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What can be done to prevent Outer Banks homes from falling into the ocean?

rodanthe house collapse beach cleanup.jpg
Posted at 6:49 AM, Jul 01, 2024

RODANTHE, N.C. — On a recent sunny afternoon along the beach here, Tricia Wilt is in town from Pennsylvania and enjoying the water.

"We bring all our family down here. It's a good family atmosphere down here. We love the beach," said Wilt.

Wilt and others were right in the area where a home fell into the ocean in May.

"That's pretty sad. It's pretty unfortunate," she said.

Debris spread for miles following the collapse. This led to the beach being closed for several days and required a large cleanup effort.

Why wasn't the home moved before falling into the ocean? An owner did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2022, the owner of another home that collapsed told the New York Times insurance wouldn't chip in until the ocean destroyed his home, which it then fell into.

Previous coverage: Rodanthe house collapses into ocean

Rodanthe house collapses into ocean

The home in May was the sixth to collapse over the last four years.

North Carolina Congressman Greg Murphy and Virginia Congresswoman Jen Kiggans have introduced a bill that would expand the National Flood Insurance Program to help move or demolish homes before they fall into the ocean.

"Rather than waiting for the homes to completely erode off the pillars and the homes fall into the sea, this bill simply works to cover prevention," said Kiggans.

That bill would mirror what used to be known as the Upton-Jones amendment.

The provision was approved in 1988, but then Congress repealed it six years later.

It allowed local governments to condemn homes due to erosion.

Flood insurance would then help cover the costs of moving or demolishing before they collapsed.

Previous coverage: Some Rodanthe property owners begin process of moving their homes away from the sea

Some Rodanthe property owners begin process of moving their homes away from the sea

"Mother nature giveth. Mother nature taketh away," said Willo Kelly, the CEO of the Outer Banks Association of Realtors.

Kelly has been pushing for the bill and says sometimes there can be misconceptions about the owners of the homes.

"Let's not assume that everyone who has an oceanfront home is wealthy. In one particular case last year, there had been a home that had been inherited and they did not have funds to move the home or tear the home down," said Kelly.

Local governments do have the authority to declare a home a public nuisance and condemn it without the owner's consent, but they've been reluctant to take that step.

North Carolina law also prevents hardened structures like sea walls from being put on the beach.

Previous coverage: Houses collapse due to coastal flooding on the Outer Banks

Houses collapse due to coastal flooding on the Outer Banks

"The reason for that ban on hardened structures is because of the nuisance conditions it creates - the negative impact on the public trust areas," said Michelle Nowlin, Co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University School of Law.

Another strategy is beach replenishment, for which Dare County has applied for a federal grant for a major sand replenishment project on Hatteras Island.

As Nowlin and others point out, that's not going to solve the issue.

"It's just a band-aid that buys you a little extra time at a phenomenal expense to taxpayers and great expense to the local ecology as well," said Nowling.

The National Park Service also bought two homes last year and tore them down.

It's a complex issue and people who live here are trying to adapt.

"There's a lot of culture, a lot of history and so we're doing the best with what we can," said Kelly.