Frustrations mount over imperiled Outer Banks homes

Waves, broken concrete, exposed septic tanks, warning tape and debris surround tottering homes by the Atlantic Ocean just off Ocean Drive in Rodanthe on Friday, March 4. Photo: Justin Cook

It was a warm and windy late winter afternoon, a perfect day for a walk along the ocean. As seabirds dipped for dinner just offshore, Hope Lineman and her family worked north, weaving between a stretch of large houses on the beach off Ocean Drive. But they weren’t there to watch the waves; they were there to see the devastation caused by the waves.

And like almost anyone who sees the impending destruction on the eroded beach, they wonder why no one is trying to prevent it.

A few weeks earlier, early in the morning of February 9, one of the houses here had collapsed into the Atlantic. Soon, photographs of the ruins filled national news sites and social media. The debris, much of which has since been picked up, stretched for miles.

Related: Cleanup of Destroyed House Begins; beach near the site closed

On Sunday, just yards from the heels of its stilts, two battered seaside homes rose dramatically in choppy surf, their fate all but guaranteed.

“It’s so sad,” Lineman commented as she squinted over the tottering bridges, dangling stairways and stripped siding, while dodging the surging tide below the structures.

Lineman, of Cranberry, Pa., said his family had been coming to Hatteras Island for years, and with his son home over spring break, they took the opportunity for a beach vacation.

But even with her familiarity with the dynamic coastline of the Outer Banks, she had the same question: Why can’t the government do something to remove these homes from the beach?

Eight of the 11 homes in the beach section have been “tagged” as unsafe, a condition that includes damaged septic tanks and ingress and egress issues.

Hope Lineman, left, and her family visit Hatteras Island where several homes are threatened by the ocean. Photo: Catherine Kozak

“In that case, we usually pull power to the house so it can’t be occupied,” Dare County Planning Director Noah Gillam told about 85 people who attended a public meeting. on March 3 at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo community center to discuss the situation.

Of the structures labeled, three are at “immediate risk”, he said.

On Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, the ocean beaches from the foreshore to the low tide line are part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, meaning they are public land, owned by the National Park Service. Statewide, North Carolina has a court-tested doctrine that beaches, up to the high-water mark, are in the public trust.

Damage mitigation

“We are currently in a damage mitigation situation,” Hallac told the crowd, adding that the debris is impacting not only the shoreline environment, but also public safety. “So we’re really focused on trying to avoid those things.”

As it stands, the National Park Service can only “strongly recommend” that homeowners remove their at-risk homes from the beach. Homeowners are liable for “damage they create in a national park” if debris from their home is not cleared, he said. But sometimes a homeowner lives out of state or country, or can’t be located in time to hire a contractor to do the cleanup. In these cases, the agency will have to assume responsibility for cleaning and, if possible, seek reimbursement later.

But even though the owner of the recently collapsed home has hired a contractor to pick up the debris, more of it is expected to continue to blow into yards and beach accesses and wash ashore or float to the surface of the ocean. for weeks or even months. . Volunteers have already helped the park department clean up the beach, and more volunteer sweeps of the beach are planned for the coming weeks.

In a later interview, Hallac said discussions were ongoing about how to better manage the impact on shoreline property.

“We are actively assessing the position of the houses and the boundaries of the property and taking them into account as we move forward,” he said.

But, as he had told participants at the meeting, the problem is not going away.

“We think it’s going to get worse,” Hallac said, citing recent data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that predicted rising seas would lead to a tenfold increase in moderate high-tide flooding by 2050.

Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, who lives on Hatteras Island, said the risk of beach erosion to infrastructure is not unique to the Outer Banks.

“It’s not just a Nags Head thing,” he said. “We are talking about Maine in Texas. Even the Great Lakes.

Couch said people need to lobby their elected representatives in Congress to help landowners and local governments fix the problem before homes are swept away by the ocean, scattering their contents and pieces of construction debris. hazardous and/or toxic on public and private property. and endangering sailors, sea creatures and bathers for months.

