Retreat in Rodanthe
Along three blocks in a North Carolina beach town, severe erosion is upending life, forcing hard choices and offering a glimpse of the dilemmas other coastal communities will face
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RODANTHE, N.C. — Early last year, a house crumbled into the sea in this small Outer Banks community, home to some of the most rapid rates of erosion and sea level rise on the East Coast.
Not long after, another house fell. And then another.
(Cape Hatteras National Seashore/Storyful)
Wave after wave, the ocean had clawed away at the beach until the stilted homes finally gave way. The collapses spread debris — and anxiety — for more than a dozen miles along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A video that captured one house surrendering to the surf in May went viral, bringing national attention to the urgency of the problem along this scenic stretch of coast.
South Shore Drive
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Rodanthe’s struggles encapsulate thorny and unresolved issues around risky coastal development, the unevenness of real estate disclosures, questions about personal risk, the difficulties of protecting oceanfront properties and the obstacles to moving people out of harm’s way when necessary.
At least a dozen more houses in Rodanthe remain in serious danger of falling into the ocean. Faced with shrinking options, numerous homeowners are scrambling to move their homes — at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — further from the tides that seem to creep ever closer. They have filed permits, lined up contractors and teamed up with neighbors, all in a bid to buy more time from the encroaching sea.
As similar shifts befall other communities, scientists say, millions of acres of U.S. land and hundreds of thousands of homes and offices could slip below swelling tide lines over time. Properties in vulnerable areas could lose value, harming homeowners and sapping local tax bases.
“This is a national and a global problem,” said Reide Corbett, an oceanographer and executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute at East Carolina University, who sees in Rodanthe a glimpse of the quandaries that await other places as seas rise, storms intensify and deteriorating shorelines creep closer to human developments.
“We are going to see more and more of these challenges going forward. The process of shoreline erosion is not going to go away,” Corbett said.
In Rodanthe, there are ongoing tensions over what worsening erosion will mean for property values, tourism and quality of life — and disagreement over exactly what should be done and who bears responsibility.
On three streets, each high tide is a reminder of the hard questions homeowners face, and the lack of easy answers.
The sign out front reads, “Big Gus’ Retreat.” But these days, it is Gus who is retreating.
“This is a one-shot thing. This is our last stand,” says Gus Gusler, 74, a Raleigh attorney who owns the salt-soaked vacation home on Seagull Street, near the northern end of Rodanthe. “We’ll move as far back as we can get this time, and we’re done. There’s nothing we can do about it after this.”
Gusler is one of a dozen homeowners who signed affidavits last year, asking Dare County commissioners for permission to abandon the road that runs in front of their houses. The reason: They want every inch possible to move their homes away from the sea, and closer to nearby Highway 12. The commission agreed.
The collective retreat, which will come at the homeowners’ expense, won’t arrive a moment too soon.
On one recent, sunny morning, Seagull Street was inundated by the swelling sea. Waves crashed along foundations and washed underneath homes with nicknames such as Coquina Reef and Sweet Home Carolina. Even before high tide, the incoming surf sent empty trash cans floating down the flooded street. A thick layer of sand covered most driveways.
Along this imperiled street, as elsewhere in Rodanthe, some homeowners want local, state or federal authorities to intervene with beach nourishment projects or other measures. So far, officials have demurred, saying the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t work because of Rodanthe’s small tax base and the fact that the erosion is so relentless.
“There’s been a rapid change, just in the past year … Homeowners are caught in this quandary: ‘What do I do?’” says Theresa Matyiko, owner of Expert House Movers, a firm relocating houses throughout Rodanthe. “All we’re trying to do is help people save their homes. We don’t want to see them go into the water.”
But, Matyiko acknowledges, on this strip of barrier island, many people have only so far to move. And when they do, no one can guarantee how long the reprieve will last.
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 the stretch along Seagull Street has been losing a dozen feet or more per year to erosion.
