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Outer Banks grapples with new ways to combat erosion's impact: 'These are barrier islands'

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New approaches seek to deal with erosion's impact along the Outer Banks
New approaches seek to deal with erosion's impact along the Outer Banks
Posted at 7:12 PM, Apr 24, 2024

RODANTHE, N.C. — As another tourism season approaches in the Outer Banks, erosion continues to be a persistent problem. It’s wiped out the progress made on beach nourishment projects, particularly on Hatteras Island.

But leaders are not relying on beach nourishment alone: they’re using other tools to deal with the impact of erosion.

“It's important to realize that these are barrier islands. They are, by their nature, not static. They move, they change, they erode,” said David Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.

Hallac oversees the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is unique in that there are private structures along publicly controlled shoreline, some in peril because of erosion.

“That erosion is now catching up with houses or other private structures that are becoming very close to the ocean. In some cases, they're now out on the beach in times of high tide or low tide,” Hallac said.

WATCH: Endangered Rodanthe beachfront homes come down

Endangered Rodanthe beachfront homes come down

WTKR first reported in October that the National Park Service had worked with the National Park Trust and the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase two homes in Rodanthe and tear them down as part of a pilot program.

Now, there are few signs the houses were even there. It followed the collapse of five homes on the shoreline in Rodanthe from 2020 to 2023.

Hallac said those collapses could be dangerous for visitors and park staff.

“Even just when pieces or parts like decks or stairs fall off, the debris can wash miles away and cause an aesthetic issue and something that park service staff are, are cleaning up,” Hallac said. “And ultimately, in the event of a catastrophic collapse, the impacts can be widespread and they can occur for 10 or 20 miles and take weeks if not months to clean up.”

The funding comes from royalties from oil and gas leases, not from taxpayer money.

“We are learning from that process. We’re learning that there were some things buried under the ground that we were unaware of and we're now having to go back and remove those items. For example, septic tanks that may have been abandoned a decade or more ago,” Hallac said.

Longtime visitors and residents say the erosion on Hatteras Island this past year has been particularly noticeable, causing all kinds of concerns.

“The erosion in the past 12 months, all summer and into last winter, there’s been a constant north-northeast wind,” said Bill King, secretary of the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association. "Mother Nature's going to do what she's going to do."

WATCH: Rodanthe home falls into ocean, marking 4th collapse in nearly a year

Rodanthe home falls into ocean, marking 4th collapse in nearly a year

The stakes are high for the region’s economy: a 2022 study found that Hatteras Island alone added $366 million to the Dare County economy with tourism accounting for most of that total.

The island contributed $189.4 million in occupancy tax receipts and brought in $10 million in property tax revenues.

“There are about 4,000 people that live here permanently but you’ve also got anywhere from 44,000 to 56,000 people here all week long, [during] that 15-week stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” said Danny Couch, the Dare County Commissioner who represents Hatteras Island.

Commissioners recently worked out an agreement with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to let property owners take over Seagull Street in Rodanthe, allowing them to move their homes back from the ocean.

At least two property owners have done so, others are waiting for potential help.

“How much time are you buying? That’s an unknown. Are we buying 10 to 12 to 15 years,” Couch said. “At the very least it can buy you a decade. At the very best, it can provide you two decades.”

Meanwhile, Hallac said the National Park Service is talking with partners to expand their pilot property purchase program with help from other potential partners.

“Our number one objective is to avoid and minimize those impacts to the National Seashore Property and our visitors, Hallac said. “And it just so happens that acquiring the structures and then restoring the beach is one way to help manage that, that challenge.”

Leaders aren’t giving up on beach nourishment just yet. Dare County has applied for a federal grant for a $42 million nourishment project. Our newsgathering partners at the Outer Banks Voice reported it will be the largest such project to date on Hatteras Island.

It will be some time next year before the county knows whether that application is approved, and even longer than that before work can begin.