Fran Bertha 1996

Beach Dome #1
Hurricane Fran and Bertha 1996

This is Beach Dome #1, a 4 bedroom, 4 bath, 2400 sq. ft. 36′ diam. high-profile dome. It was built in 1984 on the Atlantic Coast in Surf City, the middle town on 26 mile long Topsail Island, North Carolina.

These first 2 photos show the dune structure in the early years. In the early 1990’s the sun deck on the edge of the dune was lost to a Nor’ Easter that occurred with a full moon. That should have told us something.

This is the street side view showing the dune on the ocean side at about the height of the main floor. Note the extensive 8″ x 8″ pilings. These went down into the sand approx. 6′-7′. The code required 5′.

On July 12, 1996, our Beach Dome was directly in the path of Bertha – a class 3 hurricane with 105 MPH winds. Gusts on Topsail Island were reported reaching 144 MPH.

While demolishing 40 homes and doing extensive damage to other houses on the coastal island, our dome survived with superficial damage. Total damages to structures were reported to exceed $60 million.

The severity of the storm completely stripped the barrier sand dune in front of the dome which was 9′-10′ high and 45′-50′ wide.

This is the Street side view. Bertha had taken the entire sand dune and spread it over 2½ blocks inland. This pile of sand was plowed up from the street.

It ripped the screen porch and entire ocean side roof off the house next door.

On the house next door, the wind lifted the roof and screen porch and flipped it over the house where it landed near the street. That’s the “street” next to the 25 MPH sign.

The covered ocean side porch of our dome had all 6 of its support posts sheared off when the storm took a huge set of wooden steps from the adjoining property and slammed it into the deck posts.

One lower conventional Pella window was blown out – however, none of the large Natural Spaces triangle dome windows, nor the huge pentagon skylight were damaged.

Here we are removing the steps from under our porch. These were someone else’s steps from the ocean side of the dune.

We proceeded to take the sand from the street side and “bring” it around to make a new ocean side dune.

I think the two tractor operators got dizzy from all the circles they made around the dome.

We continued to build up the sand dune, depositing some of it under the dome around the ocean side pilings.

We “borrowed” the steps that had found their way under our porch and made them our new dune walkover steps.

We were mighty proud of our new dune. Now we just had to wait for our neighbors to do the same.

Most of the other dunes were rebuilt by “pushing” the sand up from the beach at low tide.

This is a view after Bertha, taken from across the street behind the 2nd row of houses. Remember this view.

The above photos related to hurricane Bertha from July 12. The new ocean side dune was restored during the next month. Good clean beach sand – but, fresh, loose and no vegetation to hold it together.


On September 5, 1996, less than 2 months after Bertha, another hurricane came barreling towards Topsail Island. This one was named Fran, a category 3 with winds at 115 MPH. However, Fran had a storm surge and 10 inches of rain in 12 hours. Some people trapped on Topsail Island reported seeing more than one tornado. From Topsail Island to Raleigh to Virginia the damage estimate was over $1.6 Billion.

Two days after Fran hit, with nobody allowed on the island and no word of the condition of our dome, we hired a local aerial photographer to fly over.

These photos show the extensive damage to over 125 beachfront homes. They also show the dune sand (built up after Bertha) spread inland 3 blocks to the other side of the island.

Needless to say, this was a shocker!
Now, for the rest of the story.

To start out, you have to know that the reason the dome was moved 75′, was because the wood pilings gave way. Hurricane Bertha had “removed” the beachfront dune which had been there since the island was inhabited. Two months later, Hurricane Fran came along and easily washed away the new loose, non-vegitated dune.

Fran proceeded to “churn up” the sand around the pilings, which, at this stage, were only 4′ to 5′ below the surface.

The best that we could surmise, with winds exceeding 150 mph and the obvious tidal surge, Fran proceeded to float and push our dome while ripping off the main floor joist system attached to the pilings.

We made the national news via an AP photographer’s photo showing Janet removing our belongings from the dome.

We salvaged all of our handmade custom furniture from the main floor living/dining room.

Fran plunked the dome down, half in the street and half in the neighbors front yard across the street.

After going through the National Guard checkpoints, upon arriving at our dome, the words shock and awestruck came to mind. To our amazement, upon entering our dome we saw the upper level floor about 3′ above the ground on the left, tilted at about 25°.

These are the ocean front pilings. The floor rim joist is still connected to the pilings. The rest of the pilings were either ripped out of the ground or snapped off.

The main floor extension walls and floors are gone. The skylights are intact except for the ones next to the ocean entry door and one triangle skylight that was hit by a 2×4.

The big thing to note here – the right side second floor extension has no support at all. It is held up off the ground by its attachment to the dome! And the dome did not “Deform” on this side with all of that weight.

The sheetrock 2nd floor walls are still intact, the cupola stairs are in place, and the 2nd floor itself is still together. We have reused the cupola stairs in the new Beach Dome Two. The TV and bookcase speakers were still on top of the bookshelves upstairs.

The large pentagon skylight (7’ wide) is intact. You can look thru the door into the 2nd floor bedroom extension. The shelf that ran around the upper bedroom still contained all the paper back books and a round base lamp was on top of the dresser on it’s side. Ponder that for a while and you start thinking, “What a ride that would have been, sitting up in the cupola!”

The rest of the story is that the city didn’t like the dome sitting in the middle of their street.

We had shown thru repair estimates appraisals that the dome was less than 50% damaged and we should be allowed to rebuild on our site. We watched as several other owners of damaged beach front homes fought through the legal system to the state appeals court. They kept losing and it was becoming obvious to us that with the changes to the building code by the city, and the erroneous cost/repair estimate from the city, that we were fighting a losing battle.

Then we found out from someone in the know that the city convened a secret city council meeting and let out a secret contract to demolish and remove our dome on the saturday of Easter weekend.

Needless to say they were very nervous when I showed up with my cameras in hand.

We had seen other homes being demolished in about 20-30 minutes. They had a surprise coming as they tried to level the dome. They dept taking large chunks out of the structure but it didn’t just collapse. It just dept kneeling over and settling down as pieces were removed. They finally got it down to the cupola and had to run it over. The process took 1.5-2 hours, much longer than the conventional houses. A testament to the strength of the dome shell.

After this ordeal, we decided to rebuild in a more friendly, welcoming community and built Beach Dome 2 in North Topsail Beach on the north end of Topsail Island. We have been enjoying our new dome and learned a bigger lesson – don’t build to the minimum building code requirements. Our new pilings under Beach Dome 2 go down 16′ to 18′ below grade and we are sitting 130′ to 150′ in back of the dune line. We’ve had several hurricanes go by with no damage.