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North Carolina beach homes collapse from lumbering coastal storm

The incident on the Outer Banks has exposed the risk to shoreline homes from storms and the rising sea.

High tides pulled a beach house in Rodanthe, N.C., into the ocean on May 10. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Two oceanfront homes on the North Carolina Outer Banks were lost to the sea Tuesday, in the latest reminder of how rising seas and worsening erosion have made already vulnerable coastal communities only more susceptible in a warming world.

The two homes along Ocean Drive in Rodanthe collapsed after days of battering from a coastal storm, the National Park Service confirmed — the same storm that unleashed tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as flooding in the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic in recent days. The storm is set to reverse course and move inland over the Southeast and dissipate this weekend, but it will continue to batter the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts for another day.

The slow-moving storm is not particularly intense, but its relentless pounding at the shore — combined with the effects of sea-level rise — is causing serious damage in a zone prone to the effects of human-caused climate change.

“It’s not something that’s a decade off. It’s something that is happening,” said Reide Corbette, a coastal oceanographer at East Carolina University and executive director at the Coastal Studies Institute.

The two homes lost Tuesday are among three destroyed by the encroaching ocean so far this year; another home in the same stretch collapsed Feb. 9, and spread its debris for 10 to 15 miles, according to federal officials.

Sea levels from around Norfolk to the Outer Banks have recently risen about one inch every five years, placing more homes in peril, according to William Sweet, a sea level expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Higher seas allow waves to attack higher elevations and expose land that is typically not exposed to these types of events,” Sweet said. “These storms have been chipping away over the last years and decades.”

Sweet said that the current storm has pushed water levels about two feet above normally dry land at high tide. “We’re now twice as likely to hit a water level of two feet than we were 20 years ago,” he said. “Data and models all suggest this is becoming more common. We’re headed toward a new normal.”

Water levels have exceeded flood stage at high tide in the area since Sunday, when an offshore buoy measured waves as high as 16 feet. Overwash and sand closed parts of North Carolina’s Highway 12, the main artery running through the Outer Banks, which remained off-limits for much of Wednesday.

“The overnight high tide was not kind to our efforts to reopen the road,” wrote the North Carolina Department of Transportation in a Facebook update.

Sea level to rise one foot along U.S. coastlines by 2050, government report finds

Corbett said while the collapse of two houses Tuesday was not particularly surprising, it offered the latest reminder of the challenge that low-lying and barrier islands face. Sea levels are rising, erosion is worsening in some places, and intense and persistent storms are likely to wreak more havoc going forward.

He said the images of homes being swept to sea, while dramatic, should not trigger a “sky is falling” reaction. Many homes along the Outer Banks are at risk of a similar fate, but many more are not for now.

Rather, Corbett said, the episode should highlight existing vulnerabilities and serve as an “opportunity to educate” people about the need to consider the changes that are happening. “We need to think about how we are developing, and developing in a way that does lead to a more resilient community going forward.”

Michael Barber, a spokesman for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said Wednesday that early this year, local officials notified “multiple homeowners” along the stretch of Ocean Drive that their houses were “in unsafe condition” and at risk of falling into the sea.

Barber said federal officials soon followed up with their own letter to the same homeowners in early March, warning them of the impending risks and responsibilities. “We had concerns about visitor safety and public safety in that area,” he said.

Since early February, he added, the beach along that stretch of Ocean Drive has remained closed to public access.

Barber said officials had been in contact with the homeowners of both houses to let them know what happened, and that the homeowners had hired a contractor to clean up the mess left behind by the collapse.

Noah Gillam, the planning director for Dare County, said about a dozen houses along the oceanfront in Rodanthe had been deemed unsafe since the beginning of the year.

Homeowners receive such a designation only after local officials conduct a “boots on the ground” inspection to check for problems with septic systems, structure integrity and other issues.

If a property is deemed to be a hazard, he said, officials will have the power turned off to ensure that the homes remain unoccupied. They also inform homeowners that they should line up a contractor to remove debris if and when the sea claims their homes — as the owners are responsible for the initial cleanup.

“The erosion rates definitely seem to be on the increase in certain areas,” Gillam said, adding that even unnamed storms can sometimes cause serious damage to homes unprotected by dunes or close to the water’s edge.

Because of the ongoing unnamed storm, a coastal flood warning and high surf advisory remain in effect for Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks until Thursday morning for up to 2 to 4 feet of inundation near vulnerable dune structures, while breaking waves could reach 10 to 15 feet in the surf zone.

“Low lying property including homes, businesses, and some critical infrastructure will be inundated,” the National Weather Service warning states.

Surf conditions are forecast to ease after Thursday, as the storm moves south and heads inland — the opposite direction storms typically progress.

A weird, wild storm

So much about this storm has been weird, or at least wild.

It began its reign of terror a week ago, unleashing nine tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, several of them destructive. One twister nearly completed a 360-degree loop about 45 miles east-southeast of Oklahoma City, astonishing forecasters.

A tornado in Oklahoma traced a near-perfect loop-de-loop

It also unloaded nearly 10 inches of rain in parts of eastern Oklahoma, causing serious flooding, which extended into parts of southeast Kansas, southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Dozens of people were rescued in high water.

When the storm lumbered through the Southeast on Friday, the Weather Service received more than 300 reports of severe weather, including 16 tornadoes in five states. Severe flash flooding inundated portions of southwest West Virginia. Cabell County, home to Huntington and where a man died after being swept away by high waters, was among the hardest-hit areas. Gov. Jim Justice (R) declared a state of emergency for Cabell, Putnam and Roane counties.

The system morphed into a coastal storm as it moved off the Mid-Atlantic over the weekend. Its heavy rainfall flooded several waterways in the Washington area, including parts of the Potomac River.

Water rages at Great Falls after the weekend deluge

Heavy rain in early May pushed the Potomac River near Great Falls to minor flood stage. (Video: Courtesy Kevin Ambrose)

It battered the coast of New Jersey, causing serious beach erosion. Its winds were comparable to Hurricane Sandy in some areas, wrote Joe Martucci, meteorologist for the Press of Atlantic City. Winds gusted as high as 61 mph at Atlantic City’s airport. One building under construction near Stone Harbor collapsed Saturday amid the strong winds, he reported.

Offshore, the wind and waves made for a turbulent voyage for passengers aboard Royal Carribean’s Oasis of the Seas, which sailed through the storm.

When the storm makes its curtain call in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic on Friday and Saturday, it will be a shell of its former shelf — much weaker than one week before. Still, it will generate clouds and showers, compromising what otherwise would have been a stellar spring weekend.

The storm has taken such an unusual path because it evolved into what’s known as a “cutoff low,” divorced from the west-to-east steering currents of the jet stream. Since Saturday, there’s been little to guide its motion, but the circulation around a heat dome building to its northwest will pull it inland over the next few days.

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