Why Homes Are Collapsing on Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Two unoccupied houses fell into the Atlantic Ocean on North Carolina’s Outer Banks this week

Home collapse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
With sea levels rising at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, two houses collapsed this week because of coastal erosion and stormy weather. Officials have identified others that are endangered. Cape Hatteras National Seashore under public domain

A dramatic video made the rounds on the internet this week: It showed a taupe house, perched on wooden stilts, tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean and being tossed around by waves like a toy.

The unoccupied home was the second to collapse this week—and the third to topple this year—in Rodanthe, North Carolina, at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. National Park Service (NPS) officials say the homes fell because of beach erosion and high water levels, strong winds and dangerous currents brought on by stormy weather.

As sea levels rise because of melting glaciers and ice sheets, coastal communities like Rodanthe face increased risk of damage as the water erodes the shoreline. Since the early 1980s, the sea level along some parts of North Carolina has risen by roughly three inches, according to NASA, and more broadly, coastal erosion causes roughly $500 million in property loss in the United States each year.

Coupled with severe weather, like the nor'easter that rocked the Outer Banks this week, beach erosion poses a serious threat to homes that are close to the water. And though the federal government spends $150 million, on average, each year to help mitigate the erosion, many areas are still watching their beaches disappear at an alarming rate—25 to 50 feet per year, depending on the region.

After a seaside house fell along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on February 9, Dare County and park service officials identified 11 other homes that were also in danger of collapsing. The two homes that fell this week were on that list, reports CNN’s Jamiel Lynch and Jennifer Henderson.

“These homes collapsing is not a surprise,” Dave Hallac, the national seashore’s superintendent, tells CoastalReview.org’s Catherine Kozak. “To some degree, we were surprised that these houses didn’t collapse before.”

House collapse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
A video of this tan house collapsing into the ocean at Cape Hatteras National Seashore circulated on the internet this week. Cape Hatteras National Seashore under public domain

Though no one was injured, debris from the two homes is now scattered up and down the national seashore and will likely require an extensive cleanup process.

After the February 9 home collapse, large amounts of debris spread as far as 14 miles away. County and park service officials urged other homeowners along the coast to either move or remove their homes before they fell into the water, but they said they could not force them to do so. Since homeowners so far haven’t taken preventative action, now, the county and the national park service are on reactive clean-up duty.

Already, the park service is asking for volunteers to pick up the beach and has brought in a special NPS crew to help remove the debris.

“We do not want a home to collapse,” Hallac said at a March community meeting, as reported by Island Free Press’ Joy Crist. “It’s a mess afterward. It impacts the community, it impacts our visitors.”

Debris at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Debris is scattered on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore after two homes collapsed. Cape Hatteras National Seashore under public domain

In the past, homeowners have used sandbags to keep the ocean from reaching their homes, reports the Virginian-Pilot’s Kari Pugh. More recently, they’ve faced long delays while trying to hire companies that move houses or they’ve simply chosen not to take action because homeowners insurance won’t cover any preemptive steps, only the destruction after the fact, per the Virginian-Pilot.

“Insurance won’t believe it’s not a rich person’s problem,” Robert Outten, Dare County manager and attorney, told the Virginian-Pilot.