The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network recently compiled a series on the dangers of severe weather in the state and the value of residents being aware of weather safety best practices. Stay informed by following Florida Storms, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and your local National Weather Service office on social media.
Since 1995, rip currents have killed more than 300 people in Florida. Rip current deaths often go unreported, but this weather phenomena can be just as deadly as hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning or flooding.
“I don’t think people understand how deadly it is,” said Amy Godsey, chief meteorologist for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “Every year we have 30 to 35 fatalities just from rip currents. In a typical year, that’s more than any other weather hazard.”
Rip currents occur when a strong channel of water moves away from the shore. They can pull swimmers away from the beach and into deeper water. When swimmers panic and struggle against the current, they can exhaust themselves and drown to death.
“Rip currents are the number one cause of water rescues in Florida and around the country,” said Tom Gill, vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association.
USLA certifies agencies to provide a minimum standard of lifeguard training, including in Florida, and engages in public education for beach and marine safety. The organization trains lifeguards to spot rip currents, which is challenging for the everyday swimmer to do.
Typically, rip currents appear as calm patches in the surf with waves breaking off to the sides. The water may look darker than the surrounding area, and it may be close to a sandbar or a reef.
“It may look like a calm spot, but it’s actually the worst possible place to be,” Gill said.
Gill said that rip currents can be a consistent threat or may appear in a flash. All sorts of weather factors may play a role, including high winds and waves over 2 feet tall.
If you are caught in a rip current, Gill said the first step is not to panic. This is where swimmers make the fatal mistake of exhausting themselves by fighting the current.
“If you can float, you can survive,” he said.
As you get pulled out, shout for help and make the lifeguard and other swimmers aware that you are in distress. If you are a strong swimmer, begin to swim parallel to the shore toward a breaking wave. Eventually you will be able to escape the current.
There are several steps you can take to avoid being caught in a deadly situation. Gill said the first and most important thing you can do to keep yourself safe is swim at a guarded beach. USLA provides resources for finding a guarded beach near you, or Gill said, you can contact your county or local government and ask about what beaches are guarded. Unfortunately, many out-of-state visitors fail to perform these checks before visiting Florida’s beaches.
If you end up at a beach without a lifeguard, Gill said to make sure you are a strong swimmer and are confident about going out in open water. Even strong swimmers can be bested by rip currents, so Gill said to always use the buddy system. And if a beach has any posted warnings, pay attention to them.
“Even if the water looks calm, there is a reason swimming may not be allowed,” Gill said.
Godsey also suggests looking at the National Weather Service to see if there are any rip current advisories for your area.
Additionally, Godey said it’s not only rip currents to be aware of.
“If you’re a boater or you like to surf, we have amazing water here, but just like on land, there are thunderstorms, lightning and waterspouts that can form over the water,” she said.
She suggests to always check marine forecasts from the National Weather Service before leaving land and having a plan in case of an emergency.
“Or, just postponing your outing all together,” she said, if the forecast isn’t favorable.
Public beaches are also required to use the flag system, Godsey said.
There are four different colors of flags. Green means a low risk of rip currents, yellow means moderate risk and red means a frequent threat of rip currents. Purple flags are used for dangerous marine life, like sharks or man o’ war jellyfish. Sometimes, lifeguards may close beaches all together if hazards are extreme enough.
All these systems are designed to keep swimmers safe. Unfortunately, every year good Samaritans die trying to rescue others.
“Too many times people want to be helpful, but they just become the victim,” Gill lamented.
Gill said if there isn’t a lifeguard present, the best thing you can do is throw someone a floatation device. Never attempt to enter the water and rescue someone without a floatation device, either.
Gill stresses in most situations it is best to leave lifesaving to the professionals, which is why swimmers should look for a guarded beach.
“It’s just like running into a burning building,” he said, comparing the situation to firefighting. “You want to know what you are doing.”
Finally, Gill said there are some things frequent swimmers can do to strengthen their safety skills. Gill recommends taking a CPR course for lifesaving basics and taking adult swim lessons if you are not the strongest swimmer.
Children can also take Junior Lifeguarding lessons to strengthen water safety skills from a young age.
If you ever want to learn more about beach conditions, Gill said you can always approach your nearest lifeguard with questions. While they may not have time for a long conversation, lifeguards are always happy to discuss public safety, he said.