The above title, originally coined in a report by Dr. Charles Peterson of UNC in a U.S. Department of the Interior publication on barrier islands (Pilkey et al., 1998), has come through time to represent many aspects of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Over time, the term has come to relate to various features of the banks such as its most literal meaning concerning the morphology and aeolian processes of the banks, but lending itself as well to interpretations such as isolation, development, and even equality. The extremely unique geography and geology of the Outer Banks has allowed for a place unto itself, resulting in a culture and physicality that are as equally unique. This post will examine how the geography of the "Restless Ribbon of Sand" that is the Outer Banks influenced the past and still affects us well into the 21st century.
The Outer Banks is called a "Restless Ribbon of Sand" for a reason. Its thin surface area gives it the appearance of a piece of ribbon, a piece which stretches for over 160 miles down the shore of the mid-Atlantic coastline. This narrow piece of land goes hand in hand with the first interpretation listed above, isolation. At its greatest width, the Outer Banks are a staggering 55 miles from the shores of the inner coast. This distance spans over the vast inland sea, which early explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano thought to be the Pacific Ocean, but is what we now know to be Pamlico Sound. This isolation from the mainland has led the Outer Banks to develop their own unique culture, social norms, and even a distinct dialect known as the hoi toider (high tider) accent still spoken on the banks today (http://www.ncsu.edu/linguistics/videoplayer.php?vidcode=21.8). Perhaps the greatest social norm that was unique to the banks during the Civil War and through the early 20th century was the treatment of African-Americans. Unlike the largely racist and slavery stricken mainland, the people of the Outer Banks seemed not to care what color a persons skin was, but rather what type of person they were. Following the Civil War, Roanoke Island became home to one of the earliest all black settlements in America. The "Freedmen's Colony" as it was called became a lively and prosperous place, home to dozens of African-American families seeking a new life in post-Civil War America. The tradition of equality continued into the 20th century with the formation of the Pea Island Life Saving Service, the only all black life saving service in America. The Pea Island men were known up and down the banks as being the most well prepared station on the banks, earning them respect in a time when it was not easily earned.
Aside from social constructs, the unique location, geology and topography combine to form an interesting case when it comes to development on the Outer Banks. The isolation provided by the numerous sounds of Eastern North Carolina was the first problem when development began on the banks in the late 19th-early 20th century. Steamships were the only way to get to the banks, a problem greatly realized by many early visitors including Wilbur and Orville Wright, who made the dangerous journey for three straight years from 1900 to 1903. Now, in the 21st century, the isolation issue has been solved with bridges and ferries, yet development still remains an issue. Homes are built upon pieces of real estate that are constantly shifting and at the mercy of the wind, waves, and rain. Despite the drawbacks of building on sand that is indeed "restless", people still pay top dollar for these homes. However, when storms such as the recent Hurricane Sandy come ashore, these people are the first to cry foul, seemingly awestruck that their home succumbed to the natural effects of the storm. It's like living near an airport and complaining about the noise. Aside from building on land subject to erosion, overwash and other barrier island dynamics, another problem the Outer Banks is plagued with is over-development. The increasing number of people who want to make the banks the permanent or temporary home is without a doubt a double edged sword, one that is very very sharp. It is completely understandable that everyone wants a view of the beach from the window, however, this want is very unlikely and could be very costly in the long (or near) future. What most people seem not to understand is that barrier islands migrate landward in response to sea-level rise, no matter what type of insurance or how much money a person may have. This inevitable reality leads to house that can only be viewed as temporary, as it will most likely be gone or need serious remodeling in as little as a decade. With increasing amounts of people moving to the beach, problems such as sewage issues, water supplies, and unsafe development may lead the mayors of the towns along the banks to hang signs that read "no vacancy" to warn tourists upon entering their town.
It is clear that the isolation of the banks has yielded a large range of results. Whether it be cultures and dialects native to the banks, civil liberties and rights uncommon in such a southern parallel of latitude, or severe cases of over development, this "restless ribbon of sand" that millions of people have grown to love has certainly fostered numerous characteristics that are truly unique to such as small area on this planet. The geography and geology of the banks has fostered brilliance such as the first flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright but such incompetence such as the over development of barrier islands that can only withstand so much. As we move into the future we must remember that the land we love so much is indeed restless and will not stop moving no matter how much we plead. We must remember that we are subject to the same forces as the island. We must remember that we are forced to move where the island moves. We must remember that it is the islands of the Outer Banks we love. We must remember that they (the islands) have limits that we are marching ever closer to. We must remember to think about the banks and how they will react in the future to what we think is right in the present.