EMERALD ISLE — One year ago this week, the all-American fun and excitement of July 4 was halted by tragedy when a 10-by-12-foot section of deck collapsed at an oceanfront vacation home at 4403 Ocean Drive.
The collapse sent more than 20 members of a Virginia family plummeting 14 feet to the ground, and ultimately, to the hospital. All survived, but some were seriously injured.
A little over a month later, on Aug. 10, another deck collapsed at a house at 17 Ocean Drive, and nine people fell about 5 feet into a sandy area. A 62-year-old woman suffered fractures.
Together, the two incidents halted a long period of complacency about deck safety. And while nothing can erase the pain of the victims or the memories of the incidents, town officials believe Emerald Isle is now a much safer place, with no incidents during this Fourth of July holiday.
“The collapse was a horrible incident and we hope and pray that everybody is OK,” town manager Frank Rush said last week as he recalled the incidents. He added that he and others have respected the Virginia family members’ desires not to give out their names or contact information. He hasn’t heard from any of them in months. “But we as a town have done a lot of things since then to increase awareness of deck safety, and I think the end result of those things is positive. The tragedy certainly got everyone’s attention.”
The cause of both deck collapses was faulty fasteners, and everyone involved quickly realized the town had no statutory authority to require inspections of private structures once a certificate of occupancy has been issued, except when there is clear evidence of imminent threat to public safety.
It’s not that the town had been ignorant of the possible problems. On May 26, a little over a month before the collapse on July 4, new town planning director Josh Edmondson sent a letter to all vacation home rental companies in town, noting, among other things, that, “it is important that periodic inspections” of decks on older homes are done and any defects corrected.
But after the incident, the town took action in a number of ways. It organized and held a deck safety class last December and held another one May 20, during Deck Safety Month. Both were under the auspices of the North American Deck and Rail Association. The first class was for contractors, the second for the general public and both were well-attended.
The programs included instruction on techniques to properly evaluate decks, stairs and railings using the evaluation checklist. Participants learned how to analyze the safety of stairs, footings and posts, joists and connectors, deck boards, handrails and much more, including the difficult and often overlooked task of accessing footings for evaluation.
In addition, the town has sent out deck safety mailings and posted information regularly on the town website. The biggest move, however, was the town’s facilitation of a voluntary deck inspection program in conjunction with the seven major rental companies in town: Angelfish Properties, Bluewater Real Estate, Century 21 Coastland Realty, Emerald Isle Realty, Shorewood Real Estate, Spinnakers Reach Realty and Sun-Surf Realty.
All single-family and duplex vacation rental units managed by these companies are now required to be inspected at least once annually, by either a licensed North Carolina general contractor or a licensed North Carolina professional engineer.
The onus has been on the unit owners to make any safety or structural repairs that are identified as necessary. Failure to complete the necessary repairs will result in the vacation rental unit being suspended from the vacation rental companies’ management programs until the repairs are completed.
All the efforts, combined, have had a big impact.
According to Mr. Edmondson, there have been 280 deck repair permits issued in the town since the middle of July 2015, as well as 130 permits for complete deck replacements.
That’s a total of 410 accidents that potentially have been avoided, and repairs continue in town.
“I think for the most part people have cooperated and taken appropriate action,” Mr. Edmondson said last week. “Obviously, a lot of homeowners hadn’t realized how bad their situations were, and many have done what they’ve needed to do. It’s slowing down some now, because we’re into the season, but I think that once we get back into fall and winter, it will pick up again.”
Realtors, town officials, contractors, homeowners share the goal of making it as unlikely as possible that there will be a rerun of the scene emergency responders found when they arrived at 4403 Ocean Drive after the first emergency call came in at 6:59 p.m. July 4, 2015.
Responders from Emerald Isle were on the scene in minutes and were quickly joined by others from Western Carteret Fire and EMS, Salter Path/Indian Beach Fire and EMS, Pine Knoll Shores Fire and EMS, Atlantic Beach Fire and EMS, Broad and Gales Creek Fire and EMS, Morehead City Fire and EMS and Carteret County. A triage station was set up at the Salter Path ball field for helicopter landings. Emerald Isle Fire Chief Bill Walker was in command.
