The Biggest Coastal Killer may not be what you think it is

In terms of weather, the biggest killer on the coast are not the hurricanes.

Or tornadoes.

Or even lightning.

They are rip currents. According to the National Weather Service, rip currents pose a greater threat from all of these other weather hazards combined.

And then some.

Today marks the start of Rip Current Awareness Week, a joint effort between the National Weather Service offices in Mobile and Tallahassee, Florida. It runs until Friday March 4th.

Why spend a whole week talking about currents?

“If you look at the statistics up to 1996, in the area that we cover, from Dauphin Island to Destin, we had 130 current deaths. These are confirmed cases. So unfortunately we average out about five deaths a year when it comes to currents,” said Jason Beaman, Acting Meteorologist and Lead Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mobile. The mobile office covers the coastal areas of Alabama and the beaches of Northwest Florida.

“They look at all of our other weather-related hazards: tornadoes, lightning, tropical hurricane effects and flooding. If you added all of these together and doubled, they wouldn’t add up to the number killed by currents in that time period.”

Rip currents are strong, narrow channels of water flowing away from the beach. They are fast. Think of a current like a treadmill moving away from shore.

Rift currents can sometimes be difficult to spot unless you know what to look for.

Rip currents can move water at speeds of up to 8 feet per second, which is faster than an Olympic swimmer, according to the Weather Service.

Rip currents can typically be found near shore through the break zone where breaking waves form. They’re also common near sandbars and near bays, jetties, and piers (where they’re more intense), according to the weather service.

Rip currents can lurk in bad weather, but also cause problems on sunny days, according to the weather service.

“It’s always a great day to come to the beach, but there are certain days when you don’t want to get in the water,” Beaman said.

And that can be tough news — especially for out-of-towners who have been painstakingly saving money and vacation days to spend on the beach.

“It’s by far our leading weather-related killer down here. So we really want to get this information out to people on how to protect themselves and still enjoy the beach,” Beaman said.

Why have rip currents proven so deadly?

“I think part of that is that people don’t live down here and hear about it all the time,” Beaman said. “They are simply unaware of the danger that sometimes lurks in the Gulf. And it’s not every day, there are many wonderful days to get out to the Gulf and swim, but swimming in an open water has its own risks. It’s not like swimming in a pool. And I think, unfortunately, that’s what people often think.”

The power of water is underestimated, he added.

“There are strong currents and big waves[in the Gulf]all the time,” he said. “…when that water is moving, it’s very powerful. And I think it just makes people understand and recognize the risks that are there and how to mitigate those risks, especially when red ones flags are waving.

“We have many visitors coming down who may not even be aware of the beach flag warning system and its importance. We also have many beaches that are unguarded where there are no lifeguards. And that comes with an even greater risk and responsibility to be aware of your surroundings.”

Here’s a look at the beach flag colors and what they mean:

beach flag system

Here’s what to look out for before heading into the Gulf.

“Especially if you’re going to an unpatrolled beach, check the flags on the beaches around you,” Beaman said. “For example, if you go to Fort Morgan, check what the conditions are like in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. It may not be identical to what is happening at Fort Morgan, but if they are raising red flags at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach then Fort Morgan is not going to be a good situation either.”

What if you get caught in a rip current?

The first – and vital – thing is not to panic, which can prove to be very difficult.

“When there’s panic, there’s no clear thinking, and that causes a lot of people to get into trouble and end up drowning,” Beaman said.

“Especially if they’re not good swimmers…if they stay calm and try to swim and let the current do its thing and then start swimming parallel to the shore, you can outrun those currents. They are not always and everywhere. It’s just a matter of thinking clearly and understanding what’s going on.”

Another important point is aimed at potential rescuers.

“We’ve lost several people over the years trying to save others from currents,” Beaman said. “Often the original person in trouble is saved, but the rescuer becomes the victim. The first thing you need to do when you see someone in trouble is call 911 or if you’re near a lifeguard, get their attention. We don’t want people forming human chains. We’ve seen images that have gone viral of several people crossing their arms and reaching into the water to try to save one person. People meant well, but it’s easy to get into trouble – and a lot more people can get into trouble at once – and that could overwhelm the lifeguards.

“If you can throw them a flotation device or something like that, but call for help and check your surroundings before going in immediately.”

The Mobile and Tallahassee Weather Service offices will spend this week offering tips and strategies for dealing with currents.

“We’re going to be posting all kinds of information … about how to spot rip currents, what a rip current is, what you should do if you get caught, what you should do if you see someone else getting caught,” Beaman called. “We really encourage everyone to check this out.”

The Mobile Weather Service also has a four-day rip current forecast for the beaches of Alabama and Northwest Florida. (Good news, the risk of rip currents is forecast to be low for the next few days.)

Rip current forecast

The Weather Service in Mobile has a four-day rolling rip current forecast.

All of this information is important for those along the coast, but even more so for those coming to the beach from out of town who may not be as familiar with beach hazards.

“We want to try to train them before their toes hit the sand,” Beaman said. “When you go on holiday you don’t want to think about all those things, you just want to enjoy and have a good time and of course we understand that. But if we can clear up a bit before a visitor comes here just so they know what that red flag on the beach means… today is not a good day to go in the water. This is a big step towards alleviating this problem.”

For more information from the National Weather Service in Mobile, click here.

For more information from the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, click here.

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