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Photos show how rising sea levels are washing away a small seaside town in North Carolina
By James Pasley,
A town on North Carolina's Outer Banks made headlines last year when three homes collapsed into the sea.
Rodanthe has become a symbol of the devastating impact of rising seas.
Some residents are now moving their houses back from the sea, but it's a temporary solution.
In North Carolina, a beach town is in crisis.
As the sea rises, owners of beachfront homes in Rodanthe, North Carolina, are watching as their neighbors are washed away — and they're waiting to see if it happens to them, too.
Some owners are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to move their homes back, while others have no choice except to wait for their homes to collapse. What's happening in Rodanthe could be a precursor to what happens to other coastal towns in the US.
Here's why Rodanthe has become a symbol of how rising seas can impact real people.
On May 10, 2022, an unoccupied beachfront house in Rodanthe, North Carolina, collapsed into the sea.
The collapse was caught on video and went viral. It made national news. You don't often see houses falling into the sea and then bobbing in the waves. It was the second house in Rodanthe to fall in a week and the third of the year.
This is a home named "Wave Breaker" being pummeled by waves in 2014. But things are getting worse. With rising sea levels and increasingly destructive storm surges, what was bad before has become more and more precarious.
The sea is now at their doorstep. After three of Rodanthe's beachfront houses collapsed into the sea, Dare County stated last year another 11 houses faced the same danger. But the county can't do much about it.
It doesn't have the legal authority to condemn the houses or force the owners to act.
Gus Gusler, who owns a vacation home on Seagull Street, told The Washington Post it was their last stand. "We'll move as far back as we can get this time, and we're done. There's nothing we can do about it after this," he said.
Jeff Munson had been visiting Rodanthe for almost 20 years before he bought a vacation home. He told The Post there used to be "three football fields" worth of beach between his house and the sea, but it's nearly all gone.
And some, like Ralph Patricelli, who purchased a property for $550,000 in 2021, or Hien Pham, who purchased another property in 2020 for $275,000, acted too late and already lost their homes to the sea.
Patricelli told The Washington Post he just ran out of time to move his house back.
After his house collapsed, the clean-up cost him $60,000, and he is still in discussions with authorities about how much more he owes.
But a homeowner's insurance policy won't pay for them to proactively tear down their house. It'll only pay once the house collapses. This means owners are more likely to wait for the sea to do the work.
There's no group or organization that's singularly responsible. According to the Island Free Press, blame can be directed all over — a lack of government action, loopholes in real estate rules, insufficient land zoning regulations, and of course, climate change.
There are temporary measures that can be taken, like beach nourishment, which is basically pumping beaches with sand. But it's expensive — too expensive for Rodanthe's taxpayers — and it doesn't last forever.
A violent storm can wash away huge amounts of sand in a matter of hours.
Federal funds for beach nourishment are also reserved for public travel and safety and to protect infrastructure, so Rodanthe doesn't qualify.
Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch told The Washington Post it's now a balancing act between acknowledging people's connections to a place against the fact that buying beachfront property is no longer always tenable.
It's not clear how it's going to work or who's going to pay. But it's almost guaranteed that Rodanthe won't be the only town where owners are faced with an impossible decision — either let their home collapse into the sea or move them back and wait and see what happens.
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