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Why North Carolina beach safety officials don’t want you to dig deep holes in the sand

The number of people visiting North Carolina beaches is rising along with temperatures, especially on the Outer Banks, which expects more than 200,000 beachgoers this year.

 David Elder, ocean rescue supervisor for Kill Devil Hills, N.C, stands in a hole he estimates to be 7 feet deep.
Town of Kill Devil Hills
David Elder, ocean rescue supervisor for Kill Devil Hills, N.C, stands in a hole he estimates to be 7 feet deep.

Officials in Kill Devil Hills are warning tourists this year about a beach activity that poses a high risk of serious injury or death. Rescuers there discovered a 7-foot-deep hole in the sand that someone had dug and left without refilling it. That same day, a man died after falling into a hole that caved in on him at a New Jersey beach.

David Elder, the ocean rescue supervisor at Kill Devil Hills, joined WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn to explain why the holes pose such a threat.

David Elder: The threat is that the primary digger, the person who digs the hole, depending on their size and the size of the rest of the people in their group. So a knee-deep hole to an adult is much deeper on a child. The sand is very unstable as it dries out.

Gwendolyn Glenn: How big of a problem is this?

Elder: These things are out there all the time. When conditions are as they are today, be it cold water or inclement conditions like rough surf, people grouse around and look for something else to do. In this case, that is digging a hole today. The conditions here: The water is cold, so people are looking for something to do. They are digging.

Glenn: We know that small children dig holes to build sandcastles and adults, too, but those are small diggings. Who's digging these holes and what are they using them for once they dig them?

Elder: I'm going to take you back to 2014. A gentleman dug a hole south of here. It was well over his head. He had to use a ladder to get down into it. When the hole gave way and caved in on top of him, they could not find him in the hole. So what happens when it caves in? It becomes basically liquid. They dug for hours with a backhoe to try to find his remains.

Glenn: That’s a sad story. So we know that the potential of death is dire. What other kinds of injuries have you seen?

Elder: Fractures, breaks, abrasions. It's a fall.

Glenn: And it's not just injuries, but the holes affect your rescue efforts as well, right?

Elder: If I would have happened along and hit this hole, or any of the other holes that we're speaking about, at night when we are doing any of the emergency activities that are commonplace, that would have made the primary call secondary because my vehicle would have been incapacitated.

Glenn: Now, this is also the nesting season for turtles along the coast. Do these holes pose a danger to the eggs or the hatchlings when they come out?

Elder: So bad news, good news. The good news is that turtles are becoming more commonplace. The bad news is because they are becoming a little bit more common on our beaches, they're interacting in a negative fashion with patrons on the beach, whether it is people with flashlights stirring them up or them getting stuck in a hole like this.

This would have been very bad as well. Turtles don't come ashore for no good reason. They're coming to nest. So this would traumatize that situation and kind of exacerbate the goal, which is preservation of species.

Glenn: If someone just has to dig a hole on a beach to do whatever they do with it, your advice?

Elder: My advice is to dig the hole closer to the water below the high water line, no deeper than knee deep of the youngest person in the group. Instead of digging a small diameter hole, dig a larger diameter hole, and then it'll be easier to not fall into.

Glenn: And fill it in.

Elder: Fill in the hole. Or do everything you can to leave the beach as you came. Footprints are all we should be leaving behind.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.