Gusler knows he and his neighbors are buying time, and maybe not a lot of it. But the cost, the hassle, the endless uncertainty — he sees it as the price of living along this otherwise peaceful stretch of the Outer Banks.
“The place is magical, there’s just something about it,” he said. “Thirty or 40 years from now, the way the oceans are rising, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We might as well protect it as long as we can and enjoy it.”
On a blustery afternoon, Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch walks along Ocean Drive, a stretch he calls the “poster child” for accelerated coastal erosion in the United States.
He nods toward the empty oceanfront lots where houses stood only months earlier, before their collapse into the roiling sea. A half-dozen other homes on the street stand perilously close to the crashing waves. Beside one, a septic tank rises from the eroding beach. Officials have cut off power to it and other homes around Rodanthe, having deemed them unsafe to occupy.
“These folks are all on borrowed time,” Couch says, and he worries that the situation will become a reality for more and more homes along the coast.
Nearby, a bulldozer rumbles along, clearing the sand that washes across the road again and again. The shifting sand is piled 15 feet high in places, blocking some driveways. The bulldozer operator says he had just scraped here the day before, and he expects to be back soon.
Couch is well versed with the arguments unfolding across the community — about how close people should be allowed to live to the rising sea, about whether the government should be doing more to help combat erosion, about what will happen to home prices, tourism and tax bases as the problem deepens.
“There are some powerful emotions at work,” Couch says. “We are dealing with people’s hopes and dreams.”
At the same time, he says, “You are also up against science and hard facts … We cannot keep doing things the way that we’ve done this, with a structure there that’s just waiting to be run over by the ocean.”
Couch sympathizes with homeowners. But, he points out, people have continued to buy and sell homes along this stretch in recent years. “If you’re going to buy on the oceanfront, that’s a roll of the dice,” he says. “It always has been and always will be.”
Jeff Munson of Maryland bought 24197 Ocean Drive in 2019, but had been renting the place for vacations for nearly two decades before that. He can remember when there were “three football fields” of beach between him and the pounding ocean. By last spring, there was virtually none.
In 2022, after his neighbors’ homes had collapsed, Munson bought a nearby, non-oceanfront lot from the county and had his house moved several hundred yards away. The total bill? Several hundred thousand dollars.
“Am I happy about it? No. But it was kind of like saving your family house,” he said. “I could sell it now. I couldn’t sell it the way it was before.”
Munson knows he probably will never fully recoup his investment, but it has given his family cherished memories. “It’s a place we hold so dear to our hearts, I just couldn’t stand to see it go,” he said. “If I bought 10 more years of that happiness, then great.”
South Shore Drive
“Something, sweetheart, has changed out there,” says Cynthia Doughty, who has lived in her oceanfront home on South Shore Drive for more than two decades. “I never, ever thought I would ever have to move my house.”
And yet, there her blue home stood on a recent winter day, jacked up high into the air while a crew constructed a new foundation roughly 75 feet further from the intruding sea. One by one, the residents at the end of South Shore Drive are pursuing similar moves. But Matyiko, of Expert House Movers, said Doughty’s house needed attention quickly.
“It was a race against time,” Matyiko said.
For Doughty, the episode has been unsettling, frustrating and expensive — she estimates it will cost her $200,000 to move her home and have its first floor rebuilt, an expense not covered by insurance.
She can’t explain why her once-peaceful strip of beach has eroded so swiftly. The role of climate change, the construction of a new bridge nearby, nor’easters that have stuck Rodanthe in recent years, the lack of dunes that once protected these homes — whatever the causes, the result is unmistakable.
“The changes have been so dramatic, it’s either move it or lose it,” Doughty says. “Because if you lose it, there’s nothing you can do. It has just been so profound that people really have no choice.”
Two doors down, Tom and Amy Urban are also preparing to move their home, and baffled it came to this so quickly.
