Original publication by Brady Dennis for washingtonpost.com on 13 May 2022
Buyers, many from out of state, continue to gobble up oceanfront real estate where three homes have collapsed this year along N.C.’s Outer Banks. Scientists and government officials say climate change is likely to continue to exacerbate erosion.
Ralph Patricelli had grand plans for the vacation home at 24235 Ocean Drive in Rodanthe, on a spit of land in the middle of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
He and his sister purchased the four-bedroom waterfront home in August for $550,000. With its airy rooms, two levels of decks and stunning Atlantic views, Patricelli envisioned it as an ideal spot to welcome friends and family after two years of an isolating pandemic. After the season’s last renters departed, he and his relatives had planned to host a Thanksgiving gathering in the home.
Instead, Patricelli never spent a night there.
A November storm affected the septic system, he said, and county officials soon deemed the house unfit to occupy. On Tuesday, less than 300 days after he bought it, the house became one of two along Ocean Drive to collapse into the sea after days of battering from an unnamed coastal storm.
“I was so looking forward to having a place where I could entertain and be back to normal,” Patricelli, a 57-year-old real estate agent in California who grew up on the East Coast, said in an interview.
“I didn’t realize how vulnerable it was,” he added.
Patricelli’s home was swept away overnight, but video of his neighbor’s house succumbing to the ocean went viral this week. That neighbor, who lives in Tennessee, declined to comment when reached by phone. A third nearby home met the same fate in February.
“It was a shock,” Patricelli said of the call he received that his house was gone. He later texted photos from before and after the collapse, writing, “Now there is absolutely nothing there — it’s all been taken by the sea — we basically have a vacant lot.”
The precarious nature of homes along the Outer Banks and other barrier islands is nothing new. Nor is the willingness of some Americans to stomach the risks posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in exchange for homes and investments in desirable locations.
But the episode on the Outer Banks this week highlights a problem likely to deepen as climate change worsens.
For a variety of reasons, Americans continue to flock to disaster-prone areas of the country, despite growing risks of floods, fires and other catastrophes. And as sea levels rise, storms intensify and heat waves grow hotter, even places that once seemed relatively free of risk could face more serious threats to health and homes.
Few people were less surprised by the latest house collapses in Rodanthe than David Hallac, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
“What was surprising to me is that they lasted as long as they did,” he said in an interview Thursday. “This is a rapidly eroding area … [and] I don’t have any reason to believe that erosion will stop. If anything, the scientists I’ve spoken with and publications I’ve read suggest that erosion will be exacerbated by sea level rise.”
Findings published this year by scientists at multiple federal agencies project that sea levels will rise along the U.S. coastline up to a foot on average over the next 30 years — “as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years.”
In addition, researchers estimate that sea level rise will create “a profound shift in coastal flooding” over the coming decades by allowing storm surges and tides to reach further inland. By 2050, they wrote, “moderate” flooding is expected to occur 10 times as often as it does today, on average.
Hallac said it’s important to understand that barrier islands move and change, and the sands of the Outer Banks have always shifted. Not all houses there face similar risks, and not all risks are attributable to climate change. “[But] climate change is most likely exacerbating these problems, and it will continue to exacerbate them,” he said.
What has been striking, Hallac said, is that people have continued to purchase homes along the Outer Banks that stand perilously close to the sea, even as erosion worsens.
Public records bear out that reality.
Patricelli purchased his Ocean Drive home only nine months ago, but he was hardly alone. Along the stretch of beach near where his house stood, at least five other homes sold last year — and at least two have sold this year — according to Dare County property records. The other home that collapsed this week was purchased in 2020.
Matthew Storey, who lives near Raleigh, bought an oceanfront house down the block from Patricelli in November.
He said he is confident that his house is among the most secure on the street, in part because it was moved back from the shore in 2018 and supported by new, deeper pilings. “Not every house on the street is going to fall in,” he said. But, he added, “the erosion this year has been almost unbelievable. I certainly do worry about it.”
Storey said roughly 60 feet of the beach in front of his home had vanished during storms and other rough weather over the winter and spring. And he said having two of his neighbors’ homes collapse affects everyone around them. He is concerned about property values, the environmental impact of debris and public perceptions about the actual hazards.
“The whole thing is just gut-wrenching,” Storey said. “I’ve got a wife and two young kids, and I subsidize part of my income with this rental property.”
Local officials have made clear that some nearby houses are at risk of the same fate of those that ended up in the ocean.
Noah Gillam, the planning director for Dare County, said about a dozen houses along the oceanfront in Rodanthe had been deemed unsafe this year. Homeowners receive such a designation after local officials conduct a “boots on the ground” inspection to check for problems with septic systems, structural integrity and other areas, he said.
If a property is deemed to be a hazard, Gillam said, officials will have the power turned off to ensure that the home remains unoccupied. They also inform homeowners that they should line up a contractor to remove debris if or when the sea claims their homes.
“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.
That trend is likely to continue.
“It’s important for people to recognize that coastal systems are feeling the effects of sea level rise and climate change today,” said Reide Corbett, a coastal oceanographer at East Carolina University and executive director at the Coastal Studies Institute. “It’s not something that’s a decade off. It’s something that is happening.”
The dramatic house collapses this week, while not unexpected, offered the latest reminder of the challenge that low-lying and barrier islands face, Corbett said. The combination of rising sea levels, worsening erosion and more intense and persistent storms is likely to wreak more havoc in the future.
“We need to think about how we are developing, and developing in a way that does lead to a more resilient community going forward,” Corbett said.
Patricelli knows that some people might consider him unwise for buying a home at the ocean’s edge, where erosion is a known problem, hurricanes are an annual threat and sea levels are rising.
He said that the sellers disclosed ways they had tried to shore up 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 would pay on his loss.
Until the house fell, Patricelli said, he and his sister were in the process of having it relocated farther from the waves, but they ran out of time.
“I knew there was some risk living near the water, but I certainly didn’t think I’d lose the house within eight or nine months,” he said, adding, “I was aware that erosion was happening there. I was not aware of the rate that it was happening. … We really thought we were going to be able to move the house and save it.”
Patricelli said he and his neighbor hired the same contractor to help clear the ruins of their houses.
But even that is a complicated task.
National Park Service officials said that debris from the incidents had spread along at least 15 miles of coastline. The agency invited 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 he and other nearby homeowners, many of whom also live out of state, have shared emails of advice and encouragement and bonded over the rising threats. “It’s a really great little community,” he said, noting that he hopes to rebuild, if farther from the ocean this time.
Patricelli said he knows some places are riskier than others: “It was a bet that went wrong.” But one that went wrong sooner than he imagined.
While it’s easy to question why someone would buy a house so near the ocean, he said, climate change is affecting people across the country and the world. In California, for instance, he has seen entire neighborhoods engulfed by wildfire, where such disasters once seemed unlikely.
“What I take out of all this is that climate change is a real thing for us all. It doesn’t matter if you live on the ocean or in a forest or on a river,” Patricelli said.
“I don’t know if there’s any place you are really safe from climate change at the moment.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.