More than three weeks before the official start of summer, North Carolina already has seen more drowning deaths along its coastline than happened in all of 2018.
Officials say there is no simple explanation as to why.
There are some simple steps that can reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim, however.
Spencer Rogers, coastal erosion and construction specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant, has heard the most popular theories going around to try and explain the seven tragedies that have occurred so far this year. The most recent include a man who died Saturday in Southern Shores, on the Dare County Outer Banks, after getting caught in a rip current while swimming, and one who drowned at Pine Knoll Shores on Sunday when he and several others got into trouble in the water.
Five of the seven deaths off North Carolina’s coast so far this year have been blamed on rip currents, and one on high surf. It’s not clear what caused the incident at Pine Knoll Shores.
Rip currents can happen on any body of water that has wave action, Rogers said, and they can be spotted by a trained eye nearly any day somewhere along the North Carolina coast. They can occur around structures, such as piers or jetties. Along N.C. beaches, they are most often created around sandbars, Rogers said.
Waves bring water across a sandbar and deposit it between the sandbar and the beach, making the water deeper in that area than it is on the other side of the sandbar. In order to equalize the water level, Rogers said, that water has to get back out to the ocean, and it follows the easiest path, running through a low point in the sandbar. Over time, the scouring of the wave action can widen and deepen the low point until it’s big enough to allow a large amount of water to rush through quickly.
The outward flow of water can create a current that moves faster than Olympian Michael Phelps can swim.
Renourishment and hurricanes
Generally, Rogers said, the bigger the waves, the bigger the risk of rip currents.
“One question that comes up often is the effect of beach renourishment,” Rogers said, referring to the work done along the ocean shoreline to replenish sand that gets washed away by storms over time. There is no apparent correlation between beach renourishment projects and the appearance or velocity of rip currents, scientists say. In fact, Rogers said, there is some evidence that for a time after the completion of a beach renourishment project, conditions may be less favorable for dangerous rip currents, especially if the sand taken from the ocean floor and deposited on the beach reduces the size of a sandbar.
Another popular theory, Rogers said, is that hurricanes — such as Florence, which vexed North Carolina for days last year — re-sculpt the ocean floor and make it more conducive to rip currents.
“Florence was here for a long time,” Rogers said, but the oceanfront erosion it caused was not as bad as previous hurricanes that have hit the state, and those were not followed by spikes in rip current deaths.
Rogers said it also is not uncommon for drownings to appear clustered, as they have this year, with six of the seven deaths so far occurring off Carteret County beaches; two at Atlantic Beach, three at Emerald Isle and one at Pine Knoll Shores.
Last year, according to the National Weather Service, which tracks such incidents, there were five drownings off the N.C. coast, four blamed on rip currents and one on high surf.
In recent years, N.C. Sea Grant, the National Weather Service and coastal communities have been looking for ways to educate people about the dangers of rip currents, how to spot and avoid them, and how to survive being caught in one.
Warnings and flags
Sea Grant has created brochures that visitor centers hand out, and refrigerator magnets that real estate management companies put in rental units. Warning and information signs are posted at public beach access areas. Many towns put color-coded flags on the beach to indicate the current risk level for swimming hazards, including for rip currents, with a red flag meaning it’s a good day to build castles in the sand and stay out of the water. Municipalities often share the information though morning updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Last summer, Dare County launched its “Love the Beach, Respect the Ocean” information campaign, and created a texting service through which residents and visitors can sign up for beach-related alerts from the National Weather Service, including ones that indicate when there is a high risk of rip currents. Visitors can sign up for the alerts when they’re on their way to their beach rental by texting “Join OBXBeachConditions” to 30890 from a mobile phone, and unsubscribe when the week or weekend is over. Drew Pearson, the county’s emergency management director, said at the peak of the season, nearly 8,000 were subscribed.
“When I look at our visitors, I think some of them may not understand the dynamics of the ocean,” Pearson said. “They don’t understand that it’s different from the lake back in Ohio or jumping into the pool in Pennsylvania.
“The ocean appears calm and inviting, and they don’t understand that there may be a risk there that they don’t see.”
Pearson points out there is plenty to do along the Outer Banks — museums, aquariums, historic sites, parks — and a day when the waves are big even though the sky is sunny may not be the best day to take a dip. If there is any doubt, he said, visitors should ask lifeguards about conditions.
“They’d rather talk to you now than meet your family later,” he said.
Jack Scarborough, who works for the Dare County Sheriff’s Office, volunteers as chief of the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, which provides lifesaving service for an area from Salvo to Hatteras Inlet. Just two lifeguard stands rise from the more than 20 miles of beach. The past couple of years, the Rescue Squad has paid to have five patrol the beach, and 31 volunteers on call in case someone needs help. That’s in addition, he said, to the army of surfers who watch out for people in distress while they’re out in the water.
Every Monday at 9:30 a.m., Scarborough said, the Rescue Squad holds a 30-minute session on beach safety, which 10 to 30 people attend at the station in Buxton. The most important thing he can tell them about rip currents, he said, is, “Do not go into the water on a red flag day. And always, always, always, take a flotation device.”