Two oceanfront homes on the North Carolina Outer Banks were lost to the sea Tuesday from the same storm that unleashed tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as flooding in the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic, over the past week. The storm is set to reverse course and move inland over the Southeast and dissipate this weekend.
The slow-moving storm is not particularly intense, but its relentless pounding at the shore — combined with the effects of sea-level rise — is causing serious damage in a zone prone to the effects of human-caused climate change.
The two homes on Ocean Drive on Cape Hatteras succumbed to the sea after days of battering from the coastal storm, the National Park Service confirmed. Water levels have exceeded flood stage at high tide since Sunday, when an offshore buoy measured waves as high as 16 feet.
Overwash and sand closed parts of NC12, the main highway running through the Outer Banks, which remained off-limits Wednesday morning. “The overnight high tide was not kind to our efforts to reopen the road,” wrote the N.C. Department of Transportation in a Facebook update Wednesday.
The two homes lost Tuesday are among three destroyed by the ocean so far this year; another home on Ocean Drive collapsed Feb. 9 and spread its debris for 10 to 15 miles.
Sea levels from around Norfolk, Va. to the Outer Banks have recently risen about one inch every five years, placing more homes in peril, according to William Sweet, a sea level expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Higher seas allow waves to attack higher elevations and expose land that is typically not exposed to these types of events,” Sweet said in an interview. “These storms have been chipping away over the last years and decades.”
Sweet said that the current storm has pushed water levels about two feet above normally dry land at high tide. “We’re now twice as likely to hit a water level of two feet than we were 20 years ago,” he said. “Data and models all suggest this is becoming more common. We’re headed toward a new normal of this kind of effect.”
Mike Barber, a spokesman for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said Wednesday that early this year, the planning department for Dare County notified “multiple homeowners” along the stretch of Ocean Drive that their houses were “in unsafe condition” and at risk of falling into the sea.
Barber said federal officials soon followed up with their own letter to the same homeowners in early March, warning them of the impending risks and responsibilities. “We had concerns about visitor safety and public safety in that area,” he said.
Since early February, he added, the beach along that stretch of Ocean Drive has remained closed for public access.
Barber said that officials had been in contact with the homeowners of both houses to let them know what happened.
He said the homeowners that lost homes on Tuesday had hired a contractor to clean up the mess left behind by the collapse, and that the cleanup work had begun on Wednesday.
But similar calamities remain likely in the future. Of the houses still standing on that stretch of Ocean Drive, Barber said, several also had received letters from officials warning of the imminent risks they face.
“Unfortunately, there may be more houses that collapse onto Seashore beaches in the near future,” David Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, said in a news release.
Hallac added that his agency has “recommended that actions be taken to prevent collapse and impacts to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.”
At a public meeting in February, officials said that as many as 11 homes could soon collapse in the area, the Island Free Press reported, counting the two that were destroyed Tuesday.
Due to the ongoing storm, a coastal flood warning and high surf advisory remain in effect for Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks until Thursday morning for up to 2 to 4 feet of inundation near vulnerable dune structures, while large breaking waves could reach 10 to 15 feet in the surf zone.
“Low lying property including homes, businesses, and some critical infrastructure will be inundated,” the National Weather Service warning states.
Surf conditions are forecast to ease after Thursday, as the storm moves south and heads inland — the opposite direction storms typically progress.
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So much about this storm has been weird, or at least wild.
It began its reign of terror a week ago, unleashing nine tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, several of them destructive. One twister nearly completed a 360-degree loop about 45 miles east-southeast of Oklahoma City, astonishing forecasters.
It also unloaded nearly 10 inches of rain in parts of eastern Oklahoma, causing serious flooding, which extended into parts of southeast Kansas, southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Dozens of people were rescued in high water.
When the storm lumbered through the Southeast on Friday, the Weather Service received more than 300 reports of severe weather, including 16 tornadoes in five states. Severe flash flooding inundated portions of southwest West Virginia. Cabell County, home to Huntington and where a man died after being swept away by high waters, was among the hardest-hit areas. Gov. Jim Justice, R, declared a state of emergency for Cabell, Putnam and Roane counties.
The system morphed into a coastal storm as it moved off the Mid-Atlantic over the weekend. Its heavy rainfall flooded several waterways in the Washington area, including parts of the Potomac River.
It battered the coast of New Jersey, causing serious beach erosion. Its winds were comparable to Hurricane Sandy in some areas, wrote Joe Martucci, meteorologist for the Press of Atlantic City. Winds gusted as high as 61 mph at Atlantic City’s airport. One building under construction near Stone Harbor collapsed Saturday amid the strong winds, he reported.
Offshore, the wind and waves made for a turbulent voyage for passengers aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which sailed through the storm.
When the storm makes its curtain call in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic on Friday and Saturday, it will be a shell of its former shelf — much weaker than one week before. Still, it will generate clouds and showers, compromising what otherwise would have been a stellar spring weekend.
The storm has taken such an unusual path because it evolved into what’s known as a “cutoff low,” divorced from the west-to-east steering currents of the jet stream. Since Saturday, there’s been little to guide its motion, but a heat dome building to its northwest will put it inland over the next few days.