Coastal Homeowner Builds with the Unexpected in Mind

By Trish Holder

Residential flooding from Hurricane Irene

“It looked like a tsunami,” said Laurie Hodges, describing what it was like to watch the waters of the Croatan Sound advance on her home during Hurricane Irene last summer.

Fortunately, when Laurie built her home 17 years ago in the Vista Lake neighborhood outside of Manteo, NC, she had wisely chosen to build on 8 ft. pilings – what most of us laymen refer to as “stilts”.   Thanks to those pilings, Laurie’s home escaped damage from Hurricane Irene, even though the water rose as high as 5 ft. in her backyard.

“Some folks laughed at me for building my house on pilings,” she said.

No one is laughing now.

My Kind of Homeowner

I met Laurie recently while my family was vacationing at the Outer Banks.  She cleans and maintains several rental properties on the Outer Banks for private owners, including the Pirate Cove condo, which we rented in Manteo.  I called Laurie (who had left her number in the condo) on the second day of our vacation when I noticed the clothes dryer wasn’t working.   The next morning she arrived at the condo to meet her “appliance guy” and assisted as he cleaned an inordinate amount of lent from the dryer motor.

This is the kind of stuff Laurie does all day long, in addition to cleaning, washing, folding, vacuuming, and sanitizing rental properties.  And she’s really good at it.  The owners whose properties she maintains are lucky to have her—of that I have no doubt.  (How many property/cleaning service providers do you know that get down on their hands and knees to examine a dismantled dryer while its being serviced by someone else?)  I was completely impressed.

Laurie is not only my kind of cleaning lady – she’s also my kind of homeowner.   Observant.  Detail oriented. Eager-to-learn.  And learn she did from her experience during Hurricane Irene, something we started chatting about when she was riding shotgun on the dryer repair.

Coastal Living Smarts

Irene wasn’t Laurie’s first hurricane.  She has lived in Dare County for 30 years.  Growing up as a Navy brat, she’s lived in coastal regions throughout the US.  You could say coastal living is in her blood and she loves it.  But she also understands the risks and consequences of owning a home in this kind of environment.  For instance, as much as she loves the beach, she opted to build her home on land flanked by sound and not sea.

Roanoke Island is situated between the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds.  The latter is the body of water that separates the island from the official Outer Banks, with Nags Head just across the bridge.  The entire island is a designated floodplain, but building codes do not require elevated homes on most areas on the island, as they do on the actual coastline.  When Laurie built her home almost two decades ago, few people in the area built their homes on pilings.  The risk of flood was apparently not perceived as being so great as the hassle of having to climb a flight of steps to enter your home.  According to Laurie, that mindset has changed a bit.  Post Irene, she estimates that about half of the homes in her area are now being built on pilings.

“Such an odd storm….”

On August 27th, 2011, sound met sound on Roanoke Island, making Laurie awfully glad she had the foresight to build a home that went beyond code requirements.  On this day, Laurie and her boyfriend, Danny, watched as the water level rose at a rate of an inch every 28 seconds.  The water rose within just a few inches of their elevated HVAC units.  She lost a van, which she had parked elsewhere on higher ground but to no avail.  She lost a lawnmower, a weeding machine, and a few other odds and ends stored below the house.

None of this was covered by insurance – the one lesson that Laurie did learn from this experience.  Just because you have flood insurance on your home doesn’t mean the contents are covered, not even what is stored beneath the home.  Laurie has since changed her flood coverage to include content.  Undoubtedly she was not the only homeowner on Roanoke Island to learn this after Hurricane Irene.

Laurie was both fortunate and smart to have built an elevated home at a time when most island residents had never seen nor expected to see waters get so high.  Without content insurance, the damage to her home would have been financially devastating.

“It was such an odd storm,” she said, reflecting back on Irene.

It was the storm’s unusually slow progression, she explained, that led to the unexpected demise of areas unaccustomed to such high flooding.  It slowly and steadily blew water north and west out of the Pamlico Sound, and then, as the storm departed to the north, it blew all that water straight back south and east across the sound.

“All that water had to go somewhere,” she said.

Nature is like that.  She has a tendency to throw a curve now and then – especially at coastal regions.  It’s the thoughtful homeowner, the homeowner who never underestimates what might happen in a storm, that fares the best.

Clearly, that’s the kind of homeowner that Laurie Hodges is.


7 Responses »

  1. Hello Trish,

    That’s anticipating to the unexpected, but with climate changes: very real!
    In The Netherlands we even build floating houses in river areas with piles until about 10 m above the normal waterlevel. So they can even float higher than 5 feet during floods (high water waves).
    I’m living in The Hague about 9 m above mean sea level; that’s not too bad. Many parts of The Hague are located below sea level mainly protected by dunes with build-in protection structures like dikes and sheetpiles.
    In Drenthe – north east in The Netherlands – we have a mobile home at 21 m above mean sea level. That’s the best!
    Weather is changin’, while everything is changing. So, anticipate!

    Meindert Vos
    Coastal Engineer

  2. Great article Trish.

    Funny how common sense can get designed out of a house. Hopefully, in this case, it will get designed back into the seaside communities.

    Even if they do have to climb a flight of stairs ;-)


    • Thanks for your comment, Marc. Your comment made me think about the fact that many retirees head for coastal regions, and clearly, climbing a flight of steps is probably not one their home wish list. When interviewing Laurie Hodges for this article she mentioned that a great many people in her area are building their homes with elevators. Great idea, if you can afford it, but elevators flood too and can also incur a lot of damage!

  3. We are designing a lot of coastal homes from the Outer Banks to Key Largo and Belize. We are doing everything on pilings and typically add space for a future elevator, since many retiring homeowners recognize they may need the elevator in the future (more planning ahead). Many of the new elevators have machines at the top level to avoid the concerns of totally destroying the elevator in a storm event.

    FEMA is constantly revising their flood maps and with sea level rise predictions being much greater than even a few years ago (especially north of Nagshead) we throw in a couple more stairs than is required to be cautious. Those extra couple of feet can mean much lower insurance rates in the future.

  4. Having the elevator machine on the top floor is a great idea but unfortunately for some condo owners in Dare County(NC), that was not the case. And I was told by an owner that the owners of each condo building were responsible for the cost of the repairs.

  5. Great story & one that should help homeowners understand they have to plan & take responsibility for their decisions as ultimately, they are the ones who will live with the consequences.

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