The Colorado couple bought what they envisioned as their retirement house in January 2022, when there appeared to be a healthy stretch of beach separating them from the sea. Now? Hardly any. Their back fence and pool were destroyed by a storm in September. Before that, a renter at the property lost a car that flooded during a storm.
Perhaps they should have studied sea level data or erosion rates, or spent more time investigating the history of Rodanthe’s shifting shoreline. But the feverish erosion has startled old-timers and newcomers alike.
“One day we’re upset; one day we’re mad. There’s a whole gamut of feelings that go with this,” Tom Urban said one morning as the waves crashed feet from his back door.
What was supposed to be a tranquil retirement has morphed into something darkly different. The Urbans had to take out a mortgage to cover the costs of a relocation later this year — a move they suspect isn’t a permanent solution.
“I regret buying it completely,” Tom Urban said.
So does Amy Urban.
“I’m devastated,” she said. “We looked at a lot of houses. And chose the wrong one.”
‘I just ran out of time’
On a January evening, Dare County officials gathered inside a packed community center to talk with residents about the erosion happening just blocks away. Another 150 attendees joined online.
“We wouldn’t be here tonight if this board of commissioners didn’t care about what’s going on,” commission chairman Bob Woodard told the crowd.
The county manager, Bobby Outten, acknowledged that several projects to renourish beaches — the process of adding an expanse of new sand, often by dredging sediment offshore — have been undertaken in the Outer Banks. The funding for those, he explained, came in part from individual municipalities, along with revenue from an occupancy tax on hotels and vacation rentals.
Beach nourishments are not a one-time expense, he said. They must be maintained and new sand added roughly every five years. In Rodanthe’s case, an engineering study a decade ago found such a project would cost $20 million. An updated study is due to be completed this spring, Outten said, but the price tag now is likely far higher.
With its small population, Rodanthe has no way to pay for such a massive project. The county’s beach renourishment fund has $6 million, Outten said, and a list of other erosion hot spots in need of attention.
“The question then becomes: How do you pay for it?” he told the crowd.
In short, no cavalry is coming. A big influx of state money is not imminent. David Hallac, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said the federal government isn’t likely to allocate money to nourish beaches where the central purpose is to protect private homes.
“We are not ignoring the problem,” he said. But with more than 400 national parks and a maintenance backlog that stands at more than $22 billion, competition is stiff. “Part of my job is to provide facts,” Hallac said. “The other part is to manage expectations.”
Whatever happens next will come too late for Ralph Patricelli.
Patricelli, 58, and his sister purchased 24235 Ocean Drive in August 2021 for $550,000. He had envisioned the house as a place to gather with family and friends, as well as a solid rental investment as he neared the end of his working days.
Instead, it became a nightmare. Erosion quickly put the waterfront home at risk. Patricelli said he raced to try to purchase a lot further from the ocean and line up a contractor to move the house. But last May, roughly nine months after he bought it, the house fell into the Atlantic.
“I just ran out of time,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was signing up for … I didn’t know how severe it was.”
Patricelli said he has spent more than $60,000 to pay for the resulting cleanup, and is wrestling with authorities about how much more he still owes. He continues to negotiate with his insurance company over the extent of his coverage. Either way, his investment has vanished.
“This was my retirement, and now it’s gone,” said Patricelli, a California real estate agent who grew up on the East Coast.
He doesn’t expect sympathy — “People lose money in the stock market every day,” he said — but he does believe residents deserve more tangible solutions from elected leaders. And also, that potential buyers deserve better warnings before putting themselves in harm’s way.
“I just hope nobody else will have to go through this,” he said, though he knows it’s too late for that.
“Other people are going to be in the same situation — and are in the same situation,” Patricelli said. “Ours is not the last house that will fall.”
Around noon on Monday, about a mile north of where Patricelli’s house once stood, another oceanfront home gave way and collapsed amid the waves, becoming the latest casualty of Rodanthe’s crumbling shoreline.
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.
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