Beach houses on the outer banks are being swallowed up by the sea

RODANTHI, NC – Like millions of other people this week, Hien Pham was amazed by online video of his two-story beach house, green peas as it collapsed into a surging sea, leaving it swaying in turbulent waves like a giant cork.

This particular giant cork, formerly located at 24265 Ocean Drive, was Mr. Pham’s. He purchased the four-bedroom property in November 2020 for $275,000.

“It’s a feeling you definitely can’t explain,” Mr. Pham, 30, a real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, said in a phone interview. “Just to see something that once existed, and doesn’t exist anymore.”

He added that the feeling was “too empty”.

Three major beachfront lots are now empty on Ocean Drive, a small stretch of a charming outer-bank subdivision called Trade Winds Beaches that has become a sort of neighborhood sticker for sea-level rise, much to the chagrin of property owners. Video of Mr. Pham’s house that collapsed Tuesday, It was widely shared on social media. The once generous stretch of beach in front of homes has largely disappeared in recent months, leaving them vulnerable to the destructive power of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was February 9th when the first house down the street floated away. A second home, a massive two-story place with double wrapped porches owned by a Californian named Ralph Patricelli, was claimed by the ocean just hours before Mr. Pham’s home.

“I spoke to a contractor who helps us clean up; nothing is left of our house,” said Mr. Patricelli. “We don’t know where he went. But it is completely gone. “

The gradual nature of sea level rise means that for many coastal communities, it can feel like a remote threat. This is not the case on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the delicate chain of barrier islands facing the Atlantic Ocean. Federal officials say sea levels in the region have risen by an inch every five years, with climate change being one of the main causes. State officials say some Outer Banks beaches shrink more than 14 feet per year in some areas.

said William Sweet, an expert on sea level rise with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Experts and locals note that in places like Hatteras Island, a thin strip of land where the beaches of the Trade Winds are one of many neighborhoods at risk, beach erosion is an inevitable natural process. The barrier islands are battered by storms on the ocean side, with sand moving westward, and piling up on the bay side.

Rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of storms are likely to intensify erosion on Ocean Drive, which abuts Hatteras Island National Beach, said David Hallack, superintendent of national parks in eastern North Carolina. Never a skeptic about climate change, Mr. Patricelli said that the disappearance of his home took the issue out of the realm of abstraction.

“I guess I was naive because it wouldn’t affect me at the level that just happened,” he said. “Having tried this, I have a whole new level, in my head, of how severe climate change is.”

The last two homes were destroyed amid a multi-day storm that pushed sand and winds onto North Carolina Highway 12, closing the primary two-lane road to Hatteras Island for more than a day. On Thursday, Ocean Drive was in the chaos following the storm. The pavement was buried under several feet of sand, as if in a snowstorm. Scattered timber and other debris scattered from the two houses, and spread south along the coast. Beach rentals with happy names (“Kai Surf House”) were mostly uninhabited. TV news crews roam the place. Mark Gray, a cleaning company worker, was scraping the remains of Mr. Patricelli’s house with an excavator.

“Mother Nature is upset,” he said, “or something like that.”

Mr. Halack stood in front of where Mr. Patricelli’s house was, wrinkling his nose as he smelt the stench of a broken sewage system. He said none of this was surprising. About the time the first house collapsed, he said, officials in Dar County, North Carolina, told his office that eight homes on the street had been judged unsafe for habitation.

“So I called the homeowners and said, ‘Hey, can you move your house, or move it out?'” said Mr. Barber. “

Both options have proven to be a problem for Ocean Drive homeowners in ways that many property owners may face in the next 30 years, a period of time when sea levels along the coasts of the United States are likely to rise by one foot, on average, resulting in to more coastal flooding, according to a multi-agency federal report released in February.

Robert Coleman, the owner of the house that fell in February, was considering moving or demolishing the place. He discovered that the insurance companies would pay him for the house if the ocean destroyed it, but not if he demolished it himself. Mr. Coleman said he contacted a company that would move his home 35 feet indoors at a cost of $185,000. It was too much for him to bear. So he took the tides away.

“I got a call from the park service saying, ‘Your house just fell. Mr. Coleman said, Come clean it up. Debris swept the coast for miles. He said a full cleaning cost him $57,000.

Mr. Patricelli said two of his neighbors have moved their homes inland. But he said it feels like buying a little time. “Moving the house doesn’t mean you won’t have problems,” he said. “We can see what the ocean can do.”

Elsewhere on Hatteras Island, some communities have adopted a solution called beach feeding, which involves replenishing the beach with sand pumped from the shore. But this is an expensive business, and Danny Koch, a member of the Deere County Committee, said it He was skeptical about his ability to convince the park service that such a project was necessary to protect critical infrastructure, in part because a new elevated road would soon open adjacent to a flood-prone extension of Interstate 12 near Ocean Drive.

For now, Mr. Patricelli’s dream of owning a rental investment property – where the bicoastal family can also gather and make memories – is lost. But some houses overlooking the sea still attract visitors. On the beach from Mr. Patricelli’s Square, Stephanie Weir, a truck dispatcher from Pennsylvania, was enjoying a vacation with her family as often as she could, given the weather and the drama. She said she plans to go back to the same house next year — but 20 years later, she’s wondering if the neighborhood will be gone.

A few homes away, Matt Storey was walking on the outside of the beachfront home he bought in November and dubbed “A Mermaid’s Dream.” He estimated that there was approximately 70 feet of sand between the house and the beach when he closed on the property. On Thursday, the waves were swaying from the house’s pillars.

Storey, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he felt somewhat confident buying the home, especially because it was moved from the ocean in 2018 at a cost of $200,000. He owns another location nearby, and while he was anticipating potential corrosion problems eventually, he wasn’t expecting them to happen so quickly.

He said he plans for now to continue renting the place. But he said he was worried about losing his investment.

“We are nervous,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen is that I can’t sell it, I can’t move it, I can’t get rid of it, I can’t rent it.”

Mr Storey said his “nuclear option” was to move to Ocean Drive and live in his home full-time, but that, too, came with obvious risks. “I don’t have a plan,” he said. “My plan is to get rid of him.”

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