The story behind an Outer Banks house that collapsed into the ocean
Who owned it? Why didn't anybody move it or tear it down? Why is it there? And who has to clean it up? We've teamed up with the Island Free Press to answer questions big and small about a viral video.
I have seen the aftermath of houses that have collapsed into the ocean on the Outer Banks. I have never actually seen video of, you know, the collapsing part.
This house in Rodanthe fell into the water on Tuesday during a fairly strong nor’easter. A photographer who was there, Don Bowers, said the house basically dissolved just four minutes after it collapsed, leaving only the top level visible amidst a swirl of debris.
This was actually the second house to collapse on the same street IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS, and the third house to fall into the ocean on Ocean Drive this year. “This was not a surprise,” says Joy Crist, the editor of the Island Free Press, as evidenced by the crowd that showed up to watch it fall. Crist, who’s a longtime resident of the Outer Banks, talked to me this week to help me explain the bigger story behind this and other collapses. “It’s… messy,” she says.
First up, where did the house… go?
All over the place, really. The ocean current in that area flows south, so debris is spreading down toward Waves and Salvo.
Tiny bits of house move pretty quickly in the ocean. “Within 48 hours of that February home collapse, I was walking on the beach, and I saw debris from that house in Buxton, which is about 20 miles away,” Crist says.
So who has to clean it up? Well, since the beach there is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service does it with an assist from volunteers (no kids, since they don’t want children stepping on nails). But the cleanup is also on the homeowner. Many end up hiring contractors or paying the NPS to go out and pick up what’s left of their house along miles and miles of beach.
Wait, who let somebody build a house right on the beach?
Nobody, actually. The beach came to the house.
“When the house was built in 1980, [it was behind] a dune with normal vegetation,” Crist says. “You had a long path, maybe a one or two minute walk to the ocean.” But over time, the beach in front steadily eroded. Hence, the house was about 430 feet away from the shoreline when it was built. It was only 47 feet away in 2020.
So why is the shoreline eroding so quickly? There are a lot of reasons, but here are three:
You’ve got climate change, which increases the number, and severity, of storms.
One of the state’s biggest priorities on the Outer Banks is to keep Highway 12 open, because without it, you can’t really, um, get there.
To keep Highway 12 open, you have to keep rebuilding it after storms—along with the dunes that protect it—in really vulnerable areas where nature wants to cut an inlet.1 One of those places is just north of Rodanthe in an area known as the S-Curves, and keeping erosion at bay in one place usually worsens it somewhere else.
Highway 12 has an otherworldly beauty. It is also so notoriously fragile that it has its own Twitter account, which wakes up and chooses violence on a regular basis.
State and local leaders have to keep the road open for everyone, but they also have to triage a ton of smaller, individual problems. Those leaders do a good job of addressing those issues, Crist says, but in some ways, “it does feel like you're playing whack-a-mole at times.” There are a dozen other hot spots where roads and homes are in danger along the Outer Banks. In other words, somebody might do something that’ll save your house. Or not.
So, can’t somebody force homeowners to tear down or move those houses?
For this part, let’s start with another very famous home that was practically standing over the ocean: The Nights in Rodanthe house!
Yes, this is the house where Richard Gere and Diane Lane passionately made out in a movie that came out in 2008. It stood on the north edge of town and sat some 400 feet back from the ocean (there’s a theme here). But! In 2010, with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its feet, the owners moved it to another oceanfront lot, where it still stands and is available for rent. At, um, a fairly hefty fee.
There was a financial incentive for the owners of the Inn at Rodanthe2 (as it’s now called) to move the house and keep on making rental money. But are there any financial incentives for tearing them down? Well, not so much anymore. Back in March, Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch spoke to a meeting of homeowners. From the Island Free Press:
“There was, back in the 90s, an amendment to the National Flood Insurance Program called the Upton Jones Amendment,” said Couch, “and it essentially paid 40% of the property policy to relocate the home, and paid 110% of the policy to demolish the home.”
“Well, in its short five-year existence, with the combination of hurricanes, the lunar tides, and some bad stuff weather-wise, it proved to be very [costly], and 75% of the applicants were for demolishing their homes,” added Couch. “So, as you can imagine, the insurance lobby put the kibosh on that pretty quickly.”
In 2008, the town of Nags Head passed a resolution asking Congress to reinstate the Upton Jones Amendment. A few years later, they learned the hard way that you can’t just force people to tear down houses that end up on the beach due to erosion. In 2010, the city condemned several houses and ordered them to be demolished, but the homeowners sued, asking for compensation or permits to make repairs. A state appeals court eventually ruled in favor of the homeowners and said only the state had the power to order a home demolished. That ruling that made local government leaders wary of trying to do that again.
For what it’s worth, almost all of the houses that sued were eventually demolished anyway, after the town of Nags Head paid the owners $1.5 million in 2015. That left one single, empty, oceanfront home on East Seagull Drive. In 2014, the owner tried to sell it for almost $300,000.
Wait, who would try to sell a home that’s dangerously close to the ocean?
The company that owned that home on East Seagull Drive, that’s who! For what it’s worth, there were no takers, and the house was pulled off the market in November 2015. It’s still there.
You might think that a rapidly eroding shoreline might make a home on the beach hard to sell. Well, not if it’s relatively cheap. That home you saw collapsing back at the beginning of this newsletter? It actually sold in 2020 to a real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee who paid $275,000 for it.3 The median price of a house in Rodanthe back then was about $400,000 (It’s approaching $1 million today). After the agent bought it, he kept renting it out. The listing is gone now, but an archived version of the page shows that it was a four bedroom, 2 1/2 bath house with a hot tub. “The oceanfront is yours for the taking at Chez Scov II,” it read.
It’s unclear from my internet sleuthing as to how much it cost to rent the place, but let’s try a little back of napkin exercise. Based on other oceanfront homes in Rodanthe, let’s say the owner was charging $600 a night to stay there before taxes and fees. The deal closed on August 31, 2020. So if the owner would have had that house rented 5 out of every 7 days since then, he would have broken even on his investment on May 13th. That’s this Friday. Obviously, that revenue stream has now come to an end.
Still, though, there’s hope that the beach could actually come back in Rodanthe. Beach nourishment projects, where a barge sucks up sand offshore and blasts it back onto the beach, are becoming more frequent and more expensive. A lot of experts say they’re only a temporary fix that can quickly be undone by a single powerful storm. Even so, Dare County has a lot of beach nourishment projects on the books this year. Rodanthe isn’t getting sand in 2022, but may in the future. Also! A 2.5 mile-long “Jug Handle Bridge” is about to open. It will move Highway 12 off of the S-Curves and let nature take its course. “That's gonna give some relief to the Mirlo Beach area [on the north end of Rodanthe],” Crist says. “If an inlet wants to open there, which Mother Nature has clearly indicated that should happen, it could fortify and expand the beach in those immediate areas. So I can understand why some people want to take that risk.” Even so, help may not come soon enough for nine other homes in Rodanthe that are in danger of collapse. “A lot of folks I've talked to in that area said, ‘I thought we had five, 10 years,’” Crist says. “They thought they had more time than they did.”
Two years ago, I tried to trace the genesis of Highway 12 back as far as I could for Our State magazine. If I may, here’s the meatiest part of what I wrote:
If you know anything about the Outer Banks, you probably have a sense of the problem here: The sand moves. The road doesn’t. Before the 1950s, if you wanted to drive on the barrier islands, you mostly drove on the sand. But during that decade, most of what we now know as Highway 12 was paved, culminating with the opening of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet in 1963.
This realization of a permanent road dovetailed perfectly with the idea of a permanent island — a notion that had been born decades before: In the 1930s, there was a belief that the Outer Banks had once been covered in trees and grasses, shrubs and vines. Those plants, it was thought, had held the shifting sands of the barrier islands firmly in place, and so the National Park Service embarked on a huge project to build dunes along the islands to do what they thought nature had once done itself. Of course, nature hadn’t done that; the islands had always moved and shifted as wind and waves blew sand from the ocean toward the sound. But by the time officials realized that, the artificial dunes had already been in place for decades, and they now had Highway 12 to protect. To save the road, the state had to freeze the island in time.
A lot of the interiors from the movie were shot on a soundstage, but after it premiered, the owners re-did the inside to make it look like the movie, because nothing is real.
Property records show the previous owner of the house on Ocean Drive was a retired teacher from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who bought the house in 2000. She and her late husband, who died in 2013, once considered it their second home. He would fish. She would occasionally fill in as a substitute teacher during her time on the Outer Banks. She died on April 28 at age 84, less than two weeks before her former home collapsed into the ocean.