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Another house collapses into the sea as this N.C. town erodes

Four oceanfront houses have collapsed in Rodanthe since early 2022. One county commissioner says that as seas rise and erosion continues, others will meet the same fate: “Their day is coming pretty soon.”

Video taken on Jan. 6 and March 13 shows before and after a beach home in Rodanthe, N.C., fell into the ocean. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)
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The sea has claimed yet another oceanfront home in Rodanthe, N.C., a small Outer Banks community where severe erosion has caused numerous beachfront homeowners to retreat before they face a similar fate.

A home located at 23228 East Point Drive collapsed among the pounding surf along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore around noon on Monday, officials said. The incident marks the fourth house collapse since early last year in a community that is grappling with some of the most rapid rates of erosion and sea level rise on the East Coast.

Noah Gillam, planning director for Dare County, said officials from the county and from the National Park Service, which overseas the seashore, had communicated with the owners of the 3-bedroom, 2-bath house. He said the power was cut last May, when officials deemed it unsafe for occupancy.

“The owner will be responsible for the clean up of their property, and the debris on the park service property,” Gillam said in an email. “We are patrolling the surrounding areas and will likely be decertifying other structures for occupancy due to damaged septic [tanks] and structural damage.”

Separately, the National Park Service said in a statement that while the bulk of the debris from the collapsed home had so far remained near the site, “visitors should use caution when participating in recreational activities on the beach and in the ocean” near the home.

“It’s painful,” said county commissioner Danny Couch, who went to survey the damage on Monday afternoon. “The reality is, it’s just structures — bricks and mortar. But at the same time, it’s somebody’s dreams.”

Federal data show that at nearby Oregon Inlet, sea levels are seven inches higher than several decades ago, with no signs of slowing. State figures show that parts of Rodanthe have been losing a dozen feet or more per year to erosion.

As more homes have fallen and more of the beach vanishes, dozens of homeowners in the area have been scrambling to move their houses farther from the encroaching sea — even as they know such a costly move might only buy so much time.

“I’ve lived there 20 years, and in the last year, I’m seeing erosion of the shoreline like we have never experienced,” Cindy Doughty, a longtime resident who is currently paying to relocate her house on nearby South Shore Drive, told The Washington Post recently. “It really is so dramatic.”

Not far away, on Seagull Street, a dozen homeowners signed affidavits last year seeking permission from Dare County to abandon the road that runs in front of their houses so that they can have more room to move their homes as far inland as possible. The county commission granted the request.

The collective retreat is expected to commence soon, and like elsewhere along this stretch of precarious barrier island, will come at the homeowners’ expense.

“Everybody wants to speculate about Mother Nature,” Gus Gusler, a homeowner on Seagull who plans to move his house, recently told The Post. “Mother Nature is going to do what Mother Nature is going to do.”

Over time, tensions have deepened in Rodanthe over what the worsening erosion will mean for property values, tourism and quality of life — as well as over exactly what should be done to tackle the problem and who bears responsibility. Many homeowners argue the government should be doing more to help combat erosion, and that potential buyers should have more information about the growing risks.

For their part, many government officials have expressed sympathy for homeowners struggling to protect their properties, but they also insist that there is little they can do in the short term to help. No significant infusion of state or federal money seems likely in the near term.

At a January meeting with Rodanthe residents, officials from Dare County explained that while several beach nourishment projects have been completed on the Outer Banks, those were funded in part from individual municipalities, as well as with revenue from an occupancy tax on hotels and vacation rentals.

Rodanthe’s small tax base doesn’t currently generate enough to cover such a massive, ongoing project, said the county manager, Bobby Outten. And the county’s beach renourishment fund currently only has about $6 million. An engineering study a decade ago found it would cost $20 million to undertake such a project in Rodanthe, a number that surely would be higher in 2023.

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“The question then becomes: How do you pay for it?” Outten told the crowd at the January meeting.

Still, the continued erosion and collapses like the one that happened on Monday have kept homeowners in the area unsettled and frustrated.

“The beach is still not clean, it’s an immense safety issue,” Matthew Storey, who owns an oceanfront property, told officials at the January meeting, referring to the homes that had collapsed months before. “Every time I go for a walk, I’m picking up lumber.”

According to property records, the 1,116-square-foot house that collapsed on Monday was built in 1976, when far more beach existed between it and the ocean. The home, which in rental advertisements appeared to go by the nickname, “I Can Smell The Ocean,” is listed as being owned by a family in Pennsylvania, who could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Couch, the county commissioner, said there was nothing particularly remarkable about Monday’s weather, in which roiling seas sent powerful waves to churn up the shoreline. He said a “garden variety nor’easter” had made the ocean a bit rougher than normal, though such conditions are not uncommon during the winter months.

“But that’s all it’s going to take to knock some of these houses down,” Couch said.

In fact, there are other homes nearby that already sit closer to the surf than the property that toppled on Monday, he said.

“Their day is coming pretty soon.”

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