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How To Survive A Deadly Rip Current, Among The Top U.S. Beach Hazards
How To Survive A Deadly Rip Current, Among The Top U.S. Beach Hazards
How To Survive A Deadly Rip Current, Among The Top U.S. Beach Hazards

Published on: 07/07/2024

Description

Beaches, including this one in Pompano Beach, Florida, post flags warning swimmers of rip current hazards. About 100 people a year drown from rip currents along U.S. beaches each year, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
Beaches, including this one in Pompano Beach, Florida, post flags warning swimmers of rip current hazards. About 100 people a year drown from rip currents along U.S. beaches each year, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

ACROSS AMERICA — At least 19 people have died this year while swimming in rip currents, often called “drowning machines.” These powerful and often hidden currents account for the majority of beach rescues every year.

About 100 people drown from rip currents along U.S. beaches each year, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. And more than 80 percent of beach rescues annually involve rip currents — powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf and West coasts, as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Rip currents were the third-leading cause of weather-related deaths from 2012 to 2021, behind only heat and flooding, according to the National Weather Service. The agency’s data shows that in a typical year, rip currents kill more people than lightning, hurricanes and tornadoes combined.

The Weather Service reports 19 known rip current deaths in U.S. waters this year, as of June 23. They include eight people in both Florida and Puerto Rico, two in Texas and one in Ohio. The agency said that because of the difficult nature of tracking surf zone fatalities, its data may not match other sources.

Authorities in Florida say seven people drowned in rip currents off at a popular beach over a nine-day period this year, bringing to 12 the number of people who have died along the Gulf Coast. The fatalities included a couple vacationing from Pennsylvania with their six children and three young men on a Panhandle holiday from Alabama.

These powerful streams within the ocean don’t pull swimmers under but can carry them out a fair distance from the shore and make rescues more difficult.

The best way to survive a rip current is to proactively avoid it by checking rip current forecasts, posted regularly in coastal areas by the National Weather Service. Also, swim close to the lifeguard station, where the risks of drawing are a low 1 in 18 million, according to the United States Lifesaving Association.

“Lifeguards are trained to spot rip currents and other beach hazards and intervene as and when needed,” Chris Houser, a professor at the University of Windsor School of Environment and a longtime beach safety researcher, said in an email to The Washington Post. “While there is some evidence that individual beach users can be trained to spot rips, most beach users are not aware of what to look for.”

Lifeguards perform about 80,000 rip current rescues a year, despite a plethora of warnings. Most rip-current deaths are preventable, according to experts.

“If the lifeguards are flying precautionary flags, and there are signs on the lifeguard stand identifying the potential for rips in that area, and the National Weather Service and media have advertised that there is at least a moderate risk for rip currents to be present at your local beach, what else can we do?” the Weather Service’s Scott Stripling, a senior meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said in an email to The Washington Post.

“The problem,” he said, “seems to be one of communication and/or lack of attention by the general public.”

Where Are Rip Currents Most Likely?

This NOAA image shows a harmless green dye used to show a rip current — powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along U.S. coasts and shores of the Great Lakes. Nationwide, about 100 people drown in rip currents every year. (NOAA via AP)

Rip currents most often form near jetties or piers. They may be connected to stormy weather, but also sometimes form on sunny days. They can be hard to detect because the surface water may look calm.

Rip currents are especially hard to spot in South Florida, where, according to the Weather Service, they “consistently rank at or near the top of the list of deadliest weather-related hazards.” There’s not much sediment to darken or muddy the current at the shoreline, making them harder to spot. The Florida fatalities all occurred on beaches without lifeguards.

“We have clear-water rips, so these offshore-flowing currents are very hard to detect,” Stephen Leatherman, a professor in the department of earth and environment at Florida International University, told The Washington Post in an email. “The best thing is to have lifeguards and for people to swim close to lifeguards. But lifeguards are very expensive, and Florida has 825 miles of good quality sandy beaches which are swimmable for most of the year.”

How Can Beachgoers Spot Rip Currents?

To check for rip currents at the beach, stand back from an elevated position, such as a dune line or beach access, and look for places where waves are not breaking, the National Weather Service advised. Look for:

  • A narrow gap of darker, seemingly calmer water flanked by areas of breaking waves and whitewater.
  • A channel of churning/choppy water that is distinct from the surrounding water
  • A difference in water color, such as an area of muddy-appearing water (which occurs from sediment and sand being carried away from the beach).
  • A consistent area of foam or seaweed being carried through the surf.
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern.

How Can Someone Escape A Rip Current?

Rip currents can flow as swiftly as eight feet per second, faster than even strong swimmers can overcome, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“If you’re caught in one and you try to swim straight in, you’re not going to be able to,” Daniel Barnickel of the Palm Beach (Florida) County Ocean Rescue told The Associated Press.

For swimmers caught in a rip current, the best advice of beach rescue teams and weather forecasters is not to panic and look for a chance to swim parallel to the shore until they’re safely out of the current’s grip. The current will eventually dissipate but may leave the swimmer out in deeper water.

It’s nearly impossible to fight the current directly. Many swimmers who get in trouble tire themselves out trying to get back to the beach, lifeguards say. If possible, it’s best to swim near a lifeguard station.

“Most of our rip current rescues happen outside the guarded areas because we’re not there to prevent it from happening,” Barnickel said.

Also, Barnickel said, “Never swim alone. And always make sure that there’s an adult. And make sure that you don’t overestimate your abilities. Know your limits.”

Swimming near smaller waves is also risky, according to the National Weather Service, which explains that a break in the waves can indicate the presence of a rip current.

A common myth, according to the National Weather Service, is that human chains are an effective rescue technique. Instead, they can be extremely dangerous because a rip current can pull the people in chain into its grip and put them at risk of drowning, creating a multi-victim situation that overwhelms trained rescuers.

If you see someone caught in a rip current:

  • Call a lifeguard or 911 for help immediately.
  • If help is not immediately available, then throw the person in trouble something that floats, such as a life jacket, body board, cooler or a ball, and yell instructions on how to escape.
  • If you must enter the water, never enter without flotation, and always keep the flotation device between you and the person in trouble.

What Rip Current Warnings Exist?

Flags of different colors are used to warn beachgoers of various hazards. Rip current flags are red (high hazard), yellow (moderate threat) and green (low danger). Purple flags indicated dangerous sea life, such as jellyfish, and double red flags are flown when a beach is closed for any reason.

The National Weather Service posts rip current risks on its websites around the coasts and has developed a computer model that can predict when conditions are favorable for their formation up to six days in advance for the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam.

“Before this, forecasters were manually predicting rip currents on a large section of the ocean twice a day and only a day or two into the future. The earlier prediction has the potential to substantially increase awareness and reduce drownings,” Gregory Dusek, a NOAA scientist who developed the model, wrote in a post on the agency's website.

Rip currents, underflows and rip tides are not the same thing. In fact, the term “rip tide” is a misnomer, according to the National Weather Service.

While neither rip currents nor underflows will pull a person under the surface of the water, underflow is a term used to describe the current beneath the surface when waves are breaking upon the shore.

Tides are very long-period waves that move through the ocean in response to the forces of the moon and sun. While tides can be a factor in rip current development, there is no phenomenon specifically called a “rip tide,” according to the Weather Service.

Watch this video from NOAA on surviving a rip current.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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News Source : https://patch.com/us/across-america/how-survive-deadly-rip-current-among-top-u-s-beach-hazards

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