NC - Hitting too close to home: how collapses in Rodanthe foreshadow the future of beachfront properties

Rodanthe's collapsing beachfront homes, a warning for other coastal communities.

On Feb. 9, 2022, a five-bedroom home in Rodanthe, North Carolina, collapsed, sending its debris into the ocean. Three months later, two more large beachfront homes fell within the span of 12 hours. This past March, the fourth house gave way.

They were all within two miles of each other. Now, at least a dozen more are in danger of collapse in this small community on the Outer Banks.

“Every time there’s a storm, it’s a story that’s in the back of our minds,” said Joy Crist, a Hatteras Island resident and editor of Island Free Press. “Whenever there’s a hurricane or tide cycle, it’s always in the back of our minds to keep checking and see if a house has fallen in yet.”

These houses weren’t always beachfront. When they were built in the 1980s, there were dunes protecting them and a path leading visitors to the ocean that has since been washed away.

Now, what’s left is anxiety and fear every time a storm or high tides hit.

Researchers say the rise in global ocean temperature is causing a massive spike in sea level rise and beach erosion.

“As the global surface ocean temperature continues to rise and as water warms, it expands,” said Reide Corbett, dean of Integrated Coastal Programs and executive director of Coastal Studies Institute at East Carolina University. “With our average global temperatures increasing, it is changing the dynamics between liquid water and frozen water.”

Corbett said as energy waxes and wanes, the location of shorelines often changes throughout the seasons. However, now Rodanthe’s shorelines are also retreating at a rate of 10-15 feet per year.

Rodanthe is a popular tourist destination during the summer, but year-round the unincorporated community has a population of 213, according to the 2020 census. The area of the land is a sliver — approximately 638 acres — while Duck, a Dare County town just miles away, has an area of 2,368 acres.

Separating the Outer Banks from the rest of North Carolina is the Pamlico Sound. This sound is a part of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, the second-largest estuarine system in the United States. Due to low elevation and proximity to waterways, many areas of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary are susceptible to flooding, especially during high tides and storm surges.

Over time, barrier islands tend to migrate toward the mainland. This typically happens because as local sea levels rise, waves wash over the islands, moving sand from the ocean side to the sound side.

Unlike most barrier islands throughout North Carolina, Hatteras Island is struggling with both sound and beach erosion, causing it to shrink and sink.

In 2003, the North Carolina General Assembly voted unanimously to formally adopt a hard structures ban as law after concluding that the potential negative effects of such structures could cause irreversible damage to the state’s beaches.

This ban prohibits the construction of most permanent erosion control structures such as sea walls, which are vertical shore-parallel structures designed to prevent erosion and storm surge flooding.

With this ban in place, homeowners and stakeholders are forced to come up with new protection options.

As a part of a pilot program, the National Park Service recently bought a beachfront home in Rodanthe to explore the possibility of buying more vulnerable houses and safely removing them, rather than waiting for them to collapse.

After the four houses fell, debris stretched for 15 miles up and down the beach and destroyed or damaged septic tanks were strewn along the shore.

Because Rodanthe is a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the goal is to catch vulnerable houses early and prevent them from collapsing in the first place.

Erick Saks, the executive director of a nonprofit in Florida, grew up coming to the Outer Banks and bought his beachfront Rodanthe home, known as “Mermaid’s Kiss,” in 2021 for $360,000. Saks bought the house soon after retiring from the Air Force, and he was excited to become part of the community.

Soon, however, the septic system stopped working. Within 24 hours of the septic system being certified and working again, it was washed out by the waves.

Saks said he prided himself on the cross bracing that stabilizes the house, which many neighboring homes didn’t have.

But during one of his most recent trips to Rodanthe, parts of the house were exposed that had never been exposed before. The house was also moving slightly due to the strength of the water. The brand-new stairway going up to the house had started to separate from the building.

After the house’s septic system went out a second time, Saks was not able to visit or rent out the house but was still hemorrhaging money because of mortgage payments.

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