RODANTHE, NC — Like millions of others this week, Hien Pham marveled at online video of the two-story pea-green beach house as it crumbled in rising seas, left in choppy waves like a giant cork.
This particular giant cork, once located at 24265 Ocean Drive, belonged to Mr. Pham. He had purchased the four-bedroom unit in November 2020 for $275,000.
“It’s definitely a feeling that you can’t explain,” Mr. Pham, 30, a real estate agent from Knoxville, Tennessee, said in a phone interview. “Just to see something that was once there, and isn’t there anymore.”
The sentiment, he added, “is pretty empty.”
Three prime beachfront lots now sit empty on Ocean Drive, a small part of a charming, scruffy Outer Banks subdivision called Trade Winds Beaches that, much to the chagrin of its owners, has become something of a neighborhood of display for sea level rise – especially since the video of Mr Pham’s house, which collapsed on Tuesday, was widely shared on social media. The once generous stretch of beach in front of the houses has largely disappeared in recent months, leaving them vulnerable to the destructive power of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was February 9 when the first house on the street flew away. A second home, a spacious two-story with double wrap-around porches owned by a Californian named Ralph Patricelli, was claimed by the ocean hours before Mr. Pham’s.
“I spoke to a contractor who helps us clean up; he said there was nothing left of our house,” Mr. Patricelli said. “We don’t know where he went. But it’s just completely gone.
The gradual nature of sea level rise means that for many coastal communities it may seem like a distant threat. This is not the case on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the delicate chain of barrier islands facing the Atlantic. Federal officials say sea levels in the region have risen about an inch every five years, with climate change being a major reason. State officials say some Outer Banks beaches are shrinking more than 14 feet a year in some areas.
“The water is already high and the waves are coming much further inland, eating away at the sand in a way it wouldn’t if the seas were lower,” said William Sweet, a sea expert. sea level rise at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Experts and locals note that in places like Hatteras Island, a thin strip of land where Trade Winds Beaches is one of many neighborhoods at risk, beach erosion is a natural and inevitable process. The barrier islands are storm-battered on the ocean side, with sands moving west and accumulating on the bay side.
David Hallac, superintendent of eastern North Carolina National Parks, said rising seas and increased frequency and intensity of storms are likely intensifying erosion on Ocean Drive, which adjoins the Hatteras Island National Seashore. Mr Patricelli, who has never doubted climate change, said the disappearance of his home had taken the issue out of the realm of abstraction.
“I think I was naive thinking it wouldn’t affect me as much as it just did,” he said. “Having been through this, I have a whole new level, in my head, of how serious climate change is.”
The last two homes were destroyed amid a multi-day northeast that pushed sand and wind onto North Carolina Highway 12, closing the essential two-lane road to Hatteras Island for more than ‘a day. Thursday, Ocean Drive was a post-storm mess. The sidewalk was buried under several feet of sand, like in a snowstorm. Wood splinters and other debris from both houses were strewn, spreading south along the coast. The happy-named beach rentals (“Kai Surf House”) were mostly unoccupied. TV news crews were on the move. Mark Gray, a worker at a cleaning company, was scraping the remains of Mr Patricelli’s house with an excavator.
“Mother Nature is pissed,” he said, “or something.”
Mr Hallac stood outside where Mr Patricelli’s house was, wrinkling his nose as the stench of the broken septic system wafted towards him. None of this, he said, was surprising. At the time the first house collapsed, he said, officials in Dare County, North Carolina informed his office that eight houses on the street had been deemed unsafe for habitation.
“So I contacted the owners and said, ‘Hey, can you move your house or take it down? “, Mr. Hallac said.
Both of these options have proven problematic for Ocean Drive owners in a way that many other owners may experience over the next 30 years, a time when sea levels along US coastlines are likely to rise. to rise by one foot, on average, resulting in more coastal flooding, according to a multi-agency federal report released in February.
Robert Coleman, the owner of the house that fell in February, had considered moving or demolishing the premises. He discovered that the insurance companies would pay him for the house if it was destroyed by the ocean, but not if he tore it down himself. Mr Coleman said he had contacted a company that would move his 35ft house inland, at a cost of $185,000. It was too much for him to digest. So the tide took him.
“I got a call from the park department saying, ‘Your house just collapsed. Come clean it up,” Mr. Coleman said. Debris swept the coast for miles. The total cleanup, he said, cost him $57,000.
Mr Patricelli said two of his neighbors have moved their homes inland. But he said it only seemed to buy a little time. “Moving the house doesn’t mean you’re not going to have problems,” he said. “We can see what the ocean can do.”
Elsewhere on Hatteras Island, some communities have adopted a solution called beach nourishment, which involves replenishing the beach with sand pumped from offshore. But it’s expensive work, and Dare County Commission member Danny Couch said he was skeptical of his ability to convince the park service that such a project was necessary to protect vital infrastructure, in part because a new elevated road will soon open next to a flood-prone stretch of Highway 12 near Ocean Drive.
For now, Mr. Patricelli’s dream of having a rental investment property – a place where his bicoastal family could also gather and make memories – is lost. But some seaside homes still attract visitors. Just up the beach from Mr. Patricelli’s lot, Stephanie Weyer, a truck dispatcher from Pennsylvania, was enjoying her vacation with her family as best she could given the weather and the drama. She said she planned to return to the same house next year – but 20 years later she wondered if the neighborhood would disappear.
A few houses away, Matt Storey was pacing on the outdoor patio of the beachfront home he bought in November and dubbed “Mermaid’s Dream.” He estimated there was about 70 feet of sand between the house and the beach when he closed on the property. Thursday, the waves lapped against the pilings of the house.
Mr Storey, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he felt confident enough to buy the house, especially since it was pulled from the ocean in 2018 at a cost of $200,000. He owns another location nearby, and while he expected potential erosion problems, he hadn’t expected them to come so quickly.
For now, he said, he planned to continue renting the place. But he said he feared losing his investment.
“We’re stressed,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is I can’t sell it, I can’t move it, I can’t get rid of it and I can’t rent it out.”
Mr Storey said his ‘nuclear option’ was to move to Ocean Drive and live in his house full time, but that too came with obvious risks. “I don’t have a plan,” he said. “My plan is to get out of this.”
Alain Delaqueriere contributed to the research.