Instead, Patricelli never spent a night there.
A storm in November compromised the septic system, he said, and county officials soon deemed the home unfit for occupancy. On Tuesday, less than 300 days after he bought it, the home collapsed into the sea as one of two on Ocean Drive after days of being battered by an unnamed coastal storm.
“I was so looking forward to having a place where I could have fun and be normal again,” Patricelli, a 57-year-old California real estate agent who grew up on the East Coast, said in an interview.
“I didn’t realize how vulnerable it was,” he added.
The rapid advance of climate change in North Carolina’s “ghost forests.”
Patricelli’s house was swept away overnight, but video of his neighbor’s house falling to the ocean went viral this week. This neighbor, who lives in Tennessee, declined to comment when reached by phone. A third house nearby suffered the same fate in February.
“It was a shock,” Patricelli said of the call he received that his house was gone. He later texted photos of before and after the collapse, writing, “Now there’s absolutely nothing there – everything has been taken from the sea – we have basically an empty lot.”
The precarious condition of homes along the Outer Banks and other offshore islands is nothing new. Neither is the willingness of some Americans to risk hurricanes and other natural disasters in exchange for homes and investments in desirable locations.
But this week’s episode on the Outer Banks highlights a problem that is likely to worsen as climate change worsens.
For a variety of reasons, Americans continue to flock to disaster-prone areas of the country, despite growing risks from floods, fires and other disasters. And as sea levels rise, storms intensify and heat waves get hotter, even places that once seemed relatively safe could face more serious threats to health and homes.
Few people have been less surprised by the recent house collapses in Rodanthe than David Hallac, Superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
“What surprised me is that they’ve lasted this long,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “This is a rapidly eroding area… [and] I have no reason to believe that erosion will stop. If anything, the scientists I spoke to and the papers I read suggest that erosion will be exacerbated by sea level rise.”
Extreme climate change is here, washing away homes on America’s East Coast
Findings released this year by scientists from several federal agencies project that sea levels along the US coast will rise by an average of up to 30 cm over the next 30 years – “as much as the rise in the past 100 years was measured”.
In addition, the researchers estimate that sea-level rise will result in “a profound shift in coastal flooding” in the coming decades, as storm surges and tides can travel further inland. By 2050, they wrote, “moderate” flooding would be on average ten times more common than today.
Hallac said it’s important to understand that barrier islands move and change, and that the sands of the Outer Banks have always shifted. Not all homes there face similar risks, and not all risks are due to climate change. “[But] Climate change is most likely and will exacerbate these problems,” he said.
What’s striking, Hallac said, is that even as erosion worsens, people continue to buy houses along the Outer Banks that are perilously close to the sea.
Public records confirm this reality.
Patricelli bought his Ocean Drive home just nine months ago, but he’s rarely been alone. Along the stretch of beach near his home, at least five other homes were sold last year — and at least two were sold this year — according to Dare County Property Records. The other house that collapsed this week was bought in late 2019.
Matthew Storey, who lives near Raleigh, bought an oceanfront home a block down from Patricelli in November.
He said he’s confident his home is among the safest on the street, in part because it was moved back from shore in 2018 and supported by new, deeper piles. “Not every house on the street is going to collapse,” he said. But, he added, “The erosion this year has been almost unbelievable. I’m definitely worried.”
Storey said about 60 feet of the beach in front of his home was gone during storms and other inclement weather throughout the winter and spring. And he said the collapse of two of his neighbors’ houses is affecting everyone around them. He’s concerned about the value of real estate, the environmental impact of debris, and public perceptions of the actual dangers.
“The whole thing is just heartbreaking,” Storey said. “I have a wife and two young children and I subsidize part of my income from this rental property.”
Local officials have made it clear that some nearby homes are facing the same fate as those who ended up in the ocean.
Noah Gillam, Dare County planning director, said about a dozen homes along the coast in Rodanthe have been deemed unsafe this year. Homeowners receive such a designation after local officials conducted a “boots-on-the-floor” inspection to look for problems with septic systems, structural integrity and other areas, he said.
If a property is deemed a hazard, Gillam said officers will cut power to ensure the home remains unoccupied. They also inform homeowners that they should hire a contractor to clean up debris if or when the sea claims their homes.
“Erosion rates definitely seem to be increasing in certain areas,” Gillam said, adding that even unnamed storms can sometimes cause serious damage to homes that aren’t protected by dunes or are near the water.
This trend is likely to continue.
“It’s important for people to realize that coastal systems are now feeling the effects of sea level rise and climate change,” said Reide Corbett, coastal oceanographer at East Carolina University and executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute. “It’s not something that’s a decade away. It’s something that happens.”
Postcards from Earth’s climate future
While the house’s dramatic collapse this week was not unexpected, it was recent reminder of the challenge faced by low-lying islands and barrier islands, Corbett said. The combination of rising sea levels, increased erosion, and more intense and prolonged storms are likely to wreak even more havoc in the future.
“We need to think about how we’re evolving, and in a way that will result in a more resilient community in the future,” Corbett said.
Patricelli knows some people might think him unwise if he buys a home on the ocean’s edge, where erosion is a known problem, hurricanes are an annual threat, and sea levels are rising.
He said the sellers disclosed ways they tried to shore up the home and that he had taken out flood insurance, which the property’s location appears to require. He said he wasn’t sure how much insurance would pay for his loss.
By the time the house fell, Patricelli said he and his sister were in the process of moving it further away from the waves, but they were running out of time.
“I knew there was some risk in living near the water, but I certainly didn’t think I was going to lose the house within eight or nine months,” he said, adding, “I was aware that there was erosion. I wasn’t aware of how many times it happened. … We really thought we could move the house and save it.”
Patricelli said he and his neighbor hired the same contractor to help clear the ruins of their homes.
But even that is a complicated task.
National Park Service officials said debris from the incidents had spread along at least 15 miles of shoreline. The agency invited the public to help clean up the beach on Thursday and Friday and said “additional volunteer events will be announced in the coming days”.
Patricelli said he and other nearby homeowners, many of whom also live out of state, exchanged emails of advice and encouragement and connected about the mounting threats. “It’s a really great little community,” he said, noting that he hopes to rebuild it, albeit further from the sea this time.
Patricelli said he knew some places were riskier than others: “It was a bet gone wrong.” But one that went wrong sooner than he thought.
While it’s easy to wonder why anyone would buy a home so close to the ocean, climate change is affecting people across the country and around the world, he said. In California, for example, he has seen wildfires engulf entire neighborhoods where such catastrophes once seemed unlikely.
“What I take away from all of this is that climate change is a real thing for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you live by the sea, in a forest or by a river,” said Patricelli.
“I don’t know if there’s a place where you’re really safe from climate change right now.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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