The Outer Banks oceanfront spans approximately 90 miles from Carova in the 4-Wheel Drive Area at the North Carolina/Virginia border in northern Currituck County all the way down to Hatteras Village at the southern tip of Dare County and is an ever-changing beach. No two spots are the same, and the same spot is never the same day to day.
We are a barrier island which is a land mass which by definition moves. It migrates. The sand blown off the beach is supposed to travel on the wind and be deposited on the west side (“soundside”) of the island to create land over there; the little sand islands dotted out in the sound are created in this way.
Likewise, ocean overwash is supposed to not stop at a dune line, but rather carry on over the island and wash over into the sound…or make it partway onto land and dry up, leaving a bio-rich fertilizer of sorts to feed vegetation that takes hold in the lee of the wind behind drifted sand lumps.
Another factor in the movement of our beaches is that we are situated on the Atlantic Ocean at its convergence of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current. Our prevailing winds and constantly south-traveling currents cause erosion even on calm days. So there is continually sand being carried south with the ebb of waves, which ultimately creates a “scalloped” effect on the shore line–sand eroded from the coastline farther north is carried down on the current and deposited on the beach farther south. When sand accumulates it is called accretion-the opposite of erosion. And this cycle continues on down the coast.
Each area of the Outer Banks coastline has a different erosion rate. Maps exist that show these various rates.
The main four areas of the Outer Banks experiencing the highest natural beach front erosion are, from north to south– northern Duck, Kitty Hawk, South Nags Head and Rodanthe. There are other small pockets of somewhat-high beach erosion between these four areas, but these are typically the worst. Part of Pine Island in southern Corolla is one area, and many people say that shipwrecks just off the shore create irregular wave patterns that actually “chew up” the beach worse than the natural wave/current patterns do, such as near the MP 6 area of Kill Devil Hills.
If you have seen the Kitty Hawk oceanfront, you will notice something missing-a continual oceanfront row of homes. Many have washed away over the years; in some areas of Kitty Hawk there is not enough land left on which to build homes.
In summer of 2011 the Town of Nags Head implemented a $36 million “Beach Nourishment” program that has been successful so far in building up a wider beach. Only time will tell how long the sand will stay put. There are skeptics and proponents on both sides of the hotly contended issue. This is the only beach replenishment project planned or in progress in the entire Outer Banks oceanfront.
South Nags Head has the highest number of wash-ins in recent years (seen often on TV and online nowadays) due to the higher density of original planning/zoning which allowed building on smaller lots and closer to the mean high water mark.
Probably the most dramatic and publicly visible oceanfront erosion is the beach front in Rodanthe, Hatteras Island’s northernmost village that was made nationally famous by the Richard Gere/Diane Lane movie “Nights in Rodanthe,” which featured a popular vacation rental home called “Serendipity.” The house featured in the movie was the northernmost house on all of Hatteras Island, period, until it was forced to be moved by Dare County because the erosion was so bad that the dwelling was eventually sitting on public land. The resulting northernmost house–Serendipity’s old neighbor–was washed away in the after-effects of 2011’s Hurricane Irene.
Oceanfront dwellings with federally backed or insured mortgages are required to carry flood coverage no matter the elevation of the lot. The oceanfront is usually deemed VO or VE Flood Zone which basically means there is a “chance of 100-year flooding along with wave velocity hazard.”
When an oceanfront lot has eroded away too badly it becomes non-conforming; if this occurs the owner may not be allowed by the County or Town to rebuild it exactly as it exists now if it were to burn down or be washed away by the ocean.