He bought the house 9 months ago. Then the ocean took him away.


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Ralph Patricelli had big plans for the vacation home at 24235 Ocean Drive in Rodanthe, on a point of land in the middle of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

He and his sister bought the four-bedroom waterfront home in August for $550,000. With its spacious rooms, two levels of decks and stunning views of the Atlantic, Patricelli envisioned it as an ideal place to welcome friends and family after two years of a pandemic isolation. After the last tenants of the season had left, he and his relatives had planned to hold a Thanksgiving gathering in the house.

Instead, Patricelli never spent a night there.

A November storm affected the septic tank, he said, and county officials quickly ruled the home unfit for occupancy. On Tuesday, less than 300 days after buying it, the house became one of two along Ocean Drive to collapse into the sea after days of violence caused by an unnamed coastal storm.

“I was so looking forward to having a place where I could be entertained and get back to normal,” 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 he was,” he added.

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Patricelli’s house was swept away overnight, but video of his neighbour’s house succumbing to the ocean went viral this week. The neighbor, who lives in Tennessee, declined to comment when reached by phone. A third neighboring house suffered the same fate in February.

“It was a shock,” Patricelli said of the call he received informing him that his house was missing. He later sent before and after photos of the collapse, writing: “Now there is absolutely nothing there – it was all taken by the sea – we basically have land vacant.”

The precarious nature of homes along the Outer Banks and other barrier islands is nothing new. Nor is the willingness of some Americans to assume the risks posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in exchange for homes and investments in desirable locations.

But the episode on the Outer Banks this week 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 of floods, fires, and other disasters. And as sea levels rise, storms intensify and heat waves heat up, even places that once seemed relatively safe could face greater threats to health and homes.

Few people have been less surprised by the latest home collapses in Rodanthe than David Hallac, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“What surprised me was that they lasted so long,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It’s a rapidly eroding area… [and] I have no reason to believe the erosion will stop. On the contrary, the scientists I have spoken with and the publications I have read suggest that erosion will be exacerbated by rising sea levels.”

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Findings released this year by scientists from several federal agencies predict that sea levels will rise along the U.S. coast by up to one foot on average over the next 30 years – “as much as the rise measured over the past last 100 years”.

In addition, the researchers estimate that sea level rise will create “a profound shift in coastal flooding” over the next few decades by allowing storm surges and tides to reach further inland. By 2050, they wrote, “moderate” flooding is expected to occur 10 times more often than today, on average.

Hallac said it’s important to understand that barrier islands move and change, and the sands of the Outer Banks have always changed. Not all homes face the same risks and not all risks are attributable to climate change. “[But] climate change is very likely exacerbating these problems, and it will continue to exacerbate them,” he said.

What’s striking, Hallac said, is that people have continued to buy homes along the Outer Banks that sit dangerously close to the sea, even as erosion worsens.

Public records confirm this reality.

Patricelli bought his Ocean Drive home just nine months ago, but he wasn’t alone. Along the beach near where her home stood, at least five other homes sold last year — and at least two sold this year — according to Dare County property records. The other house that collapsed this week was purchased at the end of 2019.

Matthew Storey, who lives near Raleigh, bought a beachfront home next to Patricelli in November.

He said he is confident his home is one of the safest on the street, in part because it was moved away from the shore in 2018 and supported by new, deeper piles. “Not all the houses on the street will fall,” he said. But, he added, “The erosion this year has been almost unbelievable. I certainly care.

Storey said about 60 feet of the beach in front of his house disappeared during storms and other inclement weather in the winter and spring. And he said the collapse of the homes of two of his neighbors is affecting everyone around them. He worries about property values, the environmental impact of the debris, and public perceptions of the real dangers.

“It’s all just heartbreaking,” Storey said. “I have a wife and two young children, and I subsidize part of my income with this rental property.”

Local officials have made it clear that some nearby homes risk the same fate as those that ended up in the ocean.

Noah Gillam, Dare County’s planning director, said a dozen homes along the Rodanthe waterfront have been deemed unsafe this year. Homeowners receive such a designation after local authorities conduct an “on-the-spot” inspection to check for issues with septic systems, structural integrity and other areas, he said.

If a property is deemed a hazard, Gillam said, authorities will shut off power to ensure the home remains unoccupied. They also advise homeowners that they must hire a contractor to remove debris if or when the sea claims their homes.

“Erosion rates definitely seem to be increasing in some areas,” Gillam said, adding that even unnamed storms can sometimes cause severe damage to homes not protected by dunes or close to the water’s edge.

This trend should continue.

“It’s important for people to recognize that coastal systems today are feeling the effects of sea level rise and climate change,” said Reide Corbett, a coastal oceanographer at East Carolina University and executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute. “It’s not something that’s off by a decade. It’s something that happens. »

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The dramatic collapse of the house this week, while not unexpected, offered the latest reminder of the challenge facing low and barrier islands, Corbett said. The combination of rising sea levels, worsening erosion and more intense and persistent storms are likely to wreak more havoc in the future.

“We need to think about how we grow and grow in a way that leads to a more resilient community in the future,” Corbett said.

Patricelli knows some people might consider him reckless for buying a home by the ocean, where erosion is a known problem, hurricanes are an annual threat and sea levels are rising.

He said the sellers revealed how they had tried to shore up the house and that he had taken out flood insurance, which appears to be necessary given the location of the property. He said he was unsure how much insurance would pay for his loss.

Until the house fell, Patricelli said, he and his sister were trying to move it further from the waves, but they ran out of time.

“I knew there were risks living near water, but I certainly didn’t think I would lose the house in eight or nine months,” he said, adding, “I was aware that erosion was happening there. I wasn’t aware of the rate at which it was happening. … We really thought we were going to be able to move the house and save it.

Patricelli said he and his neighbor hired the same contractor to help clean up the ruins of their homes.

But even that is a complicated task.

National Park Service officials said debris from the incidents had spread to at least 15 miles of coastline. The agency invited the public to help clean up along the beach Thursday and Friday and said “more volunteer events will be announced in the coming days.”

Patricelli said he and other nearby landlords, many of whom also live out of state, shared emails of advice and encouragement and bonded over the growing threats. “It’s a really great little community,” he said, noting that he hopes to rebuild, if further from the ocean this time.

Patricelli said he knew some places were riskier than others: “It was a gamble gone wrong. But one that went wrong sooner than he imagined.

While it’s easy to wonder why anyone would buy a home so close to the ocean, he said, climate change is affecting people across the country and around the world. In California, for example, he has seen entire neighborhoods engulfed in wildfires, where such disasters once seemed unlikely.

“What I take away from all of this is that climate change is a reality for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you live on the ocean, in a forest or on a river,” Patricelli said.

“I don’t know if there’s a place where you’re really immune to climate change right now.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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