Yesterday, I listened to some of the comments about the cause of the above pictured deep cutout of Nags Head beach near Jennette's Pier and was amazed at how easily some people just laughed it off. Many said that the sea gives and it takes away and that it would naturally take care of itself. It's as if we think that man can do whatever he wants and not suffer consequences therefrom, particularly when we talk about fragile land adjacent to a very turbulent stretch of coastline. So, I decided to spend some time discussing the uniqueness of the fragile Outer Banks and how we have so defied the laws of nature that we are indeed fortunate the Banks are still with us. When we put too much infrastructure and other services pressure on a series of long and narrow sandbars, at some point they will be overloaded.
When I was a boy at Nags Head too many years ago, the permanent population of the town was about two hundred and fifty. If you consider the other close-by towns of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, the population was about one thousand. Hatteras Island was, of course, much less developed due to the tenuous nature of the island itself. It has always been subject to flooding with temporary inlets being cut through from time to time and finally the development of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore eliminated much of the danger of calamity, although that would change as well.
Boyhood hurricanes came and went, the beach took cuts and rebuilt itself naturally in the early years but later, as man wanted to bring much more development, beach replenishment started and it's been a way of life since. But with the coming of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, the Banks took a wallop unlike any seen in a lifetime and flooding was massive including in some areas nearly all the way back to the higher soundside dunes. As beach replenishment continued, a swale was created between the western dunes and the ocean man-made dunes, creating a low area that would serve to handle water runoff and remove pollutants from that water caused by rainwater and even ocean overrun past the beach. And the development of all of that area due to the opening of the bypass meant the natural area that could handle the gradual percolation of the water through sand was now becoming heavily populated. Even recent rains and storms like Matthew have shown how woefully unprepared the inland properties are for major flooding. If a major storm like the Ash Wednesday one breaks through the ocean sand dunes today accompanied by heavy rains, a disaster of great magnitude is sure to ensue.
Now as far as beach erosion goes, the barrier islands north of Cape Hatteras have a natural tendency to force stirred up sand to flow south due to the inshore Labrador Current flowing toward the Cape. That's why Oregon Inlet has so much trouble with sand filling it in while the brunt force of the current continues to cut away at the south shore and Pea Island. It's been going on for hundreds of years and the current keeps moving south close to shore until it clashes with the larger, but slower north moving Gulf Stream at Diamond Shoals. It is the clash of current that created the shoals and the turbulence over time is why the lighthouse would have fallen into the sea had it not been moved.
Lastly, let's talk about infrastructure. Since my younger days, all of the beach towns, particularly north of Oregon Inlet, have become full service towns. As of the 201o census, the permanent population on the northern beach was nearing twenty thousand and more recent projections are showing numbers much higher, some from realty advertisements claiming over fifty thousand. In all fairness, some of that likely includes homes that are not occupied by full time residents but were purchased as investment properties and rented out. And with the National Seashore logging in nearly two and one half million visitors yearly and Jockey's Ridge registering about one and one half million, the growth is obvious. Other recent estimates say that over two hundred and fifty thousand visitors come to the beach weekly during prime seasons, that's a pretty massive increase from the twenty thousand or so before on the same limited land mass. That's a lot of infrastructure that is not likely to keep up and recent reports indicate that is clearly the case..
I hope this commentary at least makes known the issues that the massive change to the Banks have created, for water removal, sand replenishment and all of the other issues that have been around for numerous generations past are just growing. And with all that massive beachfront growth and inland development as well, the ability of sand to move to and fro as is required for a healthy beach is no longer possible. Much of the sand is now covered with commercial buildings, hotels and rental homes or blocked from the wind flow by the same. .
I'll end this with two questions for each of us to ponder. No one knows for sure exactly what is causing the problems, but I think the questions are important. First, has development and the elimination of so much available sandy soil for use by nature's needs played a significant part in the flattening of Jockey's Ridge? And what will happen if another Ash Wednesday storm hits with all of the water filtration land now built up? Just as sure as the sun comes out sooner or later, such a storm with nearly hurricane force winds from the east lasting for numerous tidal cycles will again occur. I hope consideration of such issues will help us all to realize that these beautiful Outer Banks are under massive man-made stress which sooner or later must be adequately addressed. Review the simple map below and the lay of the land (or the sea) that it presents and we can't deny the impact. Then look at the picture of the inland flow of water from that 1962 storm. It's time to face reality, folks. Nature continues on the move regardless of what we do or don't do.