Jockey's Ridge sand

Mounds of sand from Jockey's Ridge encroach onto the property of nearby homeowners. 

NAGS HEAD, N.C.

The largest sand dune on the Eastern Seaboard is on the move. And like something out of a horror flick, it's threatening to devour homes in its path.

Jockey’s Ridge typically migrates about 6 feet a year as Outer Banks winds whip over its peaks. This year, the sand has shifted up to 30 feet in places, overtaking trees and forming ominous mounds behind houses along Soundside Road.

“I’ve lost most of my backyard” said Joy Greenwood, superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

She lives next to her 426-acre stewardship along with about nine other neighbors.

But the park's keepers aren't planning to let Mother Nature take over.

Dump trucks will move 140,000 cubic yards of sand — about 200,000 tons — from the south side of the dune back to where it came from on the north side beginning next week. It will take about 14,000 truckloads for Manteo contractor Hatchell Inc. to finish the $1 million job. Records show it is only the second time in the park’s 43-year history of moving sand — and this is the largest, Greenwood said.

“It’s a big challenge,” Greenwood said.

In 2004, the park hauled piles that collected on Soundside Road, but no homes were threatened at the time, she said.

So what's causing the latest encroachment?

Hurricanes Florence and Michael, and winter storms early and late in 2018, were stronger than normal and pushed more sand than usual, Greenwood said.

Set along U.S. 158, Jockey's Ridge draws more than a million visitors a year, consistently making it the most popular state park in North Carolina. Children roll down its slopes, adventurers launch hang gliders from its peak and families sit along the ridge to watch sunsets.

It is part of a system of back barrier dunes formed thousands of years ago that ran along the coast. Dunes in False Cape State Park and the hill where the Wright brothers tested their glider are part of what’s left of the ancient mounds, Greenwood said. Smaller ones along the oceanfront are manmade.

Native Americans and early explorers to the New World used the tall sand ridge as a landmark. Legend says the name came from locals who raced wild horses along the base.

The dune had a prominent ridge of 140 feet about 50 years ago. Now it has shifted into three main hills, with the largest reaching 90 feet, Greenwood said.

The park bought three properties on its south side and hopes to acquire others in an effort to contain the sand within its boundaries. A state law says property owners are required to return park sand found on their land. The law seems harsh, but it passed decades ago to stop local contractors who once backed their trucks up to the hillside and helped themselves to loads of it, Greenwood said.

The park is not enforcing the old law on adjacent property owners as the ancient hill relents to the elements.

“We try to be good neighbors,” she said.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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