Cape Hatteras National Seashore addresses the threat of collapsing houses

By on March 30, 2023

The increasingly vulnerable homes on the oceanfront are a major concern. (File photo credit: Kurt Moses/NPS)

Plans for the 200th Anniversary celebration of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, rehabilitation work on Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and a new and improved facility at Oregon Inlet fishing center were on the agenda at a reporters’ roundtable meeting with Superintendent Dave Hallac on March 29 at the National Park Service Outer Banks Group Headquarters on Roanoke Island.

However, the shoreline issues confronting Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CHNS)—highlighted ongoing safety and environmental concerns confronting Hallac and his team—were the focus of concerns about how the Seashore deals with one of its most vexing problems.

The National Park Service (NPS) owns the beach from the mean low tide to mean high tide line. When many of the homes that are now in danger of collapse because of erosion or beach retreat were built, they were well back of the mean high tide line, often 50 yards or more.

Sea level rise and the natural migration of the Outer Banks has changed that, and a number of homes in Rodanthe and Buxton are now precariously close to the Atlantic Ocean, although beach nourishment in Buxton seems to have mitigated that problem for the time being.

In Rodanthe, however, there are a number of homes in danger of collapse during a storm or even from an abnormally high tide, and when a house does collapse, the debris from the home becomes a safety and environmental concern for the NPS.

“This has become one of the most significant problems that I think we’ve dealt with in a long time,” Hallac said. Hallac has been trying to alert homeowners whose homes seem to be in danger of collapse that they should have a plan in place if the home is destroyed.

“The approach that we are taking is we are neighbors of the homeowners,” he said. “We’re concerned about what could happen to Cape Hatteras Seashore. We’re urging folks to proactively solve these issues before they become a big problem.”

To date, approximately 30 letters have been sent to property owners in Rodanthe and Buxton. As Hallac explained, the hope is that the owner will take steps that would keep the home from collapse. Moving the home is often the best solution, but, Hallac acknowledged, “that’s a major undertaking and not something that everybody has the capability or capacity to do.”

At a minimum, what Hallac asked for in his letters is that homeowners have a cleanup plan in place that would include a cleanup permit. The most important provision of the cleanup permit is that the contractor is insured for the work that is being done. Hallac noted that if there are beach contractors working on the National Seashore “with front end loaders and excavators and they are not covering themselves with bonding and with insurance, we can have a big problem.”

Hallac pointed to the most recent house collapse as an example of what happens when there is no plan in place.

“On March 13, the owners did not have a plan or a contractor lined up. And you know within hours, we had four miles of debris. We had even some random pieces of debris 21 miles away,” he said.

Experience had shown that any delay in cleaning up allows the debris to scatter for miles and be broken into smaller pieces. Hallac felt there was no choice and that CHNS staff had to take the task on themselves.

“We started cleaning up the day after this. I think we had 12 to 15 staff out. By day two, we had 41 staff on the beach, folks that typically crunch numbers and do budgets and spreadsheets. Biologists that typically monitor shorebirds and take care of stranded sea turtles…we removed 70 pickup truck loads of trash debris from the beach,” he said, adding, “Keep in mind, this house was 1,100 square feet and one story.”

The owner, Hallac noted, will be billed for the cleanup.

One issue for some property owners is what will happen when the mean high tide line migrates to their home. Technically that would place the property line within the boundaries of CHNS. Asked about that, Hallac noted that for now, alerting the property owner to the issue is how the situation is being addressed, although that could change in the future.

“Our approach continues to be that we’re urging people to move or remove their houses especially if they appear to be partially below what’s called mean high water. Whether we get to a point in the future where we’re going to have to take a different approach, that could happen,” he said.

An eroding shoreline at Rodanthe and Buxton is not the only place where impacts are potentially catastrophic. As the NC12 Task Force Report issued in February of this year made clear, the Hatteras Island transportation corridor is under threat.

Hallac who was part of the Task Force, said that the NPS Outer Banks Group has submitted a funding request for NC12 projects.

“One of the sources of funding under the Inflation Reduction Act is called Protect Funding,” he said. “I have specifically requested on behalf of Cape Hatteras National Seashore help to fund Highway 12 transportation projects.”

Because the request is so recent, it is unclear how the funds will be distributed or prioritized or even if CHNS will get the funds, but “we have certainly made it well known that we think that Highway 12 hotspot projects are a priority for the park and a priority for the community,” Hallac said.

“We think they’re important because they modernize transportation, which is critical for everything from the ambulance [on] the road to…the millions of visitors that we have…And we also think it’s important for environmental management or ecosystem restoration,” he added.


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Comments

  • Survey says

    This is an erosion problem, not sea level rise problem. I have been measuring to Mean High water here for almost 30 years. MHW is defined by elevation…1.18′ NAVD 88. If sea level rise is causing the homes to fall in the ocean when they used to be far from the MHW line, that insinuates a massive rise in sea level. Funny…I can still measure to 1.18′ without getting wet when the wind is not pushing the waves up. Strange isn’t it?

    Thursday, Mar 30 @ 7:39 pm
  • Charles

    Years ago I checked into buying a beachfront or near beachfront house on the Outer Banks. Was told if it washed away all I could do with the land was deed it to the county so the property taxes would stop. Has this changed?

    Thursday, Mar 30 @ 7:57 pm
  • D

    The island is trying to migrate west, storms push sand across the island into the marsh. In areas where it is losing elevation we have held it in place with a road or artificial dune.

    You can see this repeated with aerial photos of barrier islands up and and down the coast, in your lifetime

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 5:36 am
  • John S

    In 1999 I purchased a home in Salvo. I was advised not to buy in Rodanthe because all the Rodanthe beach was headed to Salvo, carried by wave action and the Labrador current. Dare Cty records show the tide lines over the years and our beach has remained consistant. The whole of Hatteras Island is moving west, evidenced by the oyster shells on the beaches. The dunes are artificial, built by the CCC in the 1930’s

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 10:24 am
  • Dan

    How do these home owners handle septic? In the photo it looks like the septic tank is disconnected from the drain field (wherever that could be?)

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 12:14 pm
  • democracy

    Soon enough, all of the Outer Banks will be inaccessible because of water, or under water.

    Sea level rise is real.

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 3:11 pm
  • Survey says

    Dan
    The owners have to get a new or updated survey showing where the MHW line is now and the system has to be placed no closer than 50′ from the MHW. There is talk of not letting anyone rebuild septic systems east of the veg line which would condemn many many properties where this occurs.

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 3:58 pm
  • Olin Hardy

    The ocean is to strong for anything a human can make or construct.!

    Saturday, Apr 1 @ 6:41 am