At least 11 people have drowned after getting caught in rip currents that have been wreaking havoc along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in recent weeks, as rising temperatures have pushed swimmers into cooler waters.
Seven of those deaths occurred off Panama City Beach, Fla., according to the National Weather Service, which tracks surf-zone deaths across the United States. All of the victims have been male.
Sheriff Tommy Ford of Bay County, Fla., which includes Panama City Beach, expressed frustration in a Facebook post this week about sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and lifeguards risking their lives to save strangers. They were “cursed and given the finger, while trying to warn visitors of the life-threatening dangers,” he 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 episode, Ryan Mallet, a former N.F.L. quarterback, drowned on Tuesday in Destin, Fla., after emergency medical workers responded to assist six swimmers who struggled to make it back to shore. He was 35. No rip currents were 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 calming waters as well.
What is a rip current?
Rip currents are riverlike channels that move away from the shore at high speeds and typically extend from near the shoreline to past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents form as waves disperse along the beach, causing water to become trapped between the beach and a sandbar or another shallow spot, and also near the underwater parts of structures like jetties and piers.
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 that a rip current will form.
Rip currents can be spotted from the shore, especially at lower tide. They typically appear as darker, narrow gaps of water between areas of breaking waves and white water. If you aren’t sure if what you are seeing is a rip current, ask the nearest life guard.
What’s going on in Florida?
Florida’s deadly spate of drownings can be attributed in part to a long period of onshore flow, when the prevailing wind is pointed toward the shore, said Wright Dobbs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee. An offshore flow has been moving in over the past few days, he said, and lighter wind speed over the next few days could generally ease the risk of rip currents, he said.
But that onshore flow “played havoc” on the sandbars along a stretch of the Florida shoreline known as the Emerald Coast, which includes Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, increasing the rip current risk, Mr. Wright said. “We’re still seeing them take a while to recover,” he said. “Folks 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 normally see.”
Daryl Paul, the beach safety director for Panama City Beach, 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 more than double that number, with cross-trained firefighters on standby. Lifeguard stations will also be pulled closer to the shoreline.
Mr. Paul said the forecast and tide schedule suggest that rip currents will form in the afternoon on Tuesday, July 4. 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 are caught in a rip current, you likely won’t notice at first, but the current will bring you out to sea quickly. The first rule is not to panic; doing so will only exhaust you, as you try to swim back to shore.
Because rip currents move perpendicular to shore, the best way to get out of a rip current is to let the current carry you until the force weakens, and then swim parallel to the shore until you’re able to swim to safety.
Rip current safety begins before swimmers enter the water. Panama City Beach encourages swimmers to take note of warning flags: green for calm conditions, yellow for moderate surf, and red for high surf and strong currents. When a double red flag is flown, the water is closed to the public.
The Weather Service recommends two steps to ensuring a safe beach day. First, check water conditions before going to the beach by looking at a local beach forecast. Just because it’s a sunny day doesn’t mean it’s safe to swim. And second, swim at a beach with lifeguards.