At least 11 people have drowned after becoming caught in rip currents that wreaked havoc along Mexico’s Gulf coast in recent weeks as rising temperatures pushed swimmers into colder waters.
Seven of those deaths occurred off Panama City Beach, Florida, according to the National Weather Service, which tracks deaths in surf zones throughout the United States. All of the victims were male.
Sheriff Tommy Ford of Bay County, Florida, which includes Panama City Beach, expressed frustration in a Facebook post this week on sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and lifeguards who risk their lives to save strangers. They were « cursed and given the finger, as they tried to warn visitors of the mortal dangers, » she said.
“I have seen strangers die trying to save their children and loved ones, including two fathers on Father’s Day,” Sheriff Ford wrote. He urged beachgoers to take personal responsibility as « the only way to ensure that no one else dies ».
In another swimming-related incident, Ryan Mallet, a former NFL quarterback, drowned in Destin, Florida on Tuesday after emergency medical workers responded to assist six swimmers who struggled back to shore. He was 35 years old. There were no rip currents reported in the area, officials said in a statement, but some of the things people can do to escape a rip current can also be used to avoid drowning in calm waters.
What is a rip current?
Rip currents are river-like channels that rush away from shore at high speeds and typically extend from near shore to beyond the line of breaking waves. Rip currents form when waves disperse along the beach, causing water to become trapped between the beach and a sandbar or other shallow spot, and also near the underwater parts of structures such as piers and jetties.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rip currents typically reach speeds of one to two feet per second; some have been measured as fast as eight feet per second. High winds and large waves can also increase the chances of a rip current forming.
Rip currents can be spotted from shore, especially at low tide. They typically appear as darker, narrower spaces of water between areas of breaking waves and white water. If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a rip current, ask the nearest lifeguard.
What’s happening in Florida?
Florida’s deadly wave of drownings can be attributed in part to an extended period of onshore flow, when the prevailing wind is pointed ashore, said Wright Dobbs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee. An offshore flow has been moving over the past few days, he said, and lighter wind speeds over the next few days could generally alleviate the risk of rip currents, he said.
But that onshore flow « caused havoc » on sandbars along a stretch of Florida’s shoreline known as the Emerald Coast, which includes Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, increasing the risk of rip current, Wright said. « We’re still seeing them take a while to recover, » she said. « People still need to be very vigilant. »
Mr. Wright, who grew up in the area, said the Gulf experiences rip currents year-round. But the number of deaths is « more than we usually see ».
Daryl Paul, Panama City Beach’s director of beach safety, said the city is fully staffed with 10 lifeguards to patrol its nine miles of beach year-round. Ahead of the busy Independence Day holiday weekend, he said, he plans to double that number, with cross-trained firefighters on standby. The lifeguard posts will also be brought closer to the coast.
Mr Paul said forecasts and the tide schedule suggest rip currents would form on the afternoon of Tuesday 4 July. Lifeguards will try to keep swimmers in the shallows of the sandbars.
« We have a saying, » he said. « Knee-deep is too deep. »
If you get caught in a rip current, don’t panic.
If you’re caught in a rip current, you probably won’t notice it at first, but the current will quickly carry you out to sea. The first rule is not to panic; doing so will only exhaust you, as you try to swim back to shore.
Since rip currents move perpendicular to the shore, the best way out of a rip current is to let the current carry you until the strength weakens, then swim parallel to the shore until you are able to swim to safety.
Rip current safety begins before swimmers enter the water. Panama City Beach encourages swimmers to do this note the warning flags: green for calm conditions, yellow for moderate waves and red for high waves and strong currents. When a double red flag is hoisted, the water is closed to the public.
The Weather Service recommends two steps to ensure a safe beach day. First, check the water conditions before heading to the beach by looking at local beach forecast. Just because it’s a sunny day doesn’t mean it’s safe to swim. And second, swimming at a beach with lifeguards.