Saturday, September 4, 2010

On the Beach, South Nags Head, North Carolina - 2010

East Seagull Drive, South Nags Head, North Carolina
South Nags Head is a summer playground of sun, surf, beer, and jolly good times. It's also an area of uncontrolled overbuilding on the rapidly eroding barrier island. These cottages on East Seagull Drive have been condemned because they are in imminent danger of collapsing into the surf. The view above is looking to the north, with the Atlantic Ocean to the right.The dune line is well landwards of the cottages.
The cottages were originally built on piles because in this environment, occasional flooding is inevitable. But as you can see in the photograph above, the beach has eroded so severely, the original piles were undermined. To keep the houses from collapsing, extension piles were added below the original ones. The bags are geotubes filled with sand to protect the houses. North Carolina law only allows such bags when a house is threatened. Also, North Carolina no longer allows any hard structures like rock seawalls to be erected as shore protection devices (Update: this may no longer be true as of 2020). I wish other states would follow this example.
Exposed septic tanks, South Nags Head, North Carolina

When the septic tanks are exposed (the concrete tubs above), the town or county condemns property. But then a major problem arises: what to do with the structures? FEMA formerly funded removal of houses, but I was told that the program ended. The town is taking legal action against the homeowners to remove them, but the town will not pay any of the costs. If the owners walk away and the structures collapse, the town would have to foot the bill for hazardous debris removal, not a trivial issue in the marine environment. Consider also that taking over the properties would not yield a salable commodity for the town. The town might do a beach nourishment to add enough sand to un-condemn the houses. Then they would be back on the tax rolls and generate revenue. It is an odd twist of logic.

Notice that even though only five years have passed since the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, we still are politically too cowardly to ask serious questions about whether people should live in hazardous locations, and whether municipalities have a responsibility to provide protection and services to residents of these hazardous areas. 

  • Should developers be restricted by means of setback lines? 
  • Why don't building codes require highly robust construction, thereby thwarting the quick buck artists who build shoddy homes and move on after selling to naive buyers? 
  • Should the buyer beware? 
  • Is uncontrolled building "capitalism," while spreading the rebuilding risk throughout the town/county is not considered "socialism"? 

These are all troubling questions.
The scene above shows swells from Hurricane Danielle on August 29, 2010. I took this photograph from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers' Field Research Facility (FRF) pier at Duck, NC. They are about 9-10 second period and approaching the coast at an unusually steep angle. The FRF has an excellent web page with live cameras, wave statistics, and other oceanographic data:


E.L. Malvaney said...

Yikes--when the septic tanks are showing, you know you have a problem! Beach re-nourishment seems to be a very expensive, and very temporary solution to the problem. Within a few minutes of one storm, millions of dollars in beach work can get swept out, leaving you right back where you started, which is, if you must build on a barrier island, consider it a temporary structure. Because it is. Thanks for this post and a view of the world outside of Mississippi!

Anonymous said...

These homes have been declared nuisances because of their location on the public beach, not necessarily their structural condition.

And when a nourishment project begins, these homes and sandbags will be removed, not made habitable again.

"Within a few minutes of one storm ..." Not really the case, sir. We're proposing the addition of 4.6 million cubic yards to ten miles of beach. That amount of sand represents 16 times the annual amount of sand that has been eroded from our beaches over the last ten years. Our engineer predicts a 10 year lifespan.

Anonymous said...

only fools believe engineers.

Anonymous said...

As of 8/30/13, these houses were still standing. The peachish/yellowish one on the right (when looking at the row) has collapsed towards its back left corner.

Anonymous said...

As of 7/18/2014 they are still standing

Anonymous said...

and at least one is for sale...septic and HVAc permits pending