The light that has guided ships safely to Cape Hatteras for more than a century may go out. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, known as the nation's most important 19th-century beacon, stands only 70 feet from a fast-eroding shoreline.
"If we have a major storm, it could go," says William Harris, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
No emergency plan is ready to save the lighthouse if a winter storm hits, Mr. Harris says, because two years ago the National Park Service decided to leave the migrating barrier island alone.
But pressure is mounting to save the National Historic Landmark, and officials are starting to rethink the policy.
Ross Holland, assistant director of cultural resources at the National Park Service in Washington, says, "We hope temporary measures will hold it this winter. A long-term solution will take a lot of time and money. We're now faced with the question: Is money a greater concern than the historic significance . . .?"
A National Park Service study submitted this week by the MTMA design group, a landscape architecture firm in Raleigh, N.C., has offered solutions to protect the lighthouse for at least a century (the figures include maintenance costs):
* Relocate the tower. For an estimated $2.5 million the lighthouse tower could be separated from its granite base through use of hydraulic jacks and moved 2,400 feet back on railroad tracks with large industrial rollers.
* Build a retaining wall of concrete and ruble around the entire lighthouse. Eventually the lighthouse would sit on a penninsula or island. The cost: $5.6 million.
* Build a partial retaining wall around half of the lighthouse. Also, maintain the existing groin system (walls of steel and concrete) and pump in sand from nearby beaches. The cost: $33.6 million.
* Extend the existing groins and pump sand to the site. The cost: $66 million.
* Pump in sand only to maintain the lighthouse in place. This would use the beach alone to dissipate the wave force. The cost: $123 million.
But experts at MTMA and elsewhere point out the options have drawbacks.
"Some of the engineering solutions, while preserving the lighthouse, will inevitably increase the rate of erosion on adjacent beaches," project manager Jim Turk says.
Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a marine geologist at Duke University in North Carolina, disagrees with all but one of the options.
"There's no way to save the lighthouse except to move it. You could build the biggest revetment [retaining wall] in the world around the lighthouse and come the next storm it would probably disappear. The island will migrate right out from underneath it.
"If the Park Service responds by just stabilizing the shoreline, they haven't learned a single thing about what's happened in south Florida or northeastern New Jersey. Millions of taxpayers dollars have been spent on shoreline stabilization to save houses, hotels, and condominiums at great environmental costs.You can't stabilize a beach without eventually destroying it. . . .
"The Cape Hatteras shoreline has eroded more than 3,000 feet since the lighthouse was built in 1870."