I’m Watching My Outer Banks Community Drown One House at a Time

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Daniel Pullen/The Virginian-Pilot/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Daniel Pullen/The Virginian-Pilot/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In Rodanthe, a tiny hamlet that stretches along the slender edge of Hatteras Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a troubling trend is afoot—houses are falling into the sea. The Atlantic Ocean pounds at their stilted legs, washing away septic systems and staircases, crashing and gnawing until the houses totter over in a splash of timber and splintered boards to bob in the waves, siding billowing in the surf, decks breaking off and slowly washing back onto the sand.

Five houses have collapsed since 2020, with four going down in 13 months from 2022 to 2023. Two fell on the same day. This spring, one house has been moved farther inland, and 20 more in Rodanthe have been pegged uninhabitable because of erosion and rising seas.

I’ve loved the Outer Banks since I first started camping there in 1977 when I was 3 years old. In the time between the 1970s and now, about 50 houses have fallen into the ocean, but never at a more rapid pace than in recent years.

Barrier islands like Hatteras are ecologically designed to move. They exist to protect the mainland. So, while Hatteras Island has never been stable, a barrier island’s response to the fiercer storms and rising seas of climate change is to retreat landward more quickly. Sea level rise is real, and Hatteras Island is eroding, retreating faster toward the mainland.

As more houses fall into the sea, I started thinking about how, collectively, we’re going to respond when the lowest-lying lands, like the barrier islands of the Outer Banks, retreat and submerge, as we lose the houses and shops and restaurants, the schools and libraries and community centers, that define Hatteras Island for tourists and residents alike. I’ve been both—a tourist and a resident of that island. I am both.

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I visited the Outer Banks every year of my life since I was 3, sometimes multiple times and in different seasons, like the winter my mom, brother, and I withdrew to a house on the sound, mourning my dad during our first Thanksgiving without him. I set my fiction on Hatteras Island; my current novel, The Saddest Girl on the Beach, is a coming-of-age story as my protagonist deals with the grief of her father’s death. (Life, meet art. Art, life.)

I moved to Hatteras Island for a year as a newlywed, and I found the community extremely tight-knit and supportive in a way that’s indicative of the island’s isolation and tenuousness. When the road washed out—and it did, often—we had to rely on one another.

I live on the North Carolina mainland now, but I remain tied to the island and its community. As the houses fall into the sea rapidly, as the island erodes, I’m wondering how I—how we—will grieve the imminent loss. Grief is on my mind, and I’m wondering if we’ll do it together.

Life on a Sandbar—it’s a popular catchphrase on the Outer Banks, a line of text you’ll see on little circular bumper stickers and scrawled in cursive across T-shirts. One Road On, One Road Off— Sometimes, is another. They’re apt slogans. The beach in Rodanthe is eroding at a rate of 13 feet per year, and Highway 12 is regularly chopped apart by storms and ocean overwash, chunks of yellow-striped blacktop heaved and cracked on top of itself in an undrivable pile.

I moved to Buxton, just south of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, in 2012, as a newlywed. By then, Highway 12 of One Road On, One Road Off— Sometimes fame, had been repeatedly moved westward in the spots where the ocean had eaten it away. My friend Gee Gee Rosell, who owns my favorite indie bookstore, Buxton Village Books, reminds me that there was a time in the 1990s when the pavement washed away in a mile-long stretch and stayed that way for months before the road was moved 100 feet west. “The dunes that were constructed are still so tall and grassed over today you would never know it wasn't always stable,” Gee Gee says. You’d never realize the road used to be where the sea now crashes.

Three weeks after my new husband and I moved to Buxton, I realized I was pregnant, and Superstorm Sandy hit. The Sometimes part of the slogan became a reality as the ocean broached Highway 12 at Rodanthe and a bit north on Pea Island.

We were living at the Soundfront Inn, where my husband worked, which had a generator and hosted anyone who needed somewhere to stay. As the wind howled and the rain pelted and the road washed away, I discovered just how close the residents really were.

I’ve never in my life seen a community that hosts as many fundraisers as Hatteras Island. The residents uncompromisingly take care of one another. The loving, nurturing nature of so many good people is evident, one of my Hatteras friends says. If someone has cancer, we all raise money. If a resident loses their home in a hurricane, we all pitch in. Restaurants donate their kitchens and their time to the island’s version of Meals on Wheels. Kids’ sports teams are unequivocally sponsored. We celebrate together—my baby shower was hosted by my boss and attended by everyone my husband and I worked or were friendly with, men and women alike. We collectively mourn when a resident dies. But are we collectively mourning climate change, the approaching loss of parts (or all) of the island?

The first time I thought about collective grief was during the 2020 lockdown, when, for a moment, everyone was in it together. We all reeled, finding ways to cope with what we’d lost, what we were in danger of losing. My friends who lived on Hatteras during quarantine tell me how comforting it was to be there, how they all supported and cared for one another. Hatteras is a great place to be when things are going well, of course, but even better when they are not, one friend said. I thought to myself that surely this must extend to climate change, surely this must be something we’re all in together and all mourning.


