Disaster Management, Coastal Protection, Comprehensive Planning,
Erosion & Sedimentation Control, Zoning
EPA Region 4
Municipality- Village of Hatteras
Hurricane Isabel v. The Village of Hatteras
Grace Chen writes of 2003, when the Village of Hatteras was struck by Hurricane Isabel, which
devastated the island and its residents causing serious structural damage to the Village. Prior to
the hurricane, the Village of Hatteras had not implemented any land use plans that would
mitigate damages from such natural disasters. After rebuilding and recovering from Isabel, the
Village of Hatteras continued their lax attitude toward mitigation endeavors and potential
damage that future hurricanes or coastal storms can cause. Its lack of assertiveness towards
mitigating future damages by restricting development has resulted in the failure to implement
more stringent and specific zoning districts on the barrier island.
Hurricane Isabel v. The Village of Hatteras
By Grace Chen
April 5, 2005
This case study is adapted from a research paper prepared by Carrie Hilpert for a seminar
conducted by Professor John Nolon, spring 2004, Pace University School of Law.
ABSTRACT: In 2003, the Village of Hatteras was struck by Hurricane Isabel, which devastated
the island and its residents in terms of structural damage. Prior to the hurricane, the Village of
Hatteras had not implemented any land use plans that would mitigate damages from such natural
disasters. However, after rebuilding and recovering from Isabel, the Village of Hatteras
continued to be lax in its mitigation endeavors towards damages caused by future hurricanes or
coastal storms. Its lack of assertiveness towards mitigating future damages by restricting
development has resulted in the failure to implement more stringent and specific zoning districts
on the barrier island.
I. Description of the Place
The Village of Hatteras is part of a chain of barrier islands that is located off the coast of
North Carolina. The island has many critical environmental areas, including wetlands, estuaries,
fish breeding grounds, and coastal zones. Hatteras has been inhabited since the 1700s, when it
developed as a fishing village. Today, the critical environmental areas continue to contribute to
the local fishing industry.
II. Pre-Disaster Legal Framework
Since the 1930s, people knew that the barrier island was eroding. In response to this
problem, the Civilian Corp of Engineers and the Works Progress Administration constructed a
dune system along the length of the island. Since then, the dune system has been rebuilt and
maintained. Behind the dune system, the Administration built Highway 12, which runs parallel to
the length of the island; the North Carolina Department of Transportation eventually assumed
responsibility for maintaining Highway 12.
Hatteras is an unincorporated village, with only 300 permanent residents. Therefore,
Hatteras does not adopt its own zoning ordinances, and instead follows the Dare County zoning
ordinances. The Dare county zoning regulations do not address the environmental or hazard
concerns of the Village of Hatteras. Dare County has a reputation for having the “least restrictive
zoning regulations” on the east coast.
The Dare County North Carolina Zoning Ordinance does have a provision to preserve
sand dunes and wetlands within single family residential zones. The ordinance also stipulates
that sand dunes cannot be damaged, destroyed, removed or changed except when authorized by
the Dare County Health Department, the Planning Department, the Planning Board, or the Board
of Commissioners. The only specific provision concerning the Village of Hatteras limits the
height of buildings to 35 feet, which protects structures from high winds but does not address
other damages caused by hurricanes.
III. The Disaster
On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit Hatteras as a Category II hurricane. The
Army Corps of Engineers in Duck, N.C., recorded waves that measured up to 10 feet high and
storm surges over 4 ½ feet high. The coastal communities of North Carolina, including Hatteras,
suffered devastating effects from the hurricane. Hurricane Isabel killed 17 people and caused
over $3 billion in damages. Of the estimated $97 million in damages Isabel brought to the island,
$75 million occurred in the Village of Hatteras. Isabel destroyed four motels and wiped homes
off the island. The dune line retreated 75 feet. In other places, the storm had completely eroded
the dunes. It was necessary to remove more than 43,000 cubic yards of sand from the village
itself, which was used to rebuild the dunes.
NC Highway 12 suffered the most significant damage, which was particularly devastating
to the residents, as Highway 12 was the only road into the Village of Hatteras. The hurricane had
severed it and created a 1,700-feet breach and 24-feet deep, isolating the residents of the Village
of Hatteras from the rest of the barrier island. The only way residents could enter and leave the
island was by ferry.
