Harbor Island Abandoned Houses – St. Helena Island, South Carolina - Atlas Obscura

On the quaint beach of Harbor Island, South Carolina, lies a cluster of homes abandoned by their owners and left to succumb to the elements and the ever-changing beach. Harbor Island is the first of three barrier islands off of the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina; the other two being Hunting Island (a nature preserve) and Fripp Island (a beach resort). This quiet beach has become a popular vacation spot for locals and visitors alike, leading to condos, duplexes, and homes being built along the small, three-mile beach. When the island was first being developed, there weren’t many rules on where homes could be built, leading to some homeowners building their houses right on the sand. While this at first seemed like the ideal spot to have an oceanfront getaway, it would eventually prove to be a geographical nightmare.

Barrier islands like Harbor Island are beautiful, but they can be dangerous. These islands are naturally formed by wave and tidal action parallel to the mainland, which creates a barrier between the ocean and the mainland. The main benefit of barrier islands is that it protects the mainland from major storms that could cause damage to the ports, but that also means that those islands experience those storms in all their glory. For the most part, these islands are the perfect beach getaway, but when those bad storms hit, it can be a nightmare.

The owners of these homes experienced this nightmare firsthand. In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew—the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since 2007—made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 storm. It was the first hurricane to make landfall in South Carolina since 2004. Hurricane Matthew left immense destruction in its path. With Harbor Island being ill-prepared for the heavy wind and rain, and located right in its trajectory got hit hard, damaging and flooding many homes and condos. The strength and force of Hurricane Matthew even physically changed the shape of the beach on Harbor Island. 

Homes directly on the beach received the power of the hurricane head-on and came out damaged beyond repair. Most of the homeowners, realizing the extent of the damage, took the insurance money and left the homes to fall apart on the beach. It has led to a lawsuit from other homeowners on the island, saying they are an eyesore, dangerous, and prevent people from enjoying the entirety of the beach. During high tide, the waters do come all the way up to the houses and prevent you from visiting a small portion of the beach.

There is no telling how much longer these houses will remain on the beach, either being washed away by the ocean or eventually torn down. For now, they remain a mesmerizing sight and a profound statement on the power of nature.

Know Before You Go

Harbor Island is a private island, and although you can drive through it, in order to reach the abandoned houses you have to go through the gate that leads back to the condos and homes. There is a guard posted at the gate 24/7 and in order to get through you have to get a pass from renting one of the many homes or condos on the island. You can also see the abandoned houses from boat if you drive by the north point of the beach.

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