There’s another popular sign on Hatteras Island, one that’s not sold in stores—a piping plover giving the middle finger. It says, Hey, Audubon Society, how about this bird? There’s a pervasive vibe on the island that boils down to not wanting to be told what to do. Some don’t want to be told not to drive on a stretch of beach to save some birds, or to not walk where the sea turtles nest, and in 1999 they sure didn’t want to be told that their lighthouse was getting moved. That brouhaha and its accompanying bumper stickers are now enshrined in the lighthouse museum.

There are many climate change deniers. Many.

Everyone I talked to spoke about pockets of people alarmed, but none of my friends felt an overarching communal concern or grief. Here are some of their voices:

On some days there is too much salt water to even try to leave the village. When the ocean isn’t coming over the dunes, it is seeping through them, one said.

From another: I am already seeing groundwater rising issues both here in Nags Head and on our little farmland in Hyde County nearby. We used to grow the most lush crops of garlic in Hyde County but now garlic won't grow there at all.

The fishing community is suffering, a friend told me. There are just too many days when the ocean is too rough and/or the winds too high for the boats to leave the docks.

Overall, I don't think people EVEN HERE where we live at or slightly above sea level are grasping the direness of our climate situation, another said.

And the one that haunts me the most: It keeps me up some nights thinking that my children, who love this place so very very much, may not be able to live here and raise their families here.

One of my earliest memories is of camping in Salvo, just a few miles down the road from Rodanthe. I was three. In my memory, the sand from the dune to the ocean stretches and rolls almost endlessly. I walk, and walk, and walk over that hot sand, waves of heat shimmering translucently in the air. I walk and walk before finally reaching the cool, crashing ocean.

Now, that beach is just gone. It’s receded so far, so much faster than before the world began warming at a terrifying rate.

And only some of us seem to care.

Maybe we’re grieving what we never had. Life has never been stable, and neither has Hatteras Island. But when the sea level rises by two feet, so much more will be gone.

Highway 12 washed out many more times that year I lived on Hatteras—I’ve lost count of how many. Once, trying to get home from the airport, whitecapped waves breached the dune line and crashed under our tires. It was terrifying. When our baby was born, my husband and I decided staying was too risky, despite the natural beauty and tight community. We moved.

One of my professors taught about incremental perturbations in fiction, the way plot could be structured in thin layers of small moments of change, nothing too far out of the ordinary, building and building on one another incrementally, so small you don’t notice it until—something snaps.

Maybe the houses in the sea aren’t something snapping. The houses in the sea are the shrug, the incremental perturbation that we ignore and move on from. Just like the lighthouse being moved, just like the road washing away and being rebuilt 100 feet to the west.

We’ll grieve in pockets, alone, the full strength of the community impaired, until it’s too late. Until Hatteras is gone.

That’s the deepest grief I can imagine.

I took my kids to see an astronaut give a speech recently; he talked about how he felt a deep interconnectedness when looking down on Earth. He said the astronauts dedicated hours each week to maintaining the space station, deeply aware that it was the only thing between them and annihilation. He said it’s the same with the Earth, and that we all should dedicate ourselves to its care.

Here’s another story: it’s about the Bridge Moms. When the Bonner Bridge that arched over Oregon Inlet, the only way on and off Hatteras Island, fell into disrepair, its replacement was delayed for years. The bridge was unsafe. And it was the moms of Hatteras Island who banded together, who repeatedly traveled to Raleigh to speak with the governing bodies about the bridge’s danger, the moms of Hatteras Island who pushed and pushed and never gave up until that bridge, that lifeline, was replaced.

Instead of the swell of cultural grief I expected to feel from every corner of Hatteras, what I found was more like drips of sadness, terror, and frustration, made worse by the knowledge that it’s not communal.

But what about this: even if Outer Banks residents and tourists aren’t collectively grieving, the pockets of us living everywhere are, and we can start badgering the government. We can all be Bridge Moms, aggressively caring for one another in a way that propels us forward.

Harnessing the grief.

Today, the houses in Rodanthe teeter as the ocean crashes into their stilted legs.

The remnants of the ones that fell in have been cleaned up. They’re gone.

Icebergs are melting, and bit by bit, the seas rise.

The Bridge Moms did it; they banded together and were a force for change, and I want to say we can, too, the linked, united pockets of us grieving, on and off the Outer Banks. But it’s hard to offer solid, actionable advice for a problem so large and multifaceted. From my house on mainland North Carolina, I’ll call my representatives. Maybe you will from yours, too. Maybe we all will.

And the houses in Rodanthe will continue to sway, pounded by the ocean, as bit by bit by bit, the island slips away.

Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. Her latest novel, The Saddest Girl on the Beach is out now. Connect with Heather at HeatherFrese.com.

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