Upton Jones

At one point, Couch said, a federal insurance program known as Upton-Jones paid beachfront property owners to move or demolish their at-risk homes. But the scheme, which was part of the National Flood Insurance Scheme from 1988 to 1995, was repealed because the government said it was too expensive.

According to an October 1995 report in The Virginian-Pilot, the Relocation Assistance Program, its official name, paid homeowners 40% of the insured value to move their home, or up to 110% to demolish it. More than 300 claims have been filed, according to the article, paying around $24 million. Of the total claims, North Carolina property owners filed 238 — 168 for demolitions and 70 for moves — totaling about $13.3 million in payments.

With the Outer Banks having some of the highest rates of beach erosion in the nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Dare County landowners have filed approximately $7.2 million in claims, including its cities. Landowners in unincorporated Dare County, which includes Hatteras Island, have filed 11 claims worth about $1.4 million. Of the towns in Dare, Nags Head filed the most, by far, with 84 claims worth about $4.4 million.

All of Brunswick County, by comparison, filed about $5.5 million in claims.

Fletcher Willey, a longtime owner of a Nags Head home insurance agency with experience in federal flood insurance, confirmed in an interview that flood insurance policies cap claims at 250,000 $, and in circumstances like Rodanthe’s, they are not paid before the house. is destroyed by the ocean.

Willey said he was unaware of any interest in reviving Upton-Jones; nor does he expect lawmakers to pursue something similar in the future.

“I don’t know why there is no initiative to prevent houses from falling into the ocean,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Surf breaks against an exposed septic tank off Ocean Drive in Rodanthe on Friday March 4. Photo: Justin Cook

Few options

Hallac said the park has an approved sediment management plan that can easily address seaside beach nourishment projects. But he said sandbags are not a long-term solution to erosion as they aggravate erosion either side of them, they are an eyesore when they break and they are not suitable on an already eroded beach like Ocean Drive in Rodanthe. .

“Where would you put the sandbags if there was no beach?” he asked in response to a man’s question about a possible protection strategy.

Another man who owns a home on Ocean Drive said he inquired with a mover about moving costs, although his home is not currently under threat. Not only was he told there was an 18-month waiting list, he said, but it would cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to move.

“Most people don’t have that kind of money,” he says. “So by default they let the ocean take it.”

Bobby Outten, the Dare County attorney and county executive, told the packed house at the meeting that beach food is not an option in Rodanthe, primarily due to high costs and the increased demand from beach communities throughout the county. The new ‘jug-handle’ bridge which is nearing completion near Mirlo Beach at the north end of Rodanthe makes emergency plans to protect NC 12 a moot issue, meaning it is unlikely state funds are available.

Many at the meeting expressed exacerbation that government officials were offering no solution to save their property, or even to prevent debris from marring the beach near their homes.

“I watch my retirement turn into a drink,” said one woman.

Outten said the 4th Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled against Nags Head after the city sued homeowners in 2010 to force them to remove their storm-damaged beachfront homes. The court had decided, Outten said, that the city did not own the beach where the homes were located and therefore had no authority to order the removal of private property. The city then settled with the owners for $1.7 million so it could remove the homes.

Cliff Ogburn, who had served as Nags Head’s city manager during the legal battle, said that without landlord cooperation or state assistance, the city had few options to deal with the dangers of condemned homes.

“My frustration is that the state doesn’t seem to have taken any initiative to remove these homes from public trust,” he said in an interview Monday. Ogburn is currently City Manager of Southern Shores.

Currently there are many exposed or destroyed septic tanks in the surf area. The county administers septic permits that are issued by the state.

A request for information on the state’s policy for protecting the public beach from hazards was made to the state’s Division of Coastal Management and the Department of Environmental Quality, but the officials were not available to respond within the time frame for this report.

“It’s not just something in our little bubble,” a woman told officials at the meeting. “It has become national news. With these houses collapsing, how can we clear these houses fast enough that our tourism is not affected? »

Cape Hatteras National Seashore saw record visitor numbers last year, ranking it as one of the most visited sites in the entire park system.

Hallac replied, “Like I said earlier, that’s not a good look for a national coastline.”