IV. Post-Disaster Reaction and Recovery
Following Hurricane Isabel, FEMA (now a part of the Department of Homeland Security)
chose to rebuild and repair NC Highway 12. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North
Carolina Department of Transportation finished the job within two months after the hurricane hit
the island. They spent $7.5 million to fill the breach and $3.5 million to rebuild NC Highway 12.
The road continues to generate problems even today, due to its requirement for constant
maintenance, and the infrastructure may not even last if another big storm hits the island.
State, local and national agencies were involved with the recovery efforts after the
hurricane struck Hatteras. The President issued a disaster declaration for the area and provided
federal assistance. FEMA oversaw insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program
(NFIP). NFIP had settled 95 percent of the more than 24,000 flood claims filed after Hurricane
Isabel. However, property owners have complained that payments have been too low to pay for
all repairs. In response, NFIP set up a hot line for policyholders who believed their flood-
insurance settlements were too low. The program plans meetings with policyholders in
communities with a large number of claims, including Dare and Hyde counties. NFIP has yet to
release times and dates of the meetings.
Today, most of the homes and businesses have been rebuilt, but some people are still
waiting for insurance companies to come through with checks and hoping for volunteer groups to
finish building their homes.
V. Summary of Adoption of Land Use Techniques for Prevention
Over the years, the State of North Carolina has enacted state laws that mitigate hazards
and reduce losses from disasters. Effective November 1, 2004, the N.C. General Assembly
passed a bill that requires the state’s local governments to implement a hazard mitigation plan
before local governments can receive state public assistance funds for a state disaster declaration.
Other state efforts include the N.C. Coastal Area Management Act, which requires counties to
adopt a land use plan that includes mitigation procedures in dealing with hazards. The N.C.
Division of Coastal Management regulates development through CAMA permits, protecting
wetlands, coastal zones and other environmentally sensitive or hazard areas. The N.C. Division
of Emergency Management assists local communities with adopting long-term mitigation
measures after a Presidential Disaster Declaration.
In 2005, both the N.C. Senate and House passed the Hurricane Relief Act of 2005, which
the governor signed without hesitation, although the Act requires expenditures of $247.5 million.
This bill was modeled after legislation passed after Hurricane Floyd: it allows western counties
repeatedly hit by hurricanes to speed up the recovery from the devastation caused by hurricanes
on the scale of Isabel on Hatteras. Although western counties of the state receive most of the
funding, coastal communities may benefit: all counties that receive a federal or state emergency
declaration following the storms are applicable.
In contrast, local and county governments have been less willing to take preventative
measures against damage from future disasters. To date, the Dare County Planning Commission
has not made any specific effort to prevent future damages caused by hurricanes or coastal
The Hatteras Village Civic Association and the Dare County Board of Commissioners
have been collaborating on developing zoning regulations and restrictions pursuant to the Dare
County 2003 Land Use Plan. However, their efforts tend to be “reactive” to current problems
rather than “proactive” towards future needs. For example, in 2003, the local government
implemented development restrictions on high density projects in response to the Slash Creek
Condominium project; however, the restriction was enacted too late to stop the project, which
received final approvals in June 2004.
VI. Conclusion and Recommendations
Dare County has continued to resist zoning on behalf of Hatteras. As a result, the community
has failed to implement a plan or regulation to mitigate natural disasters or restrict
The community has not considered a less expensive and pragmatic alternative to NC
Highway 12. The county and N.C. Department of Transportation believe that they can
maintain the highway through a policy of beach renourishment.
o (Renourishment projects include coastal storm damage reduction, ecosystem
restoration, and projects that mitigate the impacts of coastal navigation facilities.)
As of 2005, the federal government will no longer participate in beach renourishment in Dare
County beyond the initial renourishment. This will place an additional financial burden on
state and local governments.
The North Carolina barrier islands are shrinking at a significant rate. Much of the barrier
islands’ banks will be submerged within 10-20 years. This may happen sooner with the
advent of another hurricane.
Because there is evidence that human development accelerates erosion and shoreline
recession, coastal communities need to stop unfettered development of the barrier islands and
work with the natural cycles of the land by controlling growth and avoiding hard solutions to
VII. Key Bibliographic and Website Resources
The News & Observer: