they want. If anything happens at all, they’re screaming and yelling — because people respond to that. Other people learn to be completely dependent on others and develop this kind of helplessness. Other people get manipulative to get their needs met. And eventually all of those things tend to get people in trouble. And that’s not a chemical problem with how their brain is functioning. Usually, they develop these skills because they work. If somebody were to come in here and say, “I’d like to see Michelle, can you see if she’s available?” The desk would say, “Sure. Go ahead and have a seat.’ And they’d come back and I’d say, “I’ll get there as soon as I can.” But if someone is screaming out there, the desk doesn’t even have to get me. I hear them and I get up and I respond to it. So people learn they can get their needs met by being aggressive and loud. So it’s really a therapy issue. And we say, ‘That works, but it’s not the most effective way and it’s causing other problems. You’ve got a restraining order now and these ‘communicating threats’ charges.” And there is a separation between the people who are having a chemical problem and people who don’t have the most effective ways of coping. Does that make sense?

Sure. You have to discern what’s what. And I’m sure sometimes its’ a combination.
Exactly. But if they’re coming here, I don’t know why anyone would discourage somebody from getting help. No matter what they think. Even if they think they’re lazy and ridiculous, if somebody’s not functioning well — if somebody’s not able to take care of themselves, to work everyday to be a productive member of their community, whatever that means for them — why wouldn’t you, if you care about them, encourage them to get some help?

So what are the parameters of that? At what point are you goofing off and at what point are you a trainwreck?
It goes back to your ability to function. If somebody wants to surf all day and they can support themselves and have a roof over their head, there’s nothing wrong with that I’m not here to judge somebody’s lifestyle. But if somebody has rent to pay and bills to pay and they can’t get up out of their bed because they feel hopeless and helpless and they’ve lost 20 pounds because they haven’t eaten, then that’s a problem.

To people develop depression at a certain age more than others?
The age onset that’s really common for behavioral health disorders is between, say, 16 and 21. When you’re body’s developing and there’s major changes going on in your brain, that’s probably the most common. and there’s childhood depression and childhood schizophrenia, but it’s rarer. You usually see problems developing between 16 and 23, college.

That’s mental health issues like schizophrenia stuff like that.
Yes. And for women and men, a major life change can trigger depression. Divorce. Job loss. Loss of parents.

So the older you get, the more likely you are to face these issues. So chances are you’re going to have to deal with sometime — either yourself or someone around you. So do you get busier in the wintertime?
There are trends. Springtime is the time for hope and renewal, and everyone is very hopeful things will work out and they make changes. And things tend to deteriorate over the summer. August and September is a hot and heavy time. I think people have been through the summer, their job is ending, they realize their substance abuse is out of control. So fall’s a big time for people get sober. Then things tend to die down again around the holidays because – again – it’s a period of hope. People think, “Oh things will work out this year.”

I always heard holidays were a depressing time. Is that just a myth.
I don’t think it’s a myth. People have expectations around holidays. But it’s usually after because it’s a let down: “My family’s still not perfect, Uncle Joe’s still an ass, and my kids didn’t behave again, somebody didn’t come and see me.”

So is that Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal Depression would start in the fall and they think it sis related to the decrease in daylight. People are indoors more and they’re not getting the amount of vitamin D you need. If you’re deficient in Vitamin D, you’ll be tired, you’ll be exhausted. And even now the primary care doctors are including that vitamin D test in physicals. So that’s one thing we’re starting to look at. But if you had seasonal depression, it would start in the fall and gradually get worse throughout the winter until you felt like you didn’t want to go outside the house. But most people with seasonal depression you’re functioning, you just don’t feel as good. But there’s two other different kinds of depression. There’s major depression — and major depression is usually cyclical. You’ll have a period where you’re fine, maybe even without your medicine, and then things will slowly start deteriorating: you don’t want to be around people maybe, you start feeling more irritable, you have hard time getting motivated to do things. At it’s worst, people have a hard time even getting out of bed. I mean, I’ve seen people so depressed that they defecate in their bed. It can get that bad. Start getting suicidal thoughts. And then, even without any intervention, it just starts lifting and you feel a little better. But the problem is this is your life. And it’s a rollercoaster. And it’s horrible. But it’s also part of the problem in treating depression, because you take your Prozac for two months and you’re feeling better and you’re done. And you stop taking your medication when you’re feeling better naturally and you’re okay for along time and six months later you’re back down here and it hits you again. And you’re like, “What did I do?” well you just have a disease, depression.

So it’s not necessarily environmental. It’s mostly biological.
It can be just biologically based. And with seasonal depression, it might be that that’s their cycle, and they feel it in the fall and winter they have this mild depression and then it lifts again.

But you don’t necessarily see numbers spike in the winter time.
With depression, I don’t think we have enough experience with the mental health stuff here after two years to collect the data.

So what’s the relationship with depression and suicide?
In depression, what we know is that suicide occurs — if depression is this horrible bell curve and you’re at your worst at the bottom, that’s not when most people kill themselves. This is when most people are worried, because the person isn’t talking, they’re not returning phone calls, they’re not showing up at church like they used to, they’re taking more sick days off. But that’s not when people commit suicide. People commit suicide later, when they’re starting to get better. Because they don’t have the energy to do it when they’re at their worst. But later on, when they start feeling better but they can still remember how bad they felt and how much they don’t ever want to ever feel that way again and they’re still impaired — their reality testing is still impaired — but they have the energy to do it, that’s when people commit suicide. So people need to be aware that a big risk for suicide is when people first start to get better.

So what do you do? How do you react?
Well, if it’s someone you care about, you try to make regular contact and make sure they have support and you’re available to talk to. It’s hard when it’s someone who lives alone. What we try and to is develop a support system so there are people around them who will be mindful and notice a change. Who are ware and educated about this. But if you have someone you live with we can educate you about this.

But you always hear: “No one saw it coming.”
It’s not always telegraphed. That’s true. The people in treatment here — we have very few suicides with people in treatment. It’s usually people who aren’t in treatment. And the majority of suicide attempts are impulsive decisions. Usually triggered by an event losing a job, getting arrested, being rejected by a significant other. Or something like no one remembered their birthday or anniversary of a loss. Individuals who are experiencing clinical depression often feel things disproportionately…..sadness, sense of loss, hopelessness are magnified and become unbearable.

On the other hand some suicide attempts are planned, and they likewise can be difficult to see coming. If an individual is planning often you may notice unusual behaviors such as giving things that are important to them away, making wills, making final visits to see people. They are the people coming out of the deep depression and have made a decision they no longer want to live that way.

A new report, said suicide rate here was 4% higher than the state. And there were 65 ideations at the Outer Banks Hospital between 2010 and 2012.
Ideation is having thoughts. But generally, to be admitted to a hospital, you not only have to have a thought but you’ve also thought of a plan. It’s not abnormal to have thoughts like, “Oh I’m so frustrated. I wish I didn’t have to go on today” or “I wish I could just go to sleep.” But if you get to the point where it’s like, “You know what? I could drive my car into that tree or run off the bridge.” Or “I could take that medicine in the cabinet.” When you start thinking those thoughts, that’s a crisis. That’s when they need urgent help. But anyone who says anything about suicide you should take seriously and contact a professional.

Because that’s the other myth: “the cry for help.” That people who talk about it never do it.
That’s not true. And don’t be afraid to ask the question. Ifyou observe someone that is acting differently, isolating, irritable, sad and depressed, making excuses not to participate, having crying spells, increasing alcohol consumptions you need to ask ” have you been having thoughts that life is not worth living anymore.” If the answer is yes you should urge them to seek professional help through a crisis line, mobile crisis, primary care physician, or simply walk into PORT New Horizons.

So it sounds like there’s no distinct checklist.
Well, there’s other things that make people at higher risk. If they’ve had a family member who’s committed suicide — a parent or a sibling — it makes you more at risk. People who try once are more likely to try again. If you use substances it makes you more at risk, because it impairs your judgment. If you’re depressed anyway and you’re drinking or smoking marijuana it’s going to impair your ability to make decisions and more likely to follow through on your decisions. Men have a higher risk than women. Because they’re more lethal. Men tend to use guns and women tend to use medication. So a lot of women overdose on pills and someone comes across them and they go to the hospital and get treatment. If you decide to shoot yourself you’re generally successful.

Any specific local factors that make us have a higher risk? The report discusses lack of services – substance abuses, psychiatric. Another report said poorly populated areas.
I don’t know about that.

I guess it makes sense to some degree. But even though we have a small population density it is a tight community.
There is a strong sense of community here. And it’s a very helpful community, too. But, thinking about what you’re saying, there’s the whole Frisco/Hatteras mentality, too. Some people there aren’t as receptive to treatment because they’re fiercely independent. I came from Maryland, and I do think there’s very fiercely independent people down here. We don’t expect every bit of comfort within our reach, or you wouldn’t move here.

So it can be a bad thing. We think of it as matter of pride, but sometimes you do need help. And getting people to admit that can be hard.
Some people truly it doesn’t cross their mind that they should. Because they’ve always gotten by. And if it does, it’s difficult. We have counselors go to Frisco twice a week, so we have 16 hours of service down there.

And it’s probably filled.
Uh huh. And it’s insufficient. Because sometimes seeing a counselor once a week or twice a month just isn’t going to cut it. You need more time than that and it’s not available down there.

In that situation, does talking to a friend help?
It depends on the friend. [laughs] If the friend says take a couple Xanax and you’ll be fine it’ll blow over, that’s not good.

Or to man up. Stop crying.
Sure. But there’s also some places where that’s appropriate. My kid plays baseball, if he gets hit by a ball and it’s not in his face he needs to suck it up. That’s a good life lesson, too. But if a person’s clinically depressed that’s a horrible thing to say. And so how do you make a judgment? You do the safe thing and you encourage someone, if they’re not functioning — if they seem like they’ve changed. If they seem like they’re different and they’ve changed — you encourage them to go talk to someone and to figure it out. You say, “I don’t know what’s going on but you seem sad, you seem out of sorts, and I know some place you can go talk to a counselor and figure it out.”

And I know there’s the 211 service.
We’re on 211. East Carolina Behavioral Health that’s responsible for the behavioral health services in the 19 counties, they have a 1 800 number you can call day or night and they will refer you. There’s a mobile treatment team that’s run by integrated family services that’s completely free, they’ll respond to your home 24/7 -– if you want them, they won’t come if you don’t. Trained counselors will come out to your house — or they’ll meet you at the 7/11 or Food Lion parking lot if you want — for any mental health, substance abuse. Or if you have a family memer with a developmental disability they’ll respond to that and it’s completely free.

So what about survivors? Any suggestions for them?
It depends on the individual and how it impacts you. Expect to not be happy. Expect to be angry at the person. That’s normal. They took their own life; it’s preventable. Expect to be angry. It’s normal to be sad. It’s a grief experience. And with grief, if it goes beyond a certain point where you’re not functioning. If after a certain period, a week, two weeks — I hate to put numbers on it because it’s different for everybody — but if you’re not functioning, if you’re not returning to yourself after what’s a reasonable time then you should go talk to someone.

Is there a genetic connection?
There’s a genetic link for all mental health illnesses. If your parents have depression you’re more at risk for bipolar, if you’re parents are bipolar you’re more at risk for depression. If it’s in your family, you’re more at risk for developing it.

I guess that’s the reason to go into schools to catch stuff early.
Well, the department of mental health and hygiene have great reports based on how many substance abuse counselors are in each county and they figure out how many kids should be in mental health services based on our population. And when they looked at our area, they said based on what we know in general about the prevalence rate among kids, we were way off in this area. Services weren’t being utliized. So they put grants out for us to hire staff. And ECBH told me other day that in Dare County, we have one of the highest percentage of uninsured children in the services because it’s available in the school. And I’m really proud of that. But we also have really good private counselors in the area. But they cost money.

How bad off are our kids?
Here’s the thing. I’ve had one of the elementary school counselors come in twice and tell me about two school children that have been sexually abused — but it’s so hopeful that they’re getting care now. They’re going to have treatment for that trauma and hopefully not turn to drugs or alcohol or develop deep depression or poor self esteem and make all the bad choices that come as a result. They’re going to work through the trauma hopefully. And psychiatry and behavioral health is among the newest sciences. And we’re looking and training ourselves using these evidenced-based treatments. And they’re treatments that have been studied and been shown to be effective. So there are five of us now who have been through a specialized training to treat trauma. They know if you use a strategy to help a child with trauma that it has good outcomes; that it works. So it’s not just coming in and talking and saying, “Oh you’re gonna be okay buddy! You can do it!” [claps her hands] We’re learning techniques that are proven to really help people.

There are a lot of people who think psychologically/psychiatry doesn’t work. It’s a harder sell. Your kid breaks his arm, you go to the doctor. But with your field, it’s not such an obvious problem.
It’s not, “You’re depressed, we’re going to give you six treatments and you’re gonna be better.” It’s not that concrete.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, too. You don’t have an endpoint.
Because it depends. Most of our medicines for depression have to get into your system four-to-six weeks to work. There’s how severe the symptoms are; how motivated they are to learn the things hey learn. How much support somebody has is a huge issue. We have plenty of people who can’t get here for whatever reason – because they have to work, and we have some evening hours but . . .

So when you look at behavioral health on the Outer Banks, what’s the most pressing issue or cause for concern?
Well, as far as totality, probably addiction is still the most damaging.

And I’d assume that has to go up in the wintertime.
Yeah. Unstructured time, for addicts, is not a positive thing. Not having a job to go to and having to much time on your hands is damaging. It costs our society so much. But I till go back to stigma. Getting people to be receptive that treatment is out there and it will work and to support people who are doing that. And resources: I mean, if you’re in Hatteras — if I was in Hatteras and I had to get my son up here for counseling once a week I don’t know how I’d do it. And then there’s gas money…

I do think being understanding is important. If you’re employee is in tat situation, don’t just…
Fire them. Try to get them some help. But I’ll tell you we have so many people dragged in here by our other clients that are like, “I’ve been there, the people are really nice, I swear.” We get a lot of referrals from our clients – for whatever reason, somebody lands here and their family or friends end upcoming in. So the addicts drag each other in here, too, a lot, but I think it’s having someone say, “You know what? It’s okay.” People have that fear of being judged. It’s a huge thing. Even if they’re receptive to getting help, they’re afraid of what you’re going to think when they tell their secrets.

I’ll be honest: when I pulled up, I thought, “Dang…”
I knew he was on the dope! But this is our thing: whatever your problem is, we’re gonna try and help. And if you’re worried about walking in that front door, then we’ll meet you at the back. If that’s the big issue, then you can park someplace else and scoot in the back. We try to accommodate people. Because some of that is very real: if you’re a teacher or a policeman seeking help for a mental health problem? But you can go get 150 Xanax from your primary care doctor and nobody thinks you have any problem whatsoever.

What’s the success rate like?
Well, this is the problem: everybody wants to know that. But I would caution anybody if they hear somebody say a success rate they need to say, “What does that mean?” For example, the only thing we measure our success rate with is our substance abuse intensive outpatient program. If outpatient isn’t enough, you come in here three times a week and it is like SA boot camp. We’re going to teach you everything about substance abuse and being sober and every tool you can possibly use. And the average person stays about 12 weeks. But we’ve had huge arguments about what is success. Because if you’re in that program, and you’ve been sober 2 months, and two weeks before you’re to be discharged you relapse. You come in; you share with the group that you relapsed. Should I not graduate you? And we’ve had this discussion with the supervisors of all the PORT Clinics. Because we want success to be they’ve been clean for fou weeks, they’ made progress toward their goals, but in realty we’ve had people who are clean for 8 weeks and then relapse. Some people say at a year, 70% of our people are still sober. But how do they know? Are they calling and asking? Are they doing drug tests? And as a field we’re still struggling with that question too: how can we prove what we’re doing is effective? And that’s where these evidence-based treatments come in.

It has to be more effective than doing nothing, though.
You would think. But that’s struggle for this field. And that’s why we get trained in techniques that have had some scientific research showing they’re effective. But we’re really in our infancy of being able to prove it.

But personally, do you think it’s making a positive difference?
I know it is. We’ve had people come in here who couldn’t get on the liver transplant list because they couldn’t stay sober — and they’ve been able to stay sober and get a liver transplant. We’ve had people who’ve gotten their children back who were taken away form them. We had one woman who was so depressed — I mean she was just suicidal constantly. She wanted to die every day. And she came in the other and had a huge smile on her face. She’s working, she’s in a relationship, she’s functioning. And that’s why you do it. What’s the percentage that happens to? It’s hard to quantify.

But there’s three good stats right there.
Well, they say people get better because hey feel the fire, not because they see the light. So we do see that. Generally, people are coming in because they’re feeling some fire somewhere. But then it’s how to keep people motivated. And you get trained in special techniques you know will work and you try to be engaging and keep people trying. And you’ll find 10 people who’ll say, “New Horizons is great they’re wonderful there.” And then you’ll find that one who says, “That bitch Michelle threw me out of the Suboxone program, they wouldn’t help me.” I mean I can guarantee we do everything we can to try and help someone. But it gets to the point where it’s not working, especially with addictions, we’re going to refer you to go inpatient. And if you don’t want to do that, do I continue to provide you with something that’s not effective? So those are the days that are hard here: when you talk to someone and say, “This isn’t working, what can we do?” And they don’t want to do anything different.

People have to change. It’s not just going to happen.
And in all likelihood, if you’re going to change, your going have to do something you don’t want to do. You’re going to have to try something different. And that’s uncomfortable. So that’s where support comes in. There’s not any community services out there so you have to take what you learn in here. And it’s nice if you have a support person who can help you and encourage you and prompt you and be by your side.

Do you encourage people to bring people in?
Oh yes. We encourage families to come in and we have a family support group that’s free for whoever’s interested. I mean, anybody in the community. If someone had a son with an active addiction and wasn’t in treatment, they could come. Or if someone who has a child in Virginia who’s depressed and they’re dealing with it, they can come too.

So what are the take home points? If you could get a message out the community, what would it be?
That mental health and substance abuse issues are treatable illnesses. That is not a hopeless situation. There is help available. It might not be on your terms, and it might not be located where you want it to be, but it is available. And mostly that it’s treatable. You should never give up hope on anybody. I’ve been doing this 20 years and I can’t predict who comes in. There’s people who come in who I think, ‘They’ve got everything going for them; they’re gonna beat this thing.” And it’s a real challenge. And then there’s people I think, “Here they come again” and they get better. So you don’t ever give up on anyone. And there’s no shame in asking for help.



When it comes to Roanoke Island Festival Park, the local community roars with opinions. Executive Director Kim Sawyer addresses their requests, concerns — and what’s in store for the facility’s future.

“Living History.” That’s what gets top billing on Roanoke Island Festival Park’s welcome sign. What gets the most attention? Live music. No wonder. While people must pay to see the facility’s 16th century costumed interpreters, board the Elizabeth II or get hands-on with American Indian Town’s educational displays, the sound stage is wide open and impossible to miss. So, when the budget crunch hit the state facility big-time this year, critics and fans alike roared for more concerts and events. But as Executive Director Kim Sawyer, notes: “It’s not like those old movies where Judy Garland says to Mickey Rooney, ‘Hey! Let’s get on Broadway!’ And, boom, they’re on Broadway. People need to learn the steps to get there. And as much as people love concerts, that’s not all we do.” Sawyer sat down with us to discuss just how the park plans to maximize their assets — from concerts to Boy Scouts to blushing brides — and what that means for the park’s future and fundamental purpose.

MILEPOST: Spell your name and tell me your position and give me a quick bio of you how you came to the Outer Banks and got involved in Festival Park.
KIM SAWYER: Kimberly Sawyer, Executive Director. I was director of a craft cooperative in Camden, North Carolina. And at the time it was the largest cooperative in the country. And I just wanted a change, and there was something with First Flight [Foundation], and I applied for the position. And I started off being the communications coordinator and I ended up being the administrator for the state park for the program. Had my office at Wright Brothers. So that’s been 10 or 12 years, and I remained with the department after that. I was called the Eastern Region Administrator; I worked with the secretary’s office on different projects throughout the state. And when the last [Festival Park] director left, I was asked to serve as an interim director. And then ended up having he position full time.

And that was three years ago.
Yeah. And I always liked the marriage of creativity and business. I think that’ a great marriage and pretty much thorough my career that’s what you see. And that’s what you see here; you see us trying to promote history but in a fun interesting way to get to the general public.

What about the park? It’s main thrust is educational outreach. It’s field trips, tours…
The ship started it first, thirty years ago. And then around that was built the park, 16 years ago. And the history center was originally part of that as well. And from that it’s grown. So they started off with the ship, the settlement site and the adventure museum. About two years ago, American Indian town was built. And that’s part of separate funds — I’m always really cautious about that, because I know people are like, “What do you mean they’re upgrading something? They don’t’ have any money!” So let me be clear [speaks directly into the recorder]— please hear me on this Mr. Recorder — back in 2007, the park got some money its’ called R&R — repair and renovation money — and that helped build American Indian Town. And that was my first summer here. Just executing the project, the project had already been developed but we had to make sure it got built. And it did. And then the remainder of those funds are to help update the adventure museum and the sales ticket area. And so that was really the latest addition in 2009. And it really was a tribute to the history of Roanoke Island. Which is important. This is where people first came and spoke English in the Americas. And 22 years later Jamestown established the permanent settlement.
And so, really, number one: we want people to have a good time. We want them to have a good time with the costumed interpreters, and they get a kick out of seeing the ship, and they can go in back and talk to the blacksmith. And maybe, if they’re well-behaved, they get a nail. So really we’re focused on family fun, and we find that we have a lot of families here. And they like to try on costumes and take pictures. And talk to our interpreters.

At first, the Governor’s budget eliminated all funding for the park. You ended up with $450,000 from the state for two years; and you’re requesting $325,000 from your 501(c)(3), Friends of Elizabeth II. But that’s still basically half of what you used to get. What’s the plan?
Well, we knew that our appropriation was scheduled to be cut, and we had started planning for the inevitability of those cuts so we had a five-year plan in place. Our commission voted on a preliminary budget back in April, which included — what we would have gotten from the state was $1. 5 million. So in essence, with the announcement of the governor’s budget they accelerated our cuts. And that’s not unlike a lot of other agencies or, lets’ face it, a lot of other businesses in our communities who are running on tight budgets. I always get concerned because I know people hear those numbers, and they’re probably sitting in their businesses thinking, “I wish someone would give me those funds.”

But I remember — because I’m a workaholic, and it was here pretty late at night — it was about 10 o’clock and I got this email. We’re under the umbrella of coastal resources, but our funds come to us separately. So our funds aren’t comingled with the department of coastal resources. And this email came from Coastal Resources and it said, “Hey, we’re only going to get a 15% cut – except the Roanoke Island commission, and you’re going to get a 50% cut.” And so there it started. And so what we started to do was think beyond just the ticket revenue we take in. What else can we do to bring in revenue? The cool thing about Festival Park we have a lot of different opportunities to look at for generating other sources of revenue. And we’ve come up with three areas that we’ve focused on. One is the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts programming, the overnights. That’s something we’ve done for about a year and a half, and if you look at all my clutter, you’ll see our patch — the Girl Scout patch. And not to be neglected we are working on developing a Boy Scout patch. The other is weddings. They say the Outer Banks is — what? — fourth for wedding destinations?

They say that. Third or fourth. I’ve yet to see it officially corroborated but it’s huge, that’s for sure.
I’ve been here 3 years and I would never have thought we’d do weddings. I don’t know why. But we are doing it. And we’re only into our second year of that. And the first one we did was on the ship last year. After they said, “I do” the gun went off [laughs].

And then the concerts.
And then the concerts, absolutely. One of things when I heard when I came here was we need to do more out on that space. And so one of the things we’ve done is redouble our efforts to get concerts out there. So we’re kind of planting the seeds this summer. I think after the summer — in all those areas — we’ll get an opportunity to look back on whatever lessons we learn and say: “What can we do better?” I think for our space back there, our big opportunity is rental income. A lot of people, it never fails, when I give a tour of this site and take them back to that space, they’ll go, “This is what you can do out here!” It’s like those old movies when you see Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and Mickey says to Judy, “Hey! Let’s get on Broadway!” And, boom, they’re on Broadway. But people need to know, “Here’s the steps to get there.” My original vision was we would do a Roanoke Island Festival Park concert series. But at the same time the reality of our budget cuts is coming. And it’s like, “Is it a wise decision to invest thousands of dollars into bands?” Because the band gets paid whether they sell one ticket or 1000 tickets. One of the cool things about renting the facility for us, is that helps us in that we’re not having to put the large amounts of money that you do when you bring in a band. And what’s in the rider, whether it’s catering or security or those kinds of things. Because there’s risk and then there’s calculated risk.

And not to mislead, I know they had done concerts here in the past. And one of the things we’re looking at here at the park, in all areas, is what can we do more of? The old adage is there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And in my mind, yes it’s concerts, and we’re trying to promote to the promoters. Because one of the things we see in routing with the bands — Straight No Chaser is a perfect example. That’s a group that learned about some of our ads we’re doing for promoters, they saw it and said, “It’s a beautiful site,” and they were appearing somewhere before us and it fit into their routing. Or Cory [Hemilright], who brings in the Bluegrass Festival. Or Blues Traveler, it’s a great opportunity for Brew Thru, a local person who wants to do concerts and also help promote his business. And what a great marriage to be able to do that. So doing that and not just getting stuck on that. Also saying, “If you want to have a wedding, we can do that, too.”

We just at the end of the day really want to maintain our visitor experience. And it sounds corny to say that. But everyone wears more hats than one, which is no different than what anybody else does, but Tanya [Young], she does our marketing and promotions and she also is the person that helps sell our wedding packages. I’ve got my operations manager, that if we’re shorthanded on ticket sales, he goes down and helps sells tickets. Our maintenance staff, when we have events they’re part of that as well. So we’re all trying to do more with less, but at the same time not only have the same visitor experience, but enhance it. I’m anxious to sit down at the end of the season and say: What are our lessons learned? What can we do better? What shouldn’t we do? What should we work toward? And be able to do it with in the scope of our capacity.

So when you say renting a space, it’s to a promoter – or whoever – but you say, “We have a venue, and it does this.” And let them handle the logistics…
Of everything.

You’re in the business or running a park; they’re in the business of holding concerts.
Exactly. But we’ve also found that brides like our stage. Because we’re still kind of learning what it is that brides and grooms and families are interested in. And it so happens that since we have lighting out there anyway we can offer a lighting package and it’s right on the sound. But we also have the space here, the art gallery, and the grand mall space and then we have this outdoor space. So that’s something else that we’re working on. And we’re starting to get that the weddings are like a show. [laughs] Because it is the lighting and the sound, and I think we’re lucky to have that as an add-on out there. I get it, people like concerts, they want concerts and we’re working toward that. But it’s not all we do out there. And one of the cool things about the weddings we’ve discovered that I didn’t anticipate – particularly if it’s a local family — is it’s a way for them to connect with us in a different way. And so maybe the fundraising opportunity besides providing us with funds that we need is a way for people to connect with us in a more personal way.

It’s interesting, because now I think of all three areas – and even the education part – as sales opportunities. Even our scouting is an opportunity to meet two missions: one, it’s great to be involved with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts because they’re great operations. But I also think that we’ve got a great product. That we’re able to provide them overnights and do work with their camp leaders with more specific programming that we can do here. So, one of the things the state is encouraging everything to be more entrepreneurial. And I think that’s an opportunity for us to do that. But when I say that, I also say — and I probably say it too much — is that I just don’t want people to forget our core mission and our educational assets. The things that have always been here that I think are great assets and I think are the heart and soul of what the park is. Whether it’s just tourists coming or school groups that are here. Or even we’re finding more of the senior tours that are coming here. And I don’t want people to forget that because I think it’s really important piece of who we are. And I hope it always be the center of what we are.

Well, obviously, educational outreach is what started it all.
The first English speaking America is here. And when I’ve had to go speak to legislators, I remind them. I say, “This is your history. And this was 22 years before Jamestown.”

I don’t think Jamestown would be in this situation. And I don’t know what their funding situation is, but I doubt the Governor of Virginia would say “Let’s defund Jamestown.” And I doubt there’d be the same lack of concern.
Well, remember: the first proposed cuts came from the previous administration. But if you were going to compare us to something — if you would look at all the cultural assets under cultural resources — I think the museum of history is a really great place, but they don’t charge an admission fee. They charge an admission fee if they have a special exhibit. We’re responsible for our own maintenance here. If we were located in downtown Raleigh, the department administration would be responsible for our maintenance. So, you know, everyone’s got their own standard they’re set against. And we’re being held to a different standard. And it’s not just us. It’s other places. But that’s something a lot of people don’t understand as far as what we get versus what someone else gets.

But at the end of the day I have to decide, “What do you spend your time on?” And right now, we’re looking at something we haven’t done a lot of here, but something we certainly will have to do — and that’s fundraising. Getting those people who are interested in helping our facility and finding ways to do that. That’s something I’ve just started to work on and outline. It isn’t anything I’ve even promoted yet. But hopefully I’ll come up with a nice package and you’ll see what I’m talking about. And it’s not new and sexy; but we’ve got planks on our boardwalk people can buy. And we’ve got gardens people can support. And benches. So just looking at other opportunities where we can bring I money.

So, really it’s like any business: how do we do more with less? What are you going to do to increase revenue? And how are you going to trim the fat? And one thing we knew we could do was increase the ticket price. We increased the ticket price from $8 to $10 two years ago. And you do always worry about will you eliminate people. But we felt like after 10 years or so, to increase the price was fair.

I think one of the things we had to do in the beginning when we got our budget cut was to look at things we were doing for free. For instance, in the art gallery they used to have nine months of art shows. It was all free. There was no charge. And if they sold an item, I think the non-profit got a small percentage of the sale. So we had to sit back and say, “Okay, what do we want to do with that space?” And we realized it was an opportunity for a rental space. So now we have three of the shows that we felt were the closest to the community, which was the Mollie Fearing Show, the Dare Co. School Show, and then the quilt show. For a couple of years, we managed the maritime museum in downtown Manteo, but we just weren’t able to staff something off campus and then staff stuff here. So now the town manages that. And I haven’t rehired any permanent staff in over a year. So, we hire what the state calls temp — it’s seasonal help. So we can hire seasonal help in the summer, but at this point we’re just not hiring anymore permanent staff until we feel strong in our plan and we feel stabilized.

And you know, let me say this – hear this Mr. Recorder! – I think the staff has stepped up to the challenge. If it’s weddings we have to do, let’s embrace the weddings. If some services we used to contract – like the grass is something we used to contract, now we buy the piece of machinery and do it ourselves. When you have a 27-acre site, there’s lot of things happening. As we speak right now, they’re happening everywhere. And I credit them for having the attitude of “Okay, we’re going to do what it takes because we support what we do here.” We know we’re already doing great things. that’s the other thing, we’re building on a great foundations and we just hope t make it stronger.

Having said all that, I certainly think we’re appropriation-worthy. This is a state site, the facility itself has been here about 16 years, the ship — the Elizabeth II — will turn 30 on November 22 of this year. And we feel like we’ve been good stewards of the state funds and really keeping up a nice place for our locals and for visitors how come here. I’m hoping that the 30th anniversary of the ship is something — we’re going to be doing a small exhibit in the history center for two months about the ship. And our adventure museum will probably upgrade at eh same time. So hopefully we can think of some event for the locals to come and be reintroduced to who we are. Having said that, I think we have an impact. When groups come they stay in places, they eat food, they get gas, so I think we have an impact on the community that a lot of the business people are probably aware of because they an opportunity to see it. Particularly when those big busses are rolling around. So I do feel like we do try to help support the community in that way and I hope people can feel that impact.

Because you guys have to have a ton of school kids come through?
We get a lot of kids. And I’ll send you a map we show the legislators, because it I think get wrapped up in, “Oh this is just local.” And nothing wrong with being local but to say that kind of diminishes what we do. Because you can look at a legislator and say, “Guess what? A school just came from your district because the history we’re promoting is relevant to where you are.” We’ve had school groups from South Carolina come. We had the Director of Cultural Resources here, and she’s from Salisbury, and the school group on the ship was from Salisbury. And she said, “I didn’t realize!” And a lot of parents are starting to fund these trips because the schools funds are being cut.

PTOs and PTAs are picking up a lot of the weight. And not just here.
And Dare County is surrounded by a lot of poorer counties. So I hope all those tour busses and the people coming in their station wagons are helping those communities. They’re stopping to get something to eat or get gas or shop or whatever. And I’m not just speaking about Roanoke Island Festival Park. I’m speaking of any place, that anybody comes to, even if it’s just to sit their butts on the beach all week and get a sunburn, it impacts those communities around us. I want those legislators to know that.

But it’s like anything, one man’s investment is another man’s waste. And it’s interesting how easy it is to find money in a budget when it benefits your interests.
And it totally gets down to our priorities. And when I say our priorities I mean our legislators and our governor. But I give a lot of credit to all the people who run small businesses here – restaurants, hotels – it’s a very tough business. And I find on a personal level, this is not scientific, but even people who haven’t been impacted by the economy are afraid they will be. And so, when they’re making decisions, whether it’s go out to a movie, or rent a movie or to just watch TV — I get it. People are making their owns decisions about what’s important to them. So when they’re hearing about other people wanting $1.5 million. And some are thinking, “ I think it should be spent doing this,” I certainly hope other are thinking, “I hope those folks get some appropriations so they can grow those other areas. “ But I get that it’s a tough economy. My first office on the Outer Banks was right next to the Food Bank. And the people walking in there look just like me. And it was really a humbling great lesson. And these are people who are working. They have jobs. They’re making an income and just trying t make ends meet. And that’s a tough thing to do. So the last thing I want people to think is that we don’t understand these are tough times.

So knowing that you’re doing all this, do you resent some people’s beliefs that the park is wasting money? You always hear about ‘government waste’ and this image of buckets of money raining down and the people receiving it just burn through it and don’t’ care. So maybe not resent, but do you take issue with the concept that because getting this money from the states, you’re somehow treating it with the respect it deserves?
I just have the benefit of seeing the impact we have on people. And I’ll focus particularly on the school groups we have come here. I feel like we’re enhancing their experience. Look: it’s a tough economy, and it’s a great country. And people can say this is not a worthy way to spend the funds, I just have the opportunity to see the impact we do have here, on a lot of layers. It’s not just on the groups that come that I hope walk away with – number one — a fun educational experience. But I also think the impact we have on the community. I think we’re very fortunate on this little island. We’ve got Festival Park, we’ve got the Lost Colony, we’ve got the Gardens, we’ve got the Aquarium — then we have Jockey’s Ridge, Wright Brothers, an abundance of lighthouses. But, at the end of the day, for me, it is about the people. It’s about the people telling those stories. It’s about the maintenance folks who maintain the site and the ship. It’s about the admin people who keep it all running. There’s a lot of moving parts to this place. And having said that, we’re certainly mindful. The upgrade to the adventure museum, that won’t have costumed interpreters; it can be a self-guided experience. Even American Indian town, we may have staff there to answer questions but it’s developed to be a self-guided experience. And I think you’ll find that more and more as new museums develop that it becomes more of an electronic experience. You’ll walk around with your smart phone and your headphones and you’re hearing that.

Do you fear it will go backwards in terms of interpretive stuff? How bad is it: is it like geez, we need to let the blacksmith go? And maybe the flat screen with the headphones will replace the guy with the accent?
I think we should strive to do both. I think that the interpretive experience with the costume interpreter is a very beneficial one. But having said, that, our American Indian town and adventure museum are both experiences where you will have a person there, but you don’t have five or six costume people there. So I think you balance that. And hopefully that hands on experience is a different hands-on experience. Maybe what you’re touching is a touch screen. But we always need to have people on site to help guide people through.

So how does the financial stuff work. I know form looking on line, there’s an endowment. There was four-year plan . . .
There’s a five-year plan. We engaged a consultant because the state required we do it. And we have a Friends group who has funds also. But when we did our plan —and I’m using a term or consultant used — we came up with our three-legged stool: so we would go into our funds, then Friends of Elizabeth II — our 5013c would help us – and then the state. The way the consultant did the plan was with the $1.5 that we thought we were going to get. And the state, it’s a two-year budget. And next year is what they call a short, but if they wanted to, if they gave us money, we would hope they’d keep it there for two years. Generally speaking it’s for a two-year period of time.

So if they gave you $450,000 this year, they’d give it to you next year. That’s what you’re hoping for.

But that’s still a million less than what you’re used to getting,
Yes. We were supposed to get $1.5 million. And I’ll send you that report. It’s a lot of pages. But I’ll separate it out so you can get an overall feel. And that plan was set forth by our consultant and a task force formed to help write this report. And this firm was the lead, and it included some commission members, myself and the chair of our Friends group. And just kind of sitting around talking about, you know, how do we move forward? And what are things we ca n do? You know what we really want to have is kind of breathing room to grow. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past three years just dealing with budgets and reports and things. And I think sometimes what gets lost in the message, is the —which clearly are important to people, and it’s important to people because it’s taxpayer money and they care how it’s spent and I totally get that. But it would be great to have time to just be creative and help grow our scouting program and existing programs and just look for other ways we can market to a very modern generation of people that are not just the 20-sometigns, but a generation of people who are used to being electronic. But however we end up, we really want to be able to provide a strong report to say, “Here is how we found these other sources of revenue; here’s how we strengthened our existing programming.” And we may even have to report on, “Here’s some things we tried but didn’t work, but we appreciate the opportunity to try them and see if they fit our site.”

I saw where that report estimated the park generated $6-7 million for the town. Is part of your argument to say, ‘Look what we do?” And is it salient? Are people buying it?
Look: it’s a tough economy. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad for Roanoke Island Festival Park because we have a lot of people who are out there trying hard to make a living. Look at our fishermen and women And people can say this is not a worthy way to spend the funds. But we also have 27 public acres and a boardwalk to maintain — I think of us as the Central Park of Manteo — and there’s no ticket fee for that. And we’re committed to doing it in the most efficient way possible. But, having said that, I think the state supporting educational opportunities and preserving our history is worthy. And I’d like to think that no matter how tight our belts get, that we always have room to learn about our history and our culture. And we’re committed to doing it in the most efficient way possible. I don’t know how to address what other people think. We certainly are trying to be a lean, mean, festival park machine. [laughs] We get it: tighten your belt. To me, personally, people have been very supportive and positive. But I can pretty much be anywhere, whether it’s out to eat or at the store, or walking to my car. And they usually say [wags her finger], “ Let me tell you what you need to do!” Then it’s usually what I call, scathingly brilliant ideas.

What do you hear mostly? And are they viable?
It’s always something that – you know, to me I feel like we do something pretty unique. And not that we don’t have people that are interpreting the story of the colonists in different ways on the island, I get that. But I think you really can’t be all things to all people. So for me it all starts with what we do at the core, which interpreting the history in the park, and the other stuff — which is the concerts, which is the weddings, which is the scouting — is also part of what we are. But, hopefully down the road, it will help support us in a stronger financially way. But you’ve got to focus on your game and what you’re doing.

The concert thing is what I hear most of. I hear a) it’s sitting her not doing any good. And b), it’s a great venue. You don’t have to convince people what a great place it would be for any band. Everyone can see their favorite band playing there to some degree or another. What are the speed bumps? Is it the parking? Is it getting the town to come around?
It’s hard for me to speak about 10 years ago. For me, it’s been about finding that good fit. Promoting to the promoters, so they say, “This a great venue. And we’re willing to put out the funds to bring the band here.” And we do have parking, but if they have to bring in a bus from someplace else. I just see it as all good. And whether you come to see the bluegrass festival, or whether you come to see Straight No Chaser or to see Blues Traveler, I will have to say it’s a great experience to be out there on the lawn with your blanket and your chair and great music. It just is. For us, we know we need to do what is going to help us generate income. And so, that’s why I think for me it’s about selling the promoters. That the promoters get this is a great place. And when they’re looking at their routing, they’re coming here. And us getting to them. So now we’re promoting to them through some avenues we have. We know what they’re looking at when they’re looking at sites, and so now we’re starting to do that. And I think this summer, I’m really interested to sit back in September and say, “What are the fruits of our labor?” You know, Live Nation is bringing Straight No Chaser here. If you have someone like that, do they look and say “Great. We want to come back.”

The rumor mill was hot and heavy about Widespread Panic. And the way I heard it —and tell me if this wrong – but apparently, they wanted $60,000 for two days and y’all said no. And people were tripping because Widespread is one of one of those bands where you’re not worried about people coming from the beach because it’s a band that generates its own audience. Why did that fall through?
They were interested in coming here, and at the end of the day they took a different gig over us. But I think they are still interested. They like the venue. And it may be something that my still happen.

But it’s not like y’all said, ‘No.’
No. [laughs] We spent a lot of time on Widespread Panic. But having said that, I will have to say it was a lot of money to put out to get them here. And we worked toward getting someone else coming in to help defray those costs. But at the end of the day what happened is they took another gig and said, “We really like the venue, we really like the place and let’s talk again, because we’re interested incoming there.”

The other thing that was chucked out there was that maybe Manteo was too conservative and didn’t like the idea of a bunch of hippies running around.
It’s funny that you’re talking about it because we really — if you want to keep a secret, I’m your girl — and for my part, we really didn’t talk about it a lot. But it was several months of discussion and so we really got to a point where we were including our Friends in it as well because we would’ve had to make some decisions about whether we should dedicate funds to do it. Which is a tough thing to do. And when you’re talking about your funds being short and how you utilize them, it’s a big decision. And finally it got down to there’s this other gig and they decided to take that one. And we left it with, “We’d love to talk again.” And they said, “We love your venue.” And I think they’re the kind of group that is at the point where some of their interest is in playing places they’d never played before. And they checked out accommodations.

Well, it’s not a bad place to spend a week on the beach.
Well, let me ask your opinion, because if they circle back around I’d be curious to see what you think: do you think we could do two or three days?

They do multiple concerts in a lot of places. I think there’s potential for having a couple of bands play a couple of days — like the bluegrass festival. I also think there’s ways to tie into the local clubs and do sort of a mini SXSW. Have some headliners here, and also have people paying the Duck Amphitheatre — or the clubs. But there’s a lot of musicians here and a lot of connected people, and getting people to come to the beach isn’t a hard sell. Especially in the fall when the water’s warm. But you could start it small with a couple bands and grow.
I’m hoping that this summer we’ll have success. But I think this summer is our first pass at planting some seeds and seeing how it goes on a lot of levels: we hope the promoters say, “That’s cool we want it.” We hope that the visitor, whether it’s a local person or someone who comes to a concert says we need to start looking at festival park for more concerts. That that starts to happen and build in layers. But it’s funny you brought up Widespread Panic, because I hadn’t thought about them in so long.

Conversely, how much of an anchor on the budget is the pavilion when it’s not being used? Does it cost money every year?
It costs money to maintain the grounds and equipment. The stage was added to before my time, but not too may years ago. And think what would probably happen if were doing a lot of concerts out there it’d be an opportunity to maybe upgraded some of the equipment. I think it’s fine where it now. But a lot of bands bring their own everything anyway. If you want the numbers I can get them to you.

I’m just trying to get a sense of how big of a drain it is. If it cost a million each year to maintain then maybe there’d be an argument for cutting it loose.
No. It does cost money in terms of maintaining that facility, cutting the grass and maintaining the equipment, we do that. I guess some special equipment or something we have to do we may have to bring someone in.

I heard if Blue Traveler goes well enough, Brew Thru might do six next year.
We’ve already held dates for them just in case. And the interesting thing with the concerts is a lot of time people want to book the weekend. And we try to tell them, it’s the crossover days. And for us at the park, it’s the least attendance we have because people are checking in and out of the cottages.

That’s also when the weddings are, so it seems like you could do weddings on weekends and leave concerts for midweek.
That’s right. Because we had two big weddings the past two Saturdays, and we encourage concerts on Wednesday and Thursdays. And we’re talking about flying the banners over the beach, because as many times as it happens, people look up.

So was that part of the logic of bringing Fisher Essenfeld aboard. He obviously has a background in the field. Didn’t he used to work with Blues Traveler?
Yeah, when our position opened up, we had someone who did a great job — and not that there weren’t people who didn’t rent the facility for concerts — but I kind of sat back and thought: what are we looking for? And having done some event work myself, one option I considered was contracting it out. Like we have university performances here. UNC just performed here. We do those in our smaller, 240-seat film theatre. And we also have a 50-seat auditorium. But at the same time, the understanding was we were transitioning to the next level. It’s not just for a little while, this what we’re moving to be. So I really was thinking maybe I’d hire someone to do that kind of booking and then contract the other. Then when I did the interviews it was interesting to find someone who worked in the concert world, and that’s been beneficial. To have someone who speaks their language.

But I have to tell you I‘m really happy about our lineup this summer. So I think we’re planting seeds. But if we can find some successes, and if Brew Thru gets what they want out of it — which I think is to make some money but also the added bonus of the additional marketing — then if that’s a success I think they will do more concerts. I think if Live Nation feels successful they’ll do more concerts. I think what we’ll find out real quickly. At the end of the day, peoples’ definition of success is am I making any money on this. So I think this summer is great opportunity to see and learn some lessons.

Long term, what has the most revenue? The concerts?
I think that remains to be seen. Don’t let me mislead you: last year we did two weddings. This year, we have eight and Tanya’s already booking for 2014. I don’t have the answer to how much that grows. Of course, the one that’s the most fun and feels like the best fit for us is scouting, but they can only do so much with their overnights. And it was interesting, we had an issue a couple of months ago where they wanted to do something out there, and someone wanted a wedding and then we were talking about a concert. And I’m like, “Okay, who asked first?” but that’s cool. That’s the kind of problem we want to have. But anything we can do to fully utilize our park and our acreage is best for us. And clearly this a region that wants concerts. And another thing I’m going to be interested in besides many people attend the concerts is where are they from? Are they locals? Are they out-of-towners? Or is it a balance of both?

So what is this Dare To Discover thing? Is it a coup? Because it sounds like they want to take over the operations, but they aren’t very detailed.
I can tell you there was a public information request made that said it was for someone’s father who was interested in the park. And then I was notified that someone had turned in a proposal. But we don’t own the property. The state does. It’s something that came out of left field. I don’t know who’s on his board. I only know he works for the county and that’s because he picked up his information request in a county car [laughs].

Well, their site doesn’t have much info. It says they want to do a public private partnership and they want to do more cabin rentals. And it says the lead’s name is James Wooten. But it doesn’t say who is on his board or any real details. So I was wondering if you knew more.
I’ve just seen what everyone else has seen. But I’m being very honest — and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this at all —but a request was made and we provided it. And the woman who requested it said that it was for her dad. And then this guy, who I later found out was Mr. Wooten, came and picked it up. And I happened to look out the window and saw he left in a county car. And I actually called the county and said, “If want information, you don’t have to send someone over…” and they said, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then when the Voice started doing stuff online he started putting stuff out there.

So there hasn’t been any dialogue? He’s never sat down and said, “This is what I want to do.”
No. He asked to be on the agenda of the commission once. And the agenda was already set and we were working on our budget and plan. So he asked if he could come to a meeting and I said, “Sure our meetings are public. See you there.” But he didn’t show up.

Have you considered any of those ideas?
To me, it seems like there’s campgrounds already here, so I don’t know that building a campground would be beneficial or that having camp shells would make sense for weddings and concerts. And when we have scouting groups, they bring their own tents and stuff. But there is a 4H camp —I think it’s in Hyde County —that has similar things. But for us, what we’re doing, I don’t think that would work into our plan.

As a state business do you feel weird about competing with the other businesses?
I think at the end of the day the consumer benefits because they just have other options. Another thing with weddings for us, which is cool, is it’s another opportunity for a wedding planner or florist to pick up some more business. But you’re out there in the world, you’re writing about this stuff — everybody’s doing weddings, everybody’s doing concerts. [laughs] You’ve got Duck, downtown Manteo — a lot of people are doing concerts, and a lot of them are doing it for free. So, for me, every day your choice is I can choose to spend my day wondering what other people are doing or I can chose to spend my day on, “Here’s our game plan; here’s what we’re doing.” But it’s an interesting time when municipalities are offering events and concerts for free. And it’s just the way it is. And the municipalities probably have more money to do things like that. And I’m sure they do it to benefit the business in their community, the restaurants, the craft shops. So a lot of us are doing the same things. It’s just how we choose to do them or the setting that’s different. So maybe the victor is that local person who wants a unique experience or that visitor who has a lot of options to choose from when he gets here. So if you’re going to be charging for something, that just encourages you to make it a much more special experience. And that just makes our core mission more unique.

Because you’re funding a noble purpose.

What about Windmill Point. Have y’all talked at all? Is that a future competitor? Or is there hope or maybe some collusion, if you ever did do a major event with multiple sites?
Look, if they ever wanted to do some of the seafood festival over here? That would be great. I’d be open to that. When the whole thing first started I did call Lee [Nettles, Director of the Visitors Bureau], just to cut through everything and find out what’s real. And I said, “What are your plans?” And I guess they’re working on their second study. I don’t now what ultimately what they’re going to be, so again: we need to be focused on us. But at the end of the day, I hope it’s something that will benefit everybody. I don’t know what the split is between Nags Head and the Visitors Bureau. And you tell me: is Kill Devil Hills trying to do something to?

I can’t say. They’re looking at that Baum Tract and a pavilion is on the list of possibilities. Not sure what that means, but it seems like if one thing goes well in this county, someone else tries to do it. I think that’s a byproduct of seven towns. But our shoulder season, you can’t do everything anymore. So it would be nice to see some sense of unified direction.
I know when we try to schedule anything, not weddings, but the concerts, we try to look at a calendar and avoid other events. But it’s hard because there’s so much happening and so much going on. For me, again, if were to pull up an event calendar for this weekend, you’ve got municipalities who are in the entertainment business or the bars and restaurants —which you expect them to do that, I’m not saying they shouldn’t — but for me, this is my stuff, so I say, “This what we’re doing. This is what we do best.” But if someone planned something and wanted to have a satellite event her, we’d certainly be open to it. I think that’d be great.

Hopefully there’s some collusion. I saw quotes where Lee came to your defense with letters to the governor.
The chamber has been very supportive. The town has been supportive and really said they fell like we really help their economy. And I think the Visitor’s Bureau is in a tough spot. They have a lot of people they have to help. And if Kill Devil Hills does do something, I’m sure they’ll go the Visitors Bureau and ask for money, too [laughs].

Everybody does. If it’s tourism-related, people ask.
When I came here, to be honest, there was twice the bureau asked us for money. They used to sponsor the symphony solely. It was their gift the community and they would have it here at the park. And a year ago they decide not t do it. But for two years, they requested funds to go half-and-half. And at the time we were able to do that. So, we have a nice visitors bureau and they have a lot to promote and support and I think we’re certainly one of them.

What’s the best-case scenario? Worst-case scenario? Do these revenue streams have potential to support the park? And is there a case where they’d shutter the whole thing?
Well, it’s certainly not how I plan my day. I’m just not in the mindset of focusing on closing down. My focus is how we grow. That’s my focus. That’s where I am. If that changes, then we have to look at things differently. But that’s not where I am right now. And that’s not where the park is. As you can see all the things going on here – we’re certainly not acting like a group that’s getting ready to close the doors. So that’s not in my mindset.

Having said, that, realistically, you have to look and see where is this money coming from? Or are there ways we can do things more effectively. You always have to be in that mindset, eyes open, no blinders on. For me in the short term, it’s seeing where we end up with appropriations and using our existing funds that we have and really look at those areas. And use that as a growth period: are there more and different things we can do in marketing? Let’s investigate that. Do we agree and find that the concert area is an opportunity for increased income, let’s do that. I’m really hoping the upgrades we do for the adventure museum create a newer experience for people coming to the park. One my goals is to have a space here that is for traveling exhibits, because I think that allows for a new experience in that history/educational location. I think something like that helps are community get connected — you have an opening night for locals to come see us and support us. Because while we do have locals who come use the park, generally speaking I think we see more visitors.

So whoever party is, and who ever the legislators are — because, remember, our cuts started with the previous administration — we’re going to have to be able to tell our story and say here’s what we do well and here’s what we need form you. Or here’s what we do well, and we’ve done it well enough we’re not sure we need nay help. I think we’ll always be in a place where we need an appropriation. Having said, that, as long as this is state property, I think it’s appropriate we should have something. I just hope five years from now that we are known as a really great historical attraction that also has great concerts and is also a great wedding venue and is also great for scouts. As opposed to, here’s a great concert place, and by the way it’s also a historical attraction.


How a non-profit project with outside perspective hopes to bring investment and optimism to Hatteras Village

This story starts in Duck. That’s where Charlottesville, Virginia, entrepreneur Eric Kaplan and his wife first vacationed 28 years ago. When that got too developed for their tastes, the couple shifted north to Corolla. When that boomed, they bolted for Avon and Buxton — right about the time the beach access battles were heating up. But Kaplan didn’t pay much attention to the bumper stickers and protest signs. At least not at first.

“We always just went to the beach and ate seafood and enjoyed ourselves,” says the semi-retired founder of Frontline Test Equipment, which makes troubleshooting software for Bluetooth devices. “But once I bought my home in Frisco in 2010, I decided I needed to find out more about the community. So I went on a quest to understand those issues.”

Kaplan went so far as to visit the HQs of different organizations involved in the lawsuits. The more he learned, the more he saw a frustrated community that needed help in the face of adversity; he also saw a beach destination that still had a big future. So much that he’s guaranteed $2 million of his own money to start a not-for-profit, 501(c) 3 called Hatteras Island Ocean Center, Inc. The goal is to build, fund and operate two cultural attractions in Hatteras Village: a public fishing pier/education site/event venue (sort of a mini-Jennette’s) that’s still in the fundraising stage; and a combo of interactive nature exhibits and soundside paddle access that will open this June under the name Ocean Center Ecology Park.

Along the way, Kaplan secured help from local fixtures such as wildlife specialist Lou Browning and former tourism board chair, Tim Midgett, as well as fellow part-time residents like DC native Richard Henneberry, who spent his winter framing walls and giving financial advice. Their hope is to give people more reasons to spend time in Hatteras Village and educate them about the island’s surroundings and heritage, while providing anchor points for local businesses to cater to those visitors. Yet, they still face some resistance. Some are off-island homeowners who worry about extra people ruining their vacations; others are natives who can’t believe there’s no catch. After all: why would a bunch of fresh arrivals spend all this money and energy without expecting something in return?

“I do expect something back,” Kaplan replies. “I expect to be paid back, eventually. I also expect other non-resident homeowners to join the effort. Because with just a little imagination and investment, this place could be amazing.”

We sat down with board members Kaplan, Henneberry and Midgett to discuss their vision — and share in their optimism. What follows is the full transcript of that discussion. — Matt Walker

Let’s start by the three of you giving me an idea of what the project is about and what got you involved.

Tim Midgett: My part was really easy. Eric got me involved. It’s hard to say no to him.

Eric Kaplan: I got Tim involved because this is a project where a lot of local knowledge is needed. People who know the community and are important in the community. And I figured on Hatteras Island, start by going and talking to the Midgett family. So I went into Midgett Realty and stalked Tim for a while. And eventually, met up with him. And we hit it off right away. He likes the project and I like him. It’s great. We’re working really well together. It’s been a fantastic resource for the project. Anytime we need anything — from who to hire for an accountant to renting a lift — he knows everyone. It’s great.

Rich Henneberry: The first time Eric talked to me, I was playing Frisbee with a friend of mine on the beach. And I said, “No. You’re crazy. This is the craziest project, I’ve ever heard.” The second time he got me on the beach, I was playing Frisbee with another friend. I started warming up to the idea of doing some economic development here. Trying to get this place up and moving. And, like Tim says, he’s hard to say no to.

Eric Kaplan: Really? My wife has no problem with that.

So, Eric. you’re obviously ground zero. What’s your vision? And what inspired you?

Eric: The reason is I sold a business a number of years back and I’m kind of semi-retired. Although this project kind of changed that. I feel like I’ve been working harder now than when I was running a for-profit business. In Charlottesville, my wife and I started a not-for-profit school, a 501 (C) 3. And it’s been wonderful. It’s been a gift to the community. It’s been great. And it’s been going for 20 years. And coming down here I just feel like: I’m in this community, I need to do something to help it. And I see a void here because so many homes are owned by non-residents. And I’m a big believer in leading by example. My idea was, let’s start something down here and lets’ get folks to join in. And that’s why I’m in, hook, line and sinker.

This particular project, I saw a void in the fact that Frisco Pier was in disrepair. I tried to reach out to the owners to see if there was a way we could work with them. They were not interested. And so I said, If they’re not interested, what can be done? And I came up with the idea of doing another pier. And that really got reinforced when I met the AP Biology teacher at Cape Hatteras a few years back. And she said, “You know, I’m teaching Marine Biology but I don’t have ocean access for my kids.” And that’s when it kind of clicked for me: a fishing pier with research education. I’ve got a strong background in education. I’m not an educator but both my parents were teachers, my wife’s a teacher, and she started and ran the school. So economic development and education are the two main themes of the project. Then, while we were focused on the pier side, I was looking down the street and I saw this amazing wetland area. I said, “Wow. We can have ocean access and sound access, all in a few hundred yards of each other.” And we can protect the sound side and essentially turn it into a park. And everything just kind of came together. And that’s really the genesis of the whole thing.

And then you said, “I need some sort of ambassador into the community.” That’s when you started talking to Tim.

Eric: Absolutely.

So what intrigued you about, it Tim? You said he’s a hard guy to say no to, but there’s got to be something else. [Ed. Note: at this point, a plumber arrives so Eric gets up to talk to them.]

Tim: It was kind of unique circumstances at the time. It was post-Irene. I’d been spending most of my time in Rodanthe. Our offices were essentially shut down. We had no personnel there. And Eric kept leaving messages for me. And I didn’t know the man to be honest with you. I didn’t know what he was about. I didn’t know anything. But he was persistent. Whenever I showed up in Hatteras there were messages there. And he kept persisting. And you can’t keep saying no when you don’t know what it’s about to begin with. You certainly have to give someone the opportunity to explain themselves. And once I talked with Eric, I pretty much immediately saw that this man means business and that it’s a tremendous project from the get-go. I think had I known where he was headed and just how determined he is, I might have said no. [laughs] Because he doesn’t let grass grow under anybody’s feet. If you’re involved, you’re involved. He knows where people’s strengths and weaknesses are, and who to call and when, and he makes it happen.

In terms of why I was interested, I was born and raised here. And we’ve taken our lumps and bruises here recently, with Mother Nature and things like that. And road access, of course is a huge concern for us. This was just a feel good project from the get go. And I think coastal-type tourism is something we need more of. And, yes, we’ve got lighthouses and a world of national parks around us and things like that. But we really don’t have things that are interaction-type things. People can go out and enjoy Mother Nature, enjoy the surf, enjoy the sound, enjoy the beach. But in a lot of ways, this project provides access to those resources that really is not available right now. We do have people can go park a vehicle and walk over to the beach, but they don’t understand why the shells are there, why the fish are there, why the tide’s coming and going. They don’t understand the background. So in my mind, this potentially a coastal attraction that can open up another world to people to some of the nature that created Hatteras and brought them her to begin with.

And Rich, you’ve been coming here for years. And it sounds like you sort of have a giving streak by nature.

Rich: I didn’t have a giving streak all my life. Eighteen years of corporate finance and consulting pretty much burned me out. I got out of that racket and decided I needed to do something else. I’ve dedicated most of my life now to all volunteer work. And I have three passions. I have music; I have ecology and the environment, which is what’s going on down here. And I have veterans issues. If I’m gong to devote my time to an organization, I need to feel passionate about it. And this project tied right in one of those three things.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this. But environmentalism has become kind of a dirty word in the past 10 years.

Tim: It’s sad, but it really has.

You say that word in a Dare County meeting, and people automatically turn off or lash out. Down here it’s even worse.

Rich:Well, it must be shyness from the camera and the recorder going, because I haven’t used the word “environment” in seven months. [laughs] We actually named this place the ecology center for that very reason so we wouldn’t raise anybody’s ire. But those things are very important to me. But for me it was about the 3 passions, I have, which are ecology, music and veterans issues.

Tim, you’ve, grown up here. I think a big part of that resentment’s over what’s been going in terms of lawsuits and such that people who grow up here are inherently environmentalists. You don’t have to tell someone who spends their lives surrounded by nature that nature is important.

Tim: I would absolutely agree with you. I think for the most part people here are good stewards of the environment and are, in a sense, environmentalists. You say that word has been a bad word recently and I think a lot of it is just — let’s face it — all the various organizations, environmental and otherwise, that are opposing some of what’s going on out here. This is our home, this our livelihood, this is all we know. And I don’t care where you’re from, you don’t want people saying that you shouldn’t be living where you live. And it almost gets that fundamental. And environmental organizations are getting a bad rap perhaps when most of what they do is probably good. And it’s easy for some CEO of an organization to write a letter opposing Oregon Inlet Bridge, but I wonder how much its membership knows the effects these things have on the people who live here. I think there’s a disconnect there. There really is.

Rich: I completely agree with that. It’s really easy for someone who’s not on the island and doesn’t care about the island to say, “We don’t need this bridge. ” And it’s obvious that in the past six months, these people really don’t have a vested interest in this island. And maybe their interest is they just don’t want another domino to fall in the environmental chain, and that’s why they’re fighting this. And that’s really sad. Because you are going to create people who are going to be against environmental causes, just because of some really stupid issues.

Have you heard any backlash down here as far as the project is concerned? I know I’ve seen comments on line where people say, “We don’t need this.”

Rich: I’ve heard minor things. Nothing substantial. Nothing we can really put our teeth into. I’ve seen Facebook comments from when we were doing work with the cold stunned turtles and some people wrote, “We should just eat them.” But they’re just being juvenile. That’s not something someone really means or that has anything to do with the project.

It’s funny you say that. Because walking through the building, you see signs for future displays. There’s one for a commercial fishing; and another for sea turtles. And those don’t always match up.

Tim: That’s true.

So how do you navigate that?

Eric: Well, let’s back up for a second, because there’s an important person who I don’t want to leave out of the story. Lou Browning, who’s an amazing gentleman, was actually one of our original board members. Now he’s on our board of advisors. But when I started this, I knew I needed someone like Tim, for all the reasons we articulated, but I also wanted a scientist involved. And we still go to him full time for advice.

But, Rich is right. We don’t use the word environment. We’re not in the environment park. We’re in the ecology park. And the way we came up with the term ecology is we got together with some of the leaders in our fishing community. And I said, “Here’s what we’re trying to do. How do we do this so we don’t piss people off?” And it was agreed that ecology is a safe word. Because we’re all part of the ecosystem. People are part of the ecosystem. And we try to stay away from that word environment. You won’t find it anywhere in our literature. But ecology has been blessed by the fishing community.

Rich: I used it.

So if there’s backlash, where is it coming from? Eric, you said you get ‘nastygrams’.

Tim: I can only respond in terms of what I’ve heard in the community, which is obviously very, very important. . And most of what I’ve heard has been from individuals — a collective voice — but an individual who feels like that the project in some way infiltrates their back yard. Collective, I’ve heard very little opposition. Let’s face it, this is a feel good project. It’s a huge boon for Hatteras Island. Probably the best thing to come along in a couple of decades. There are some detractors in the community who fail to differentiate this project from the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. And I’ve been a board member there for a couple of decades. And it was a long time coming. But much like this, it’s no simple project. It requires a whole lot of knowledge and infrastructure and background. As I see it, today we have a world-class museum. And we have a whole lot of artifacts. and no, they’re not properly displayed, but the displays for that museum are a couple of million dollars. And that museum is no longer a fledgling group of local people either. It’s a part of the state system of museum. So it’s not really the village’s left to finish. But in my mind it’s an overwhelming success. I’ve seen visitation numbers there that exceed other sites up and down the state. But this is a totally separate, independent project. There’s no connection, other than that they’re culturally focused research centers.

Rich: Being a relative newcomer to the island, I see people are a little hesitant to tell you why they’re afraid, one-on-one. When they have strength in numbers, they’ll say, ‘This is a horrible project.” But when you get them and hold their feet to the fire and say, “What’s the problem with the project?” Like last night, they can’t tell you one-on-one what the problem is. And a lot of it is the “We don’t want it in our backyard, it’s going to ruin my view or it’s going to ruin what’s going on here.”

When you look at all these issues, Hatteras is in a state of flux. It’s not a 50s fishing village anymore. And it feels like there’s a trapeze act going on, where people don’t want to let go of this trapeze to grab the next trapeze — or multiple trapezes. Is that that the conflict. Because you hear people who look at the beach access issues and the bridge issues and say “Hatteras is ruined.” But you wouldn’t be investing all this time and energy and millions of dollars to create a non-profit project, if you didn’t see a future the island? So what do you see that other people don’t see?

Eric: And we may be talking about different people, too. It sounds like, you’re saying there’s people on the other side of the bridge and or out of state, saying Hatteras Island is doomed. I don’t know if they think it’s washing away….

I’m actually I’m talking people who live here. I hear more doom and gloom coming from people who live here, saying “It’s not what it used to be to me; it’s not what it should be.” It’s almost like there’s this pall of negativity that emanates. And perhaps rightly so. But is part of the motivation for this project to throw some positivity in the mix?

Eric: The first marketing person I ever hired used to say — and she was a lousy marketing person — but she said one thing that has stuck with me. And it’s very correct. She said, “Change equals loss.” And I think for a lot of people you’re talking about, it’s changing and therefore, we’re losing something. And they don’t even know what they’re losing — they’re probably not even thinking about what they’re gaining — it’s just different. And there’s an awful lot of that on this island, I think.

Tim: Going back to people expressing their frustrations and having doubts about their future. I like to think that’s the result of more recent frustrations. That’s from having — what? October 29, I think it was, Mother Nature paid us another visit. People haven’t had access. They haven’t been able to deal with goods and services they were accustomed to. And I think there is a whole lot of negativity built up. And rightfully so. I think that would happen anywhere. But when it’s all said and done, the vast majority of the people here are very resilient. They’re not going anywhere. This is home. And they love it. And yes, I’ve seen an unsurpassed level of frustration the past several months. And, again I think there’s good reason for it. And I think a lot of it goes back to — for lack of a better word — environmental organizations who are making life miserable. If people knew that bridge was coming, they wouldn’t have that fear they have in terms of the future of the village and the island.

Conversely, I went to a meeting over noise, where the whole island showed up to protect the industries that are — like weddings. And it’s like the island is in flux. And it was good to see the people moving forward and encouraging new industries. So it seems like there’s a transition in place where Hatteras may not be what it was in 1950 — or 1980 — but it can be partially that and partially something else. And this seems to be another step in that direction.

Tim: Yeah. It’s hard to separate the things that are coming into play here. I’ll stand here and say that any person who was in business — or you didn’t really have to be in business. These recent times have affected everyone in some way shape or form. Whether it’s the environmental influences — hurricanes, storms, things like that — or more physical in terms of not having roads and not having access. I just think a lot of is we’ve just had a whole lot of tough circumstances over the past several years. And I think we’ll rise above it. Going back to something you said earlier, harkening back to Isabel when she came through in 2003. That changed Hatteras Island. In many ways, Hatteras Island hasn’t found its identity since then. I think we’re getting there. But let’s face it, if we had 400 hotel rooms before then, now we have 150 in Hatteras Village. That’s the kind of impact it had economically. And now I’ll make a leap forward from 2005 until today — the economic downturn. Everybody’s had to reinvent themselves. Anybody , anywhere, if they say they haven’t faced the thought of having to reinvent themselves, then they’re wrong. Because we’re in a different world. And certainly anyone affiliated with anything that has to do with business, has had to reinvent themselves. But we are in a state of flux. Not just Hatteras Village but all Hatteras Island.

Eric: As far as active hotel rooms – and Tim can speak more to this, being in the rental home business and also owning a hotel – my understanding is that the lack of hotels has made a huge difference. And the reason is this: today’s typical visitor comes and rents a home for a week and brings everything they need. And they’re sort of self-contained. Maybe they stop at Food Lion or whatever. They load up and they spend the majority of time on the beach or whatever they’re doing. And then they come home and they cook a family meal. So there aren’t a lot of people running around in the evenings. When there were more hotel rooms, those people had to go out to eat. And that put people into restaurants. Once they were out in restaurants, there was a nightlife. A guy named Buddy Foster does a great job of explaining what the village was like when he was a kid. And it wasn’t just motel rooms, there was a lot of camping here. So imagine, you’ve had 1000 or more people who would’ve been milling around the village, buying the kids an ice cream, going to the art gallery. That doesn’t happen anymore. People come off the beach, they cook dinner, turn on the TV, turn on the Netflix, and they’re done. No nightlife here anymore. It really has changed the place. Wouldn’t you say, Tim?

Tim: I think that’s absolutely correct.

Rich:That’s what I’ve seen as well.

You mentioned a boardwalk earlier. Is that part of the reasoning of putting the two close together and having the walking distance: to put people outside?

Eric: Our vision is if we can to tie the central village into what we’re doing out here and breath live and activity into this place. That would be fantastic.

Rich: I have friends who rented houses in Hatteras Village. And they said, “We didn’t feel comfortable letting our kids go walk up and down 12.” And I said, you know they’re putting in a sidewalk so kids can walk up and down the sidewalk and play. And they said, “Oh that’s great. We’re gonna come back and rent. Because it’s so quaint and self-contained.” And I think these types of projects are good where we can get a sidewalk or walkway, and some stuff for kids to do — so the kids can say, “Mom! Dad! I’m going to bike up to the pier for the afternoon, give me my fishing pole and 10 bucks for a pier pass.” When I was growing up it was, “Mom give me, two bucks.” Nowadays, it’s $30, because, they’re going to want three hot dogs, and an ice cream cone and a candybar and five sodas, and who knows? [laughs]

So is this much a psychological boost as it is a physical project?

Eric: Yes. I’ve said this before, but — for lack of a better term — I feel like Hatteras Village has lost its mojo. And I’m trying help it get it back. To get its confidence back as a Village, and just get the energy flowing. And we talk about leadership by example, and hopefully when people see us do this they think, “Well, you know what? If they can do this, more things can happen.” You know people talk about downward spirals, but there’s upward spirals, also. And you can change things. You can change things a little at a time. And maybe it’s naïve; and maybe its stupid. But I think we can do it. Just from this project, you’ve met Rich — he can be doing anything in the world, and he’s up here picking up a hammer and nails to put up these walls. That’s pretty special I think. Tim, didn’t tell you the whole story. The whole story is that when we first met, he said, “I’ve been spending the last 5 years trying to get off boards. The last thing I want to do is be on your board. But I think you’re onto to something here. And I’m going to join your board. And I’m going to give you any support that you need.”

Part of the reason we’re talking to you about his project, is there’s always a disconnect between people who live here, and people who visit. But I think there’s an outside perspective can be beneficial. Is that what’s going on here: people coming in and seeing things with eyes and going “Wow!’ this can be something besides what it’s always been?” Is that’s what going on?

Tim: I definitely think that’s a big part of the puzzle. Absolutely. I think these two gentlemen are great examples of someone who did have an outside vision and wanted to come in and do something good for the area. But I’ll go back to the discussion to Rich’s example of this project and the sidewalks and the housing community — this is among the first tangible efforts to go in that direction. But for a couple of decades, those of us that are in the business community and trying to figure out where Hatteras Village was going, we’ve envisioned a series of gift shops and what not. As Rich says, a destination village, as opposed to a pass-thru. Where you can park your car here or next door and traipse back and forth through the village, not unlike Ocracoke. Heretofore, certainly in the last decade since it got messed up by Isabel, Hatteras Village has become a pass-thru village for people en route to Ocracoke.

Eric pointed out that at one point, the sign heading north when you got off the ferry heading north didn’t’ even mention Hatteras Village. It said ’60 miles to Nags Head.’ I’d never noticed that.

Rich: I heard the story that this was the road to Ocracoke. And I was like, that’s crazy. So when I have friends com stay with me in Frisco, I don’t let them go north. I say, “Go to Hatteras Village. Go to Burrus Red and White. Go to the gift shop. Go to Dinky’s. Go to Isabelle’s closet.” Those types of things. I force them south. And it’s really a lot closer, too. You can get to Hatteras Village in 5 minutes from where I live. It’ll take you 15 to get to Buxton. Just go south. Hit those shops. Put some money in their pocket.

The other thing that makes this project different. Eric and talked earlier that a lot of second homeowners just buy a house with out knowing where they bought it. They only see it as a rental machine. And they don’t know the issues they’re taking on. All they knew is their neighbor in DC bought a rental in 2004 and its paying for itself, and they find themselves caught off guard, whether It is the insurance rates spiking or people crossing the yard to check the waves. So I applaud Eric for taking steps to learn about this place, and going and talking to Irene Nolan. I guess what I’m saying is there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. And this message of getting people with second home to treat it as such.

Rich: Well, my wife and I, we made our house down here a home. We don’t rent I out. So we didn’t buy a big house. It’s a small little house, one lot back. One of those off set shed roofs. It’s a small three-bedroom. But you walk in there, it’s our home. Unfortunately, a lot of people can’t do that. But my word to people who do own houses down here is to find out about the community, talk about the community, let the people who rent know about the community. Send them to community activities. Leave ideas in the house so they aren’t just sitting there. But a lot of people don’t really care. They’re like, “I want my little piece of paradise, or this beach. And I want it quiet. And I don’t want to see any more than one line of people running up the beach. If there’s more than one line of people on up the beach, then it’s no longer paradise.” But I don’t know what to say to those people, I don’t know how to do it. Maybe Eric has a way to convince them.

Eric: I don’t think there is a way. I mean, it’s a shared resource. If you don’t want to be on a shared resource, then don’t put your beach house on a national park.

Tim: That is absolutely correct. This the wrong place.

Eric: People seem to forget that this is a national park. They really do. Now it’s a beautiful national park and it’s not densely populated, but at the end of the day, it is a national park. It’s a shared resource. And we all have to get along. And some people don’t want that. They talk about their beach. But it’s not their beach, it’s our beach.

Tim: But I’ve been seeing a lot more VB people coming down who want to make Hatteras more of a second home. I’ve heard – or put two an and two together—but I can name a half dozen Virginia Beach couples who’ve bought true second homes here since the downturn. And that something we hadn’t seen before. It was all investment. And I’d say as much as a 1/3 of the sales we’ve seen in the past two or three years have been second homes. And that’s very good for the village I think. It might be a couple homes less in my rental program but there’s more to it than that. To me, every person that’s a true second homeowner, I want to reach over and hug them. Because, I feel better about someone who’s got a real commitment to the place than those that are in it for the quick hit. People are here because they want to be here because they love it.

Rich: I was talking to a volunteer on the project, and he said, I used to go to Nantucket. And it cost me $375 to take my truck across on the ferry, each way. And that kept the island very exclusive. But then what you had was a bunch of rich people on an island who would yell at each other. And say, “Your property fence is two inches too high.” I don’t ‘now if you get that around here. I don’t know that anyone would yell at you if you put a fence around your property to keep your dogs in.

It’s funny you say that. Because in discussing the long-term fate of Hatteras Island, I’ve made that comparison. Because this place could be Nantucket in 30 seconds if it wanted to be. I firmly believe if the bridge went down, this would become a high-end resort. There’s already an airport. And if it generated the same tax revenue…

Tim: I think that’s what would happen. You shut off access today, absent global warming and the tide rising, that’s’ what you’d end up with.

Eric: But that goes back to the vision for this place. When Conrad Wirth came down made this deal with Tim’s family, he said, “I’m going to turn this place into a national treasure that everyone gets to use, and you’re going to get to be merchants and motel operators and stuff.” And the thing people don’t think about is: what about the family that drives here all night from Ohio so they can get up and fish? And every possible minute they’re on the pier fishing and then they go home and work for 50 more weeks so they can come back do it next year. This place isn’t supposed to be Nantucket. And I think it’s the credit of the people around here that they recognize that. I think it’s to the discredit f the people who make it more difficult to gain access to the island. Because, again, we go back to the word ecology. Again, we’re part of the ecosystem. Going back to the guy from Ohio, he’s okay. He can come here. Because he’s part of the ecosystem. It isn’t like this is only for birds or turtles or fish; we’re all supposed to get along. And sometimes that gets lost on people.

Rich: I heard a neat story about a guy who lives up in Avon. He saw a couple getting married on the beach who didn’t have a photographer, so he shot some photos for them. And these people were so happy that someone would take the time to do that for them. And it was one of the nicest stories I’ve ever heard. That wouldn’t happen in Nantucket. It’s kind of like when they have gathering down here, everyone makes food. That’s how they get people to come together. That’s community. That’s neat.

And what’s funny is that another byproduct of that community feel is how protective people get. How you navigate that must be part of the difficulty. It’s like, “Yes, we want to bring more people here, but those people are going to not only help the economy but will blend in.” Like you were saying earlier, they’re mad about a pier, but it could’ve been a condo.

Tim: A whole bunch of condos.

Rich: But that wouldn’t have been horrible either. I mean, it wouldn’t have the best thing.

But it’s not worst-case scenario. The worst case scenario is doing nothing.

Tim: That’s where you really go backwards. In my estimation.

So what do you think this place looks like in 50 years. What are the threats, and what will be its salvation?

Tim: I was hoping you were gonna look at somebody else. [laughs] That’s a tough question. And in order to answer it you’d have to remove all the environmental issues going on. Again ,it’s two separate things. Absent the tide rising – and I mean globally — I like to think the place is going to be here and there’s going to be more uses like this. I mean, we’ve got a tremendous number of second homes and vacation homes here, as we do up and down the entire Outer Banks. And they have perhaps caused a paradigm shift as well. Because if we had those 400 rooms, quite frankly, a lot of them would be sitting vacant because people have gravitated toward those homes. Maybe it’s the together, maybe it’s the multi-generational family aspect, Maybe its just purely dollars. I was trying to put that last, but it may be first. And being in the business, I don’t know if that’s fair of me to say it’s purely economic. But again, that has cause a shift and forced people to either reinvent yourself or fall behind. And this island, things are happening here. And you can either be progressive or you can sit back and take potshots at the change. But the change is gonna happen. And I think it has to happen for us to persevere and move forward.

Eric: I’m not sure the hotels would be empty. Think about it now, it’s not he easiest place to get to and the system is set so you rent for a week. But if you could get a nice hotel easily, maybe people would run down for the weekend more.

It’d be interesting to see how the Hilton does. But it’s an interesting dynamic. I’m sure the Food Lion and Harris Teeter don’t mind. But a lot of its messaging, too. Cape point closed yesterday, and the first thing you heard was “Save a bird, kill an island.” That can’t be a good thing for people to hear. I mean, Corolla doesn’t have Cape Point either. And the parking pass may be an issue, but I’d rather pay 100 bucks and get to Hatteras than spend an your in Corolla traffic. I know you gotta lean on politicians and show need, but you need to put a positive message out there.

Eric: it would be really easy to put a positive message on that. When Cape Point closes – when ramps 44 and 45 close — put up a sign that says “Ramps 44 and 45 closed for wildlife protection, Ramp 49 is 4 miles up the road.” I’d tell people to go find the next ramp.

Rich: But they [the NPS] just put “ramp closed.”

Tim: And they do it on every portable sign from here to Virginia Beach.

Eric: And it would be an easy problem to deal with, but quite frankly now — and this I what I was telling you before. The park service is open to making these changes. I’m having conversations with the park service about how to make this place more visitor-friendly. And they’re open to them. They really are. And maybe that’s a subject for another day. But at some point, I predict you’ll see a sign like that put up by the federal government. And it won’ be a negative; it’ll be a positive. But you know what ramp 49 isn’t the point, but it’s still the beach and its still pretty damn nice and you can still catch fish there.

Rich: Where do I see this place in 50 years? I’ve been trying to educate myself on this place since I moved here. And this island is not the easiest place to live. You’ve got issues with weather. It’s got road issues. It’s got bridge issues. And the people who live here are very resilient people. I think they’ll always get by and they’ll always live here. But with the work that we’re doing, we can help the people that make this their community and home, we can help them thrive. And that’s why I got involved. Because we can help people thrive by doing something and being a part of the community. I’m not a big church-goer, but I like to be involved in the community. If there was a barn raising, I’d be the first guy up the ladder with my tools. But there’s always going to be people living here here. This island, with the gulf stream and the proximity to the continental shelf — it always going to be a great place to surf and a great place to fish. And I just see us being able the help people thrive. And the more we can do things like this and get people involved, I think this place is just going to better. It might not be as hard to live here as it was before. But that’s what I see in 30