Beach erosion a primary factor for Outer Banks homes collapsing, National Park Service officials say

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Posted at 1:25 PM, May 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-11 20:36:30-04

RODANTHE, N.C. - News 3 is talking with witnesses as well as Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials about homes recently collapsing in the Outer Banks.

Wednesday, NC-12 remained closed as crews continued clearing the road and reconstructing protective berms and dunes.

Meanwhile, folks living in Rodanthe are concerned about the debris, while scientists are pointing to a primary factor for why houses are going into the ocean.

Joey Harpstrite lives about 400 yards from where a house once stood on Ocean Drive before being swept into the ocean recently.

“[It’s] just sad. You feel for the homeowner,” Harpstrite told News 3. “[You’re] obviously in awe of Mother Nature.”

“Part of living here on a sand bar, everything is pretty impermanent,” he added.

Harpstrite’s big concern this week has been debris polluting the beach and ocean.

“I have a 2-year-old daughter, and I want to be at the beach as quickly as possible so can I enjoy the beach with her again and not worry about all of this debris,” he said.

Michael Flynn is a physical scientist with Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“It’s actually not uncommon,” Flynn said of houses collapsing along that stretch of the Outer Banks in Rodanthe.

Flynn said the spot along Ocean Drive has had higher rates of beach erosion, which has been a primary factor of homes collapsing.

“We’re just seeing the impact of these waves on the structures themselves, higher than what they’re built to withstand,” he said. “With these large scale storm events, you’re seeing large volume changes beneath the homes to the degree where the waves are breaking on the structure’s pilings, and reducing the structural integrity to the point where they actually collapse.”

Since 2020, Flynn said at least four homes within the general area have collapsed.

Meanwhile, his team has been studying shoreline change overtime. From 1998-2019, Flynn said 86 meters of erosion have occurred along the area of Ocean Drive where the homes recently collapsed.

“Probably by the time those homes were constructed, we basically saw all of their beach pretty much erode up to their front porch,” Flynn said.

“Five years ago, that house was a couple hundred yards from the ocean,” Harpstrite added. “It’s not like they built it there, and then all of a sudden, got caught off guard.”

“Our building inspectors, as well as the National Park Service (NPS), have been engaged with the property owners over the past several months, knowing that these houses were becoming more and more threatened as the beach eroded,” Dare County Manager Bobby Outten told News 3.

Outten also added NPS has taken the lead on the cleanup, with the houses technically being in the NPS’s jurisdiction.

“We support them,” Outten said. “We do what we can do with our public works to help them with debris cleanup.”

Meanwhile, Flynn said there are a couple of other properties deemed by Dare County officials as in danger of imminent collapse. Those properties are being monitored closely, with no one inside or renting the locations.

This summer, more beach nourishment projects are planned to help NC-12; however, Flynn added none are planned for Rodanthe.

He told News 3 the main mission is to clean up the area first, and then have engineers evaluate the conditions of homes. They’ll also look at regulations, and whether they should be revised to protect resources and keep people safe.

Wednesday afternoon, Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials invited the public to help staff clean up debris from the homes at drop-in volunteer events.

These events are taking place from 9:30-11:30 a.m. and from 2:00-4:00 p.m. on May 12-13. All events are set to start at the Outer Banks KOA Resort at 25099 N.C. Highway 12, Rodanthe, N.C.

Supplies will be provided by the National Park Service for these organized efforts to help clean up debris associated with Tuesday’s house collapses. Much of the wood pieces that have washed up on the beach have exposed nails, so all volunteers are encouraged to wear thick soled footwear. Children under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

People who plan to clean the beach either before or after these four events should place garbage bags and debris well above the high tide line to ensure the items don’t get washed back into the ocean. Anyone not currently on Hatteras Island should visit prior to traveling to Thursday's events.

In addition to these volunteer cleanup efforts, a contractor hired by the owners of the collapsed houses is actively cleaning up debris near the sites of the fallen houses and along miles of beach. The Seashore is also bringing in a National Park Service cleanup team through its regional office.

Additional volunteer events will be announced in the coming days.

Wednesday, NCDOT crews said safety concerns related to the next high tide cycles are keeping the road closed and they hope to possibly open the road mid-morning Thursday.