In the United States, about 100 people die each year in rip currents. Sadly, that includes a beloved teacher who lost her life at Kure Beach, where she drowned trying to rescue two children from the water. WHQR reports on how to spot dangerous currents – and the emerging technology that can tell us where they might appear.
Jessica Embry, who lost his life saving two others, was an orchestra teacher at Ashley High. At the last meeting of the New Hanover County School Board, Pastor Ethan Welch of the Bridge Church led the room in a moment of reflection for her.
And the rip current almost cost another life; Antonio Burns helped Embry to help the two children. He was hospitalized and has since been released – but Kure Beach first responders were unable to revive Embry after she rescued the children.
Steve Pfaff is the meteorologist responsible for coordinating warnings with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, and he knows the dangers of rip currents. He said that if the lifeguard isn’t there, “focus on having a professional there, call 911 if you see someone in trouble, try throwing that person something that’s floating so they can help them.” ‘to help.
Getting out in the water without any type of flotation is a recipe for disaster. Pfaff said: “If you get to the person you’re trying to save, their instinct kicks in to keep their head above water and get air into their lungs. And they will inadvertently push you if you reach them, and you have to be prepared for that. They’re not trying to sink you, they’re just trying to keep your head above water.
Pfaff used the analogy of being on a plane and putting on your oxygen mask before you can help others. “You’re no good if you can’t stay afloat when trying to make a rescue.”
Unfortunately, the numbers show that untrained people who participate in rescues put themselves in dangerous situations. According to Pfaff, “One of the things that jumps out at us is that 26% of our drownings in the Carolinas are bystanders; it’s okay attempting a rescue, you know, doing the human thing, you see someone in distress, you want to get in the water to help them. I know it’s easier said than done, but often the person or bystander who steps in to perform the rescue doesn’t survive, but the first victims do.
Since 2000, North Carolina and South Carolina have recorded 170 drownings off their coasts. Pfaff said that while young and old can unfortunately drown in the ocean, certain populations are more susceptible, including men, who are five times more likely to die.
“The demographics of these numbers, most of the deaths are males between the ages of 41 and 50. And the women are between 31 and 40 years old. It is sobering to have to keep these numbers. For example, last year there were 11 rip current drownings in the Carolinas, which was a bit higher than what we usually see,” Pfaff said.
And Pfaff said more than half of those drownings are people from areas outside the Carolinas who come to the beaches to vacation. Another major risk factor is not swimming on a supervised beach.
Rip Current and Rescue – Wrightsville Beach Fire Department
Dave Baker has over forty years of rescue experience and is currently the Wrightsville Beach Sea Rescue Director. He also said it’s hard not to stay on hold when someone is caught in a rip current.
“Human nature is to save a life. When they see problems, they want to intervene. It’s a personal choice. You know your limits and your abilities better than anyone,” Baker said.
And how to spot a person in difficulty? Baker said, “What you’ll see is someone barely holding their head up, staring straight up at the sky. If they have long hair, it’s usually on their face as they try to reach shore. Their eyes are like saucers; they are afraid.
He said his staff train most of the year for the ability to pull swimmers out of tears because “it’s like being on a treadmill if you’re not used to it.” And that, “this channel of rushing water is even faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer to swim against in some cases. That’s why we say swim parallel to the shore.
Rip currents can be deceiving.
“Oh, the waves don’t break there. I’m not going to get knocked out. Well, the reason the waves don’t break there is because the channel where the rip current formed is receding. So having crashing waves is really good,” Baker said.
And swimming in the ocean is a whole different ballgame. Pfaff said, “Remember, it’s not like swimming in a pool. There’s a lot going on between currents and waves.
Baker also explained how dynamic the environment can be.
“It can be safe and inviting for a minute. And then the next minute there’s a rip current that comes up and you’re pulled out to sea. What are you going to do? You’re going to stay calm, swim parallel to the shore, and then come right back,” Baker said.
What people should really worry about on their day at the beach, Baker said, are the possibilities of these rip currents.
“I say everything you see on the Discovery Channel is out there. However, globally you only see 12 to 14 shark attack deaths. Nationally in the United States alone you have over 100 fatalities from rip currents, they are far more dangerous than any shark encounter you will have. So learn what the record is. Talk to lifeguards,” Baker said.
Rip currents are essentially gaps in the sandbar, where the water, which may be discolored, works like a treadmill moving away from shore, according to Pfaff: “And if you don’t know how to get off that treadmill rolling, then eventually you’ll tire, rip currents won’t drag you down, you’ll sink as soon as you can’t stay afloat anymore.
Because identifying rip currents is so important, Baker and his team call Pfaff and National Weather Service personnel in Wilmington twice a day to exchange information about conditions at the beach. But there’s an improved tool they’ll be using this summer, and Pfaff said he’s excited to use it.
Dr. Greg Dusek is a Principal Scientist for the National Ocean Service (NOS), part of the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the creator of a new model which can predict rip current conditions up to six days in advance. It will also give more specific predictions for individual ranges.
Dusek said when swimmers see waves larger than 4 to 5 feet, they usually know how to stay out of the water, but his new model tells them that smaller waves can also be dangerous,
“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from this is that you really don’t need big waves to have rip currents. We’re seeing dangerous rip currents with only two to three foot waves. And those are the days at the beach where you might show up and think it feels completely safe,” Dusek said.
Wave height and direction, tides, water level and what the waves have been doing in the past two days are some of the factors or variables in the prediction model, but Dusek said he was an extremely difficult variable to measure: “I think one of the big challenges is actually knowing what the shape of the bottom is is another story. And that’s an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, a lot of us don’t We don’t have good observations of sandbars and how they move.
But Dusek said he and others at NOS are working on using webcam imagery, like surf cams or webcams, so they can input the sandbar footage into his model.
Since this sandbar motion observation technology isn’t quite ready, Dusek said it’s still important to talk to those on the ground.
“These are our spotters, so if there’s anyone in the world who can tell you if they’re seeing dangerous rip currents, it’s going to be the lifeguards,” Dusek said.
But we still have a long way to go to help people understand ocean issues. While Dusek is optimistic that the improved model can help predict rip currents more accurately, he still found that “we still see about the same number of drownings each year.”
Dave Baker knows and understands the risks well and tells swimmers to watch what lifeguards are doing: “If you see rescues have been made and another family is coming, let them know it’s a dangerous day and that there are a lot of rip currents going around.
Baker also said to notice what kind of flags are flying. A red flag day means that swimming is not advised; yellow means beware of rip currents; and as for the green, it is relatively safe to swim. But Baker wanted to remind everyone that “our beaches are a natural resource. We want everyone to have a fabulous time, if you see litter pick it up. Enjoy the beauty we have and come back another day.”