Four people have died because of rip currents off the North Carolina coast since June 10.
Justin Eakes, 21, of Greenville, died Sunday night after being caught in a rip current near Atlantic Beach that morning.
Eakes’ death came just a day after a 56-year-old man died near the Henderson Avenue beach access in Atlantic Beach. The man, who has not been identified, went into cardiac arrest and drowned while trying to save two teen girls from a rip current.
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The weekend before, 17-year-old Elijah Hinnant of Wayne County died after being caught in a rip current near Emerald Isle. Tyreese Worsley, 16, was caught in the same rip current on June 10.
Worsley was pulled from the water by a surfer and rescue workers and taken to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, where he spent more than a week in critical condition. Police said Worsley died early Monday.
North Carolina has had 54 recorded rip current deaths since 1996, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The National Weather Service in Morehead City said it’s hard to compare the rip currents off North Carolina’s coasts year over year. But currents all along the coast have been stronger in the past week.
Meteorologist David Glenn said North Carolina has seen “a really high period of swell” that leads to “a much more dangerous surf zone environment and more frequent, stronger rip currents.”
“We don’t get many events like this,” Glenn said. “Those are pretty large swells out there, and that’s pretty infrequent on the eastern coast of North Carolina.”
Most rip current deaths on North Carolina coasts happen on beaches without lifeguards, Glenn said. The weather service advises that people try to swim at beaches with lifeguards.
“And swim near them, not a long distance away,” Glenn said. “That’s the No. 1 key.”
People should also know how to recognize rip currents and how to react if caught in one, Glenn said.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that nearly 100 people die in rip currents each year in the United States. Rip currents accounted for more than 80 percent of the 84,900 rescues that lifeguards made in 2016.
National Weather Service offices along the Atlantic Coast put out rip current forecasts, including North Carolina offices in Wilmington and Morehead City.
The Atlantic Beach Fire Department and other lifeguard programs along the North Carolina coast use a flag system to alert beachgoers of swim conditions.
Green flags mean calm surf conditions and safe swimming. Yellow flags mean there are possible rip currents present and a stronger surf. Red flags mean unsafe swimming conditions. Black flags mean swimming is prohibited.
“Please remember the ocean is a changing environment that can pose a danger to you and your family,” the Atlantic Beach Fire Department said on its website. “Please be aware of hazards, follow the lifeguards recommendations and use good judgment when enjoying our finest natural resource.”
Red flags were up over the weekend.
Rip currents often are caused when water gets trapped behind a sandbar and rushes back into the ocean through a narrow channel. They are present almost every day, though not always at high speeds. They are typically narrow – only about 10 to 20 feet wide – and can move up to 8 feet per second.
Rip currents can appear to be calm areas of the ocean without waves, Glenn said,. A break in the pattern of incoming waves can signal a rip current.
The NOAA has several tips for staying safe in the ocean:
▪ Whenever possible, swim at a lifeguard-protected beach.
▪ Never swim alone.
▪ Learn how to swim in the surf.
▪ Be cautious at all times, especially when swimming at unguarded beaches.
▪ Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
▪ Stay at least 100 feet from piers and jetties.
▪ Wear polarized sunglasses to help you spot signs of riptides – such as a break in the pattern of waves approaching the shore.
▪ Pay especially close attention to children and elderly people.
If caught in a rip current:
▪ Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
▪ Never fight against the current.
▪ Think of it as a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of.
▪ Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle – away from the current – toward shore.
▪ If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
▪ If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arms and yelling for help.
If you see someone in trouble:
▪ Get help from a lifeguard.
▪ If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911.
▪ Throw the rip current victim something that floats – a life jacket, a cooler, an inflatable ball.
▪ Yell instructions on how to escape.
▪ Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Find out more about rip currents at www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov.
Staff writer Josh Shaffer contributed.