North Carolina beach houses have fallen into the ocean. Is there a fix? – The Washington Post

It’s been a rough stretch for Rodanthe, N.C., a scenic sliver of the Outer Banks where houses are crumbling into the ocean, owners are paying to move properties farther from the pounding surf and residents are pushing officials to do more to protect the fast-eroding shoreline.
At a town meeting early this year, Dare County’s manager, Bobby Outten, explained that the local government couldn’t begin to fund the type of extensive beach nourishment that would buy Rodanthe more time from the encroaching sea. But he did promise to undertake an engineering assessment so residents would know just how much it might cost to dredge offshore sediment and add a new expanse of beach.
In recent days, the county published those figures in a 35-page report, and they underscore the unenviable predicament facing Rodanthe — a quandary that scientists say other imperiled communities like it are sure to confront as seas rise and storms intensify.
A one-time beach nourishment in the area would cost as much as $40 million, the report found — roughly double the amount a similar study found a decade earlier. Maintaining that beach over 30 years would cost more than $175 million. The report details other potential options, such as installing structures to help slow erosion, but every path comes with a massive price tag.
“It’s a big number and it’s a lot of money, and we don’t have that amount of money,” Outten said in an interview. “We don’t have a method to fund a project of that scale.”
The balance in Dare County’s beach nourishment fund, which comes from a tax on hotels and vacation rentals and must go toward multiple projects in the sprawling county, stood at $6 million earlier this year.
Outten said that for nourishment to become a reality in Rodanthe, “there’s going to have to be some kind of a funding source somewhere, other than locally.” And yet, no significant influx of money from the state or federal government seems likely in the short term.
Around the time the county’s latest estimate was released, Rob Young, a Western Carolina University professor and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was finishing a different kind of estimate about Rodanthe.
In a Raleigh ballroom, Young told attendees at an Association of State Floodplain Managers conference that to buy out all the houses in Rodanthe within 300 feet of the high-tide line, using their current assessed tax value, would cost roughly $43 million, while avoiding repeated beach nourishments.
It amounts to about 80 structures, the vast majority of which are vacation homes and which, according to Young, make up only a small fraction of the county’s tax base. Meanwhile, his study found, “by removing these properties Rodanthe will likely have a viable beach for 15 to 25 years.”
As with beach nourishment, there is no funding for such an undertaking, and there is limited appetite among homeowners or elected officials. And Young is clear that his study isn’t intended to recommend any one approach.
But his point is that as sea levels rise and flooding plagues a growing number of places along U.S. coasts, communities should consider taking a step back in thoughtful ways — and at least do the math about what such an option would cost, especially when taxpayer money is at stake.
“There will be retreat,” Young told the Raleigh audience. “The question is, do you want that retreat to be managed or unmanaged? Because right now, it is largely unmanaged.”
Young is among those who say Rodanthe’s struggles embody the thorny environmental, economic and emotional challenges that more coastal communities will face as increased flooding forces hard choices about what to protect along the nation’s shorelines and when to take a step back.
In Rodanthe, where four houses have collapsed since early 2022 and at least a dozen others remain in serious danger, erosion rates have hit a dozen feet per year in some spots. As seas continue to rise and some property owners pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to move houses inland as far as possible, Young sees a place that should at least be pondering retreat.
“If we can’t have a rational discussion about relocation and buyouts of structures in a place like Rodanthe … then how can we do it anywhere?” Young said in an interview.
Outten, the county manager, said buyouts are an unlikely option for multiple reasons, among them the unlikelihood that property owners — many of whom rely on rental income during the summer months — would walk away. Buying scores of homes would also mean a hit to local property and occupancy taxes. And eventually, he said, officials might still need to take measures to safeguard nearby Highway 12, the main artery through the Outer Banks.
“At some point, you’re going to [have to] do a nourishment anyway,” Outten said. “Protecting the houses becomes secondary.”
Cynthia Doughty, who has lived in her oceanfront home on South Shore Drive for more than two decades, is holding out hope that the state or federal government will see fit to help fund a beach nourishment in Rodanthe.
Doughty has been out of her house since a storm last May sent the surf under her foundation and the county deemed it unsafe. She has since had the house relocated to a new foundation roughly 75 feet farther from the intruding sea, and she plans to move back in soon.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said about the prospect of buyouts. She spoke of wildfires in California, tornadoes in the Midwest and other hazards that people in different parts of the country face. “I’ll deal with the ocean.”
Just to the north, on Seagull Street, Gus Gusler feels the same. He is among the dozen property owners on the street who are planning to move their homes farther from the sea, and to pay a significant amount out of pocket, to buy more time.
Gusler has steered clear of the arguments about beach nourishment and who should fund it, but he also has little interest in a buyout. He has his house booked by vacationers this summer, and he plans to continue using it the rest of the year.
“People just like being on the oceanfront. There’s just something about it,” Gusler said. “It would take a lot of money for me to give that up.”
Given the price tags of the options detailed in the recent studies, as well as the lack of obvious funding sources, Rodanthe seems destined to remain as vulnerable as ever for the moment. Even folks who agree on little else seemed to agree that isn’t a good thing.
“The absolute worst option is to do nothing,” said Young, noting that the status quo is the least desirable and most environmentally harmful path. “What we can’t do is just say, ‘Let’s let all those houses slowly but surely fall into the sea over the next two decades.’ That’s absurd.”
Outten said officials at different levels of government continue to look for ways to help coastal communities such as Rodanthe. But the fixes probably won’t be fast, or cheap.
“If there was an easy answer,” he said, “we’d already have done it.”
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