Dramatic video of a beach house being swept out to sea stunned viewers everywhere, but it wasn’t a first for the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was the second house to collapse that day and third this year.
“That does not happen often, but we expect that it will happen more often in the future now that there are more homes that are in this very challenging position right up against the Atlantic Ocean,” said David Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.
The National Park Service manages 75 miles of the Outer Banks’ coastline as part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which saw a record high 3.2 million visitors last year.
Though the threat of collapse is real for a small number of precariously positioned beach houses, both Hallac and the Outer Banks tourism authority say it’s not something travelers have to worry about.
“Outside of the handful of homes, we have thousands of vacation rental homes that offer safe and enjoyable experiences for visitors every single year, every single season,” said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
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Why are houses falling into the ocean?
The two houses that collapsed in Rodanthe this week were not occupied.
Hallac said both Dare County authorities and the Park Service reached out to warn homeowners ahead of this week’s storms. The Park Service also took the unusual step of preemptively closing a small portion of the beach in front of the houses for safety.
“We were aware that three of the homes in this neighborhood were already in a state of potential collapse, so we closed the area to prevent somebody walking up and down the beach from being injured or even worse possibly killed if the house were to collapse while they were enjoying the beach,” Hallac said. “But it was just this small section and it was specifically related to the fact that the houses were in a state of potential collapse.”
He noted the homes were likely never intended to be that close to the water, having originally been built well behind the shoreline, but years of erosion until away at the sand.
“The erosion rate in this area that we’re talking about can be more than four meters (13.1 feet) per year,” he said. “While that may not seem like a lot in one year, over a 10-year period, having 150 feet of beach that is gone is fairly significant.”
While erosion is natural for barrier islands like the Outer Banks, Hallac said climate change may exacerbate the natural ebb and flow.
“The possibility of stronger storms – more frequent and intense storms – and also just having sea levels rise – having more water up against the barrier island – has the potential to erode areas more quickly,” he said.
Should travelers worry?
Vacation goers don’t have to worry about their rentals being dragged out to sea because building county inspectors regularly check on houses that are considered unsafe and alert homeowners when they are uninhabitable, but Hallac warned there are other things visitors should watch for at the seashore .
“It doesn’t often take a lot for the waves and the wind action to have impacts that can be a safety issue or certainly disrupt somebody’s vacation,” he said. “Rip currents can form even on fairly calm days.”
Even strong swimmers can struggle in the rough surf.
Nettles said that the area’s high winds were part of what drew the Wright Brothers to test flight in Kitty Hawk, which he calls home.
“We occasionally have nor’easters or low-pressure systems that will stall out over the Outer Banks, so you know dynamic weather is part of the experience, but certainly this last storm and the effects with those homes has been extraordinary,” Nettles said .
Both he and Hallac advise travelers to monitor local weather conditions and note that weather can vary widely across the Outer Banks.
“I always explain that the Outer Banks are more than 100 miles in length,” Nettles said. “So it’s common, in fact, for even when we do have severe weather, that different areas of the Outer Banks are impacted differently or not at all.”
As long as it’s safe, Hallac said, “Relax, don’t worry, and go with the flow.”
“You may have been set on a day at the beach or surfing or swimming, and it just may not be the right conditions to do that safely, but there are so many places to go here at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. We also have two other parks nearby that we manage: the Wright Brothers National Memorial (and) Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. We have a very popular state park up the road called Jockeys Ridge State Park. And we also have areas of the seashore that are away from the Atlantic Ocean on the south side, that can be a lot calmer.”
Travelers who may still be worried about the weather as hurricane season approaches have several options.
“The first thing I would recommend they do, especially if they’re renting a house, is talk to their realtors about things like vacation insurance because you really never know what’s going to happen,” Hallac said.
Travelers are urged to read terms closely and shop around before signing up for trip insurance plans.
“Insurance is a complicated thing,” Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners travel insurance previously told USA TODAY. “I don’t care if it’s auto, homeowners, what type of insurance it is, we recommend you call in and talk to a licensed agent when you’re buying the insurance so they can answer your questions and make sure you get the right thing.”
Some insurance providers may require an additional rider for unforeseen severe weather, and even then the terms can be sticky.
“A lot of the insurance only kicks in if your travel is directly affected by the path of a hurricane,” said independent personal finance expert Matt Granite, known as The Deal Guy on YouTube. “If you were flying, and there’s the chance that your flight can reroute you three times but to stopovers and you can still get to your destination around the hurricane, they might actually deny your claim.”
Granite encourages travelers to take advantage of the protections already offered by their credit card companies when booking any trip.
“Credit cards are generally your best friend where if you have a problem and you need to cancel a hotel or cancel an Airbnb equivalent, you can simply notify your credit card that there’s been a massive hurricane, you can’t travel, where you’ re going is not safe, and they will work to get you your money back nine out of 10 times and side with the consumer,” he said.
Vacation rental properties, the most common accommodations in the Outer Banks, and hotels may also offer flexibility around extreme weather.
Vrbo encourages guests to reach out to its 24/7 customer support team “if a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado, impacts your reservation, and you require immediate assistance finding alternative accommodation.” Guests who have not yet left for their trips are directed to contact their hosts.
While Airbnb’s Extenuating Circumstance Policy covers some natural disasters, “weather or natural conditions that are common enough to be foreseeable in that location – for example, hurricanes occurring during hurricane season in Florida” are specifically exempted. In those cases, refund eligibility depends on the host’s cancellation policy.
“We transparently show the cancellation policy on each listing page and strongly encourage guests to take this into consideration,” said Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit. “We also have a search filter for ‘free cancellation,’ which is a great option for guests who are traveling to places during stretches where the EC policy may not apply.”
A Hilton spokesperson told USA TODAY, “For guests whose travel plans may be impacted by a storm’s projected path, modification and cancellation penalties may be waived.”
Guests are urged to look up the latest information for specific properties at Hilton.com or by calling 1-800-HILTONS.
Hyatt spokesperson said:
Hyatt Hotels closely monitor weather activity that may impact guests who are arriving, departing or on-property. Based on the situation at hand, hotels will work to implement emergency preparedness procedures in an effort to ensure the safety and wellbeing of guests and colleagues. Some precautions may include securing exterior properties’ (eg, furniture, landscaping) and waiving cancellation fees. Hyatt Hotels also work with local officials to assess situations and extend continued care for guests, colleagues and local communities.
USA TODAY also reached out to IHG and Marriott for their weather-related cancellation policies but did receive an immediate response.