“Nobody wants to see that again,” Mr. Rush said last week, “and we’ve had a great community effort that we believe will continue. We’ve made a lot of progress, but the other side of that coin is that none of the houses in town are getting any younger. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
No one really knows how many decks there might be in town, but Mr. Edmondson said there are an estimated 6,000 structures.
He guesses that well over half have decks, and many of them have two or three.
“You see front decks, back decks, side decks, decks stacked on top of each other,” he said.
NADRA estimates that 50 percent of the 40 million residential decks and 10 million commercial decks in the United States are more than 25 years old.
Between 2000 and 2008, the organization says, at least 30 deaths were reported due to deck collapses, and more than 75 percent of people on a deck when it collapses are injured or killed.
Speakers at the December deck class in town included Jim Mailey of Simpson Strong-Tie, an industry leader. He said it’s a myth that most decks that collapse do so because they are overloaded.
That might happen, he said, “But you can’t overload a properly built deck.”
Why? Because, Mr. Mailey said, a properly built deck has an incredibly high weight capacity. A 480-square-foot deck, for example, should be able to handle 19,200 pounds. That would be 60 people with an average weight of 320 pounds. Try fitting that many large people on a 12-by-40-foot deck. Or twice that many people with a more reasonable average weight of 160 pounds. It’s almost always the wood, the fasteners or both.
Town resident Jim Osika, a planning board member who took the time and effort to get NADRA-certified and now operates a deck inspection business, said the average safe life of a deck is 10-20 years in the zone – Zone 5 – that includes coastal North Carolina, as well as the rest of the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. And that zone generally extends 20 miles inland.
For those reasons alone, an inspection program was a good idea. And it has paid off, but it has been hard work.
Kevin Futral, general manager of vacation and annual rentals for Bluewater Realty, which managed the house at 4403 Ocean Drive, said the company has inspected nearly 400 of its properties since the public-private program went into effect.
“It’s worked well, and has raised awareness, among not just the realty companies but also the owners of the properties, but it’s quite an undertaking,” he said.
“We’ve had the inspections by licensed engineers and contractors, and then we’ve had to go through the permitting process, then get the work done, then get the work certified. I think we’re within five or six properties of being 100 percent complete,” Mr. Futral added. “But we were certainly in a much better place going into this season. We had everything from minor repairs to complete deck replacements.
“This year has been kind of like getting the Band-Aid ripped off. But I think that as we move ahead into the next years, we’ll have mostly minor issues to deal with.”
The decking at 4403 Ocean Drive is all new.
Meanwhile, Mr. Osika said he did 140 inspections of decks before the business dried up as the season approached and found only two that didn’t need repairs.
About 40 percent of those, he said, had structural integrity problems and probably shouldn’t have been approved by inspectors when they were built.
He agrees the effort has made the town’s rental housing stock safer, but has been disappointed that more owners of non-rental properties haven’t had their decks inspected.
“I don’t think we’ve made much of a bite in the residential sector, for whatever reasons,” he said. “I guess that’s because, unlike the rentals, there hasn’t been a mandatory program. “
He does think that some of those full-time residents and second-home owners might have done some inspecting on their own, though.
“At that second class we had, the one in May for the general public, I did see a lot of people taking notes,” he said.
He noted that he didn’t do any repairs, because he viewed it as a conflict of interest to tell people their decks needed work and then quote them a price to do the work.
Still, Mr. Osika thinks his work made it clear that almost any deck that’s been up for more than five years in this coastal environment likely needs some attention.
He’d like to see the state update its building code standards for decks to reflect recent changes in the International Residence Code, but doesn’t think there has been any movement in that direction yet.
Mr. Rush said he agrees the town’s public-private program has been successful, but stresses that it’s not time to relax.
“We’re going to continue our public education efforts, and encourage everyone to be proactive,” he said. “And we meet with the all of the vacation rental companies every fall after the season, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this again and do some tweaks and make some adjustments if necessary.
Judging by the hordes of visitors that have been in town since the Memorial Day tourist season kickoff, Mr. Rush doesn’t think the events of last summer have had any impacts on the town’s economic engine.
“It certainly wasn’t the kind of publicity any town would want, but I think people know that we have tried our best to respond in appropriate ways,” Mr. Rush said. “I think that as a community, our efforts have been successful and made a difference. And we’ll keep trying.”
Contact Brad Rich at 910-326-5066 (office) and 252-864-1532 (cell); email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bradccnt.