The Greatest Coastal Killer May Not Be What You Think
The biggest killer on the coast, in terms of weather, is not hurricanes.
Or even lightning.
These are rip currents. According to the National Weather Service, rip currents are more of a threat than all of these other weather hazards combined.
And then some.
Why spend a whole week talking about rip currents?
“If you look at the statistics up to 1996, the area we cover, from Dauphin Island to Destin, we had 130 deaths from rip currents. These are confirmed cases. So unfortunately we average about five deaths a year when it comes to rip currents,” said Jason Beaman, the acting meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Mobile. The mobile office covers coastal areas of Alabama as well as the beaches of northwest Florida.
“You look at all of our other weather-related risks: tornadoes, lightning, tropic-related impacts from hurricanes, and flooding. If you added all of these up and doubled them, they wouldn’t add up to the number the rip currents killed in that amount of time.
Rip currents are strong, narrow channels of water flowing away from the beach. They are fast. Think of a rip current as a conveyor belt moving seaward.
Rip currents can move water as fast as 8 feet per second, according to the weather service, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer.
Rip currents can usually be found close to shore to the breaking zone where breaking waves form. They’re also common around breaks in sandbars and near creeks, piers and jetties (where they’re most intense), according to the weather service.
Rip currents can lurk when the weather is bad, but they can also cause problems on sunny days, the weather service said.
“It’s always a great day to come to the beach, but there are some days you don’t want to get in the water,” Beaman said.
And that can be hard news to take, especially for people on the go who have painstakingly saved up money and vacation days to spend at the beach.
“That’s by far our number one weather-related killer here. That’s why we really want to get this information out to people, how they can protect themselves while still enjoying the beach,” Beaman said.
Why have rip currents proven to be so deadly?
“I think part of it is because people don’t live here and hear about it all the time,” Beaman said. “They are just not aware of the danger that sometimes exists in the Gulf. And it’s not every day, there are plenty of wonderful days to get out in the gulf and swim, but swimming in open water comes with its own levels of risk. It’s not like swimming in a pool. And I think, unfortunately, people often think that.
The power of water is underestimated, he added.
“There are strong currents, constantly, and big waves (in the Gulf),” he said. “…when that water is moving, it’s very powerful. And I think it just allows people to understand and realize the risks that are out there and how to mitigate those risks, especially when the red flags are flying.
“We have a lot of visitors who may not even be aware of the beach flag warning system and its importance. We also have a lot of unsupervised beach where there are no lifeguards. And so it comes with even more risk and even more responsibility to be aware of your surroundings.
Here is an overview of the beach flag colors and what they mean:
“Especially if you’re going to an unsupervised beach, check the beach flags around you,” Beaman said. “For example, if you go to Fort Morgan, check and see what the conditions are in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. It may not be the same as Fort Morgan, but if they’re waving red flags in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, then Fort Morgan won’t be a good situation either.
What to do if you are caught in a rip current?
The first – and vitally important – thing is not to panic, which can be very difficult to do.
“When there’s panic, there’s no clear thinking and that gets a lot of people into trouble and drowning,” Beaman said.
“Especially if they’re not good swimmers… if they stay calm and try to float and let the current do its thing and then start swimming parallel to the shore, you can get out of those currents. They are not everywhere all the time. It’s just being able to think clearly and understand what’s going on.
Another important point concerns potential rescuers.
“We’ve lost several people over the years trying to help save others from the rip currents,” Beaman said. “Often the first person in trouble is rescued, but the rescuer becomes the victim. The first thing, if you see someone in trouble, you should call 911 or if you are near a rescuer, get their attention. We don’t want people to form human chains. We’ve seen images that have gone viral of several people holding their arms and reaching into the water in an attempt to save a person. People are very well meaning, but you can easily get in trouble – and a lot more people can get in trouble – all at once and it could overwhelm rescuers.
“If you can throw a flotation device or something at them, but call for help and check your surroundings before entering immediately.”
The Mobile and Tallahassee Weather Services offices will be spending this week offering tips and strategies for dealing with rip currents.
“We’re going to be posting all kinds of information… on how to spot rip currents, what a rip current is, what to do if you get caught, what to do if you see someone. one else getting caught,” Beaman mentioned. “We really encourage everyone to check this out.”
The Mobile Weather Service also has a four-day rip current forecast for beaches in Alabama and northwest Florida. (Good news, the risk of rip current should be low for the next few days.)
All of this information is important for those who live along the coast, but even more so for those who come to the beach from out of town and may not be as familiar with the dangers of the beach.
“We want to try to educate them before their toes hit the sand,” Beaman said. “Once you go on vacation, you don’t want to think about all those things, you just want to enjoy and have a good time, and we certainly understand that. But if we can educate a bit in advance, before a visitor comes here, just so they know what that red flag on the beach means… today is not a good day for get in the water. This is a big step to alleviate this problem.