Better education may help prevent deaths, researchers say
Hurricane Lorenzo spared the United States a direct hit, but its powerful rip currents and rough surf claimed at least four lives in North Carolina last week, including that of a top executive from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The drownings — and dozens of additional rescues as the hurricane pounded the Atlantic coast for days — bring new attention to the dangers of swimming in the open waters.
Rip currents, high surf and unexpectedly large “sneaker waves” have claimed at least 85 lives this year alone, according to National Weather Service statistics. The drownings happened on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, as well as along the Great Lakes.
“People consider the ocean a swimming pool and not a very dynamic, turbulent place,” said Francis Smith, a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. But nothing could be further from the truth, he said. “It’s powerful.”
More people die from surf zone incidents than any other single weather-related cause except flooding. Between 2014 and 2018, flooding killed 549 people. Currents, high surf and surprise waves killed 510, weather service records show. Nearly two-thirds of them were caught in rip currents.
The deaths, which span the entire United States and its territories, are greater than the combined number of fatalities by lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes over the same five years.
The count is a minimum, the weather service said, and may not include every death.
Beachgoers face a far greater risk of drowning in a rip current than they do being bitten by a shark, said Stephen Leatherman, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University.
And yet, Leatherman said the death toll “almost seