An aerial view of the Atlantic barrier dune ridges and NC Highway 12 on Pea Island, looking south towards the villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo. Outer Banks residents live in constant tension with the edge of the sea.
On Pea Island, bulldozers scrape sand off N.C. Highway 12 and shape it back into barrier dunes after Tropical Storm Jose breached them in September 2017. Hurricanes and other violent storms wash sand across these thin barrier islands, and they grow and migrate toward the mainland. But miles of man-made dunes that protect expensive beach homes and N.C. Highway 12 — the sole asphalt artery that threads the island villages — prevent this overwash and the island-building process. Instead the islands are locked in place, and angrier, more frequent storms inflamed by warming ocean temperatures are rapidly eroding them.
The Salvo Community Cemetery in 1970, with a complete fence and a shoreline with vegetation. Courtesy of National Park Service, Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The Pamlico Sound at the edge of the Salvo Community Cemetery is whipped up by a strong southwest wind at twilight. “For the sea lies all about us… In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea -- to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end." - Rachel Carson
In May 2017, tourists ran past the graves of Little Pharaoh Payne, a WWII veteran, and his wife, Hilda, which have been exhumed by storm surge. Threatened by sea level rise, the cemetery is also vulnerable to erosion caused by foot traffic, which wears away the sand banks. Locals get irritated when tourists don’t respect the resting place of their ancestors.
The Salvo Community Cemetery (as seen in September 2017) is bound by the Pamlico Sound and the Salvo Day Use Area. Both lie within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service. But the cemetery is not maintained by the Park Service, it is privately owned by the community, which is scrambling to raise the funds to save it. The next major storms threaten to wash it into the Pamlico Sound.
The cemetery in June 2017. Research by Dr. Stanley Riggs, a professor of geology at East Carolina University, and his colleagues, suggests that the high dunes that protect the Atlantic Ocean beaches have prevented much overwash from reaching the sound side and expanding the beach a the Salvo Day Use Area. Using aerial photographs and other methods, he and a team have measured 1,500 feet of shoreline here, and concludes that from 1962 to 1998 it has eroded at an average rate of about 1 foot a year, with a high of 2.4 feet a year. Twenty years of hurricanes, and nor’easters since his study have eroded it even more. “This [cemetery] is a grand statement of how mobile this system is, how incredibly dynamic it is,” he says.
Tourist flock to the Salvo Day Use Area to paddle board and kite surf, fish and swim.
From left: Jenny Creech and Dawn Taylor both have kin buried in the Salvo Community Cemetery. Creech is president of the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society, and Taylor is vice president. Their mission is to educate the public — especially tourists — and save the island’s historical sites, structures and memories from being erased by humans, or by the sea. The Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Civic Association appointed Creech to represent the cemetery descendants as the association works with the community, and state and federal agencies to build a permanent bulkhead between the sound and the cemetery, which would slow erosion. But time is running out.
A couple takes in the sunset across the Pamlico Sound by the cemetery.
The entrance to the Salvo Community Cemetery. The spongey land stays flooded even after a summer thunderstorm. Sunny day flooding driven by wind and small storms is increasingly common on the Outer Banks. Today, even a strong 40-mph-wind out of the southwest on a sunny day is enough to bring the Pamlico Sound up into the cemetery.
The grave of Mary L.A. Gray, March 5, 1836 - March 7, 1902.
Tributes left behind on the grave of Missouri L. Midgett, who died at 10-months old in 1901.
Kaine, 2, plays in the sound near sandbags installed to break waves during storms and slow erosion in the cemetery. May 2018.
Large stands of wind-swept Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) that resemble tangled, twiggy cowlicks run parallel to the beach. They indicated to scientists that the land was once a ridge far from the sound — a sand pile built from Atlantic overwash and sediment delivered by two tidal creeks to the north and south. But now the tree roots dangle into the marsh. Leafless and poisoned by saltwater as the sound creeps closer, many have toppled over dead.
My dear friend, Katie, in the sound.
Spartina chordgrass at the edge of the eroding marsh and the sun-rippled shallows.
A Cannonball Jellyfish (Stomolophus meleagris) at the Salvo Day Use Area. Life abounds in the sound and in the thinning marsh that fringes the day use area and the cemetery.
David “Cowboy” Ambrose poses with his backhoe. His marine construction company is building a bulkhead that will slow erosion between the sound and the Salvo Community Cemetery. Decades ago, he fell in love with the Outer Banks and never left. “People call me cowboy because wherever I take my boots off is my home,” he says. May 2018.
Tourist enjoy the sunset and the newly completed bulkhead at the Salvo Community Cemetery in July, 2018. Dare County won a grant for $162,000 from funds left over from a Hurricane Matthew emergency relief bill. Around 6pm on summer evenings, the Salvo Day Use Area empties as the kite boarders and kayakers load up and leave for dinner. As the daylight begins to fade around 8pm, the cars show up again. Bicyclists appear and ditch their rides in the sand. If you are watching from the sound it’s as if the tourists materialize out of nothing, and scurry down to the shoreline like gazelles herding to a wet spot on a savannah. Their iPhones hoisted in front of them, they take in the sunset through their screens. They wade out into the sound turn their backs to the setting sun and pose for selfies.
Jean Hooper’s memories of her 83 years are slipping away, but when she was young she remembers wading in the Pamlico Sound at the Salvo Day Use Area, while her brother, Earl Whidbee, swam to a small island in Clark’s Bay, just west of the Salvo Community Cemetery. The island is gone now. She grew up in Salvo and never left. She wants to be buried at the cemetery, right next to her grandparents, Josephine and Luther Gray, even if the Pamlico Sound eventually eats the cemetery. “If I was [buried] there and the water washed me out, I wouldn't know it anyway so what difference does it make?” she says. “Might as well be there, washed out all over the place. I can't swim, but I wouldn't need to then.”
Jean Hooper has survived so many hurricanes they all blur together now, and she just accepts the storms as inevitable. Hurricane Irene in 2011 was the worst in her recent memory, and she lost most of her old photos when it flooded her house. She still has these two photos of her (in the middle) and her siblings at the Salvo Community Cemetery by the Pamlico Sound. They were made by Sol Libsohn, a photographer from the legendary Standard Oil Photography Project, and she’s been keeping them in her family bible ever since Irene.
Laughing Gulls fly west along the Pamlico Sound.