North Carolina house collapse: ‘Climate change is a real thing’

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Ralph Patricelli had big plans for the vacation home at 24235 Ocean Drive in Rodanthe, on a plot of land in the middle of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

He and his sister bought the four-bedroom waterfront home in August for $550,000. With its airy rooms, two storey levels and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, Patricelli envisioned it as the perfect place to welcome friends and family after two years of pandemic isolation. After the last of the season’s tenants left, he and his relatives planned to host a Thanksgiving gathering at the home.

Instead, Patricelli did not spend a night there.

The November storm affected the sewage system, he said, and county officials quickly deemed the house uninhabitable. On Tuesday, less than 300 days after it was purchased, the home became one of two along Ocean Drive to collapse into the sea days after being battered by an unnamed coastal storm.

“I was really looking forward to having a place where I could be entertained and get back to normal,” Patricelli, a 57-year-old California real estate agent who grew up on the East Coast, said in an interview.

“I didn’t realize how vulnerable it was,” he added.

The rapid march of climate change in North Carolina’s ‘ghost forests’

Patricelli’s house was swept away overnight, but a video of his neighbor’s house giving in to the ocean went viral this week. This neighbor, who lives in Tennessee, declined to comment when contacted by phone. A third house next door met the same fate in February.

“It was a shock,” Patricelli said of the call he got that his house was gone. He later sent photos of before and after the breakup, writing, “Now there’s absolutely nothing – everything was taken by sea – we basically have a vacancy.”

The precarious nature of homes along the Outer Banks and other barrier islands is nothing new. Nor is the willingness of some Americans to take on the risks posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in exchange for homes and investments in desirable locations.

But the episode on Outer Banks this week highlights a problem likely to worsen as climate change worsens.

For a variety of reasons, Americans continue to flock to disaster-prone areas of the country, despite the increasing risks of floods, fires, and other disasters. As sea levels rise, storms intensify and heat waves get hotter, even places that once seemed relatively risk-free may face more serious threats to health and homes.

Few were less surprised by the collapse of the last homes in Rodanthe than David Hallack, the overseer of Cape Hatteras National Beach.

“What was surprising to me is that they lasted as long as they lasted,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “This is an area that is eroding rapidly… [and] I have no reason to believe the erosion will stop. If anything, the scientists I’ve spoken to and the publications I’ve read indicate that erosion will be exacerbated by sea level rise.”

Extreme climate change has arrived, washing away homes on America’s east coast

Results published this year by scientists at several federal agencies suggest that sea levels along the US coast will rise by an average of a foot over the next 30 years – “as much as the rise measured over the past 100 years.”

In addition, the researchers estimate that sea-level rise will “profound shift coastal flooding” over the coming decades by allowing storm waves and tides to reach other inland regions. They wrote that by 2050, “moderate” floods are expected to occur ten times more than they do today, on average.

It’s important to understand that the barrier islands move and change, Hallack said, and that the sands of the Outer Banks have always changed. Not all homes there face similar risks, and not all risks are attributed to climate change. “[But] Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems, and will continue to exacerbate them.

Remarkably, Hallaq said, even as erosion worsened, people continued to buy homes along the Outer Banks perilously close to the sea.

Public records confirm this fact.

Patricelli bought his Ocean Drive home just nine months ago, but he wasn’t alone. On a stretch of beach near where his home is, at least five more homes were sold last year — and at least two sold this year — according to Deer County real estate records. The other home that collapsed this week was purchased in late 2019.

Matthew Storey, who lives near Raleigh, bought an oceanfront home below the block from Patricelli in November.

He said he’s confident his home is among the safest places on the street, in part because it was brought back from the beach in 2018 and backed by new, deeper trusses. “Not every house on the street will fall,” he said. But he added, “The erosion this year has been almost unreasonable. I’m definitely concerned about that.”

Storey said nearly 60 feet of beach in front of his home has disappeared during storms and other extreme weather during the winter and spring. He said the collapse of two of his neighbors’ homes affected everyone around them. He is concerned about property values, the environmental impact of the wreck and public perceptions about the actual risk.

“It all hurts,” Storey said. “I have a wife and two children, and I support a portion of the income through this rental property.”

Local officials made it clear that some nearby homes are at risk of the same fate as those that ended up in the ocean.

About a dozen homes along the oceanfront in Rodanthe have been deemed unsafe this year, said Noah Gillam, director of planning for Deer County. He said homeowners receive such a designation after local officials conduct a “shoes on the floor” inspection to check for problems in sewage systems, structural safety and other areas.

If a property is deemed a hazard, Gillam said, power will be cut off to those in charge to ensure the home remains unoccupied. They also tell homeowners that they should line up with a contractor to remove wreckage if or when the sea demands their homes.

“Erosion rates are certainly on the rise in certain areas,” Gillam said, adding that even unnamed storms can sometimes cause serious damage to homes that are not protected by sand dunes or near the water’s edge.

This trend is likely to continue.

“It is important for people to realize that coastal systems are feeling the effects of sea level rise and climate change today,” said Ride Corbett, a coastal oceanologist at East Carolina University and executive director of the Institute for Coastal Studies. “It is not a thing after a decade. It is something that happens.”

Postcards from the future of Earth’s climate

Corbett said this week’s dramatic, albeit unexpected, house collapse was a final reminder of the challenge faced by the low-lying islands and barrier. The combination of rising sea levels, worsening erosion and intensifying and persistent storms is likely to wreak more havoc in the future.

“We need to think about how we can develop, and develop in a way that actually leads to a more resilient society going forward,” Corbett said.

Patricelli knows that some people may consider it unwise to buy a home on the ocean’s edge, where erosion is a known problem, hurricanes are an annual threat and sea levels are rising.

He said the sellers revealed ways they tried to cement the house, and that he purchased flood insurance, which appears to be required given the property’s location. He said he was not sure how much insurance he would pay on his loss.

Until the house fell, Patricelli said, he and his sister were in the process of moving it away from the surf, but time ran out.

“I knew there were some risks in living near water, but I certainly didn’t think I’d lose the house in eight or nine months,” he said, adding, “I was aware that erosion was happening there. I wasn’t aware of the rate it was happening.” …we really thought we’d be able to move the house and save it.”

Patricelli said he and his neighbor hired the same contractor to help clear the rubble of their homes.

But even this is a complex task.

National Park Service officials said debris from the accidents was scattered along at least 15 miles of coast. The agency called on the public to help clean up along the beach on Thursday and Friday and said that “additional volunteer events will be announced in the coming days.”

Patricelli said that he and other homeowners close to him, many of whom live out of state, exchanged emails of advice, encouragement and bonding about the rising threats. “It really is a wonderful little community,” he said, noting that he hopes to rebuild, if it is further from the ocean this time.

Patricelli said he knows some places are more dangerous than others: “It was a wrong bet.” But it went wrong sooner than he had imagined.

While it’s easy to wonder why someone would buy a home near the ocean, he said, climate change is affecting people all over the country and the world. In California, for example, he saw entire neighborhoods inundated with wildfires, where such disasters once seemed unlikely.

“What I take away from all of this is that climate change is a real thing for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you live in the ocean, in a forest, or on a river,” said Patricelli.

“I don’t know if there is any place where you are really safe from climate change right now.”

Alice Critts contributed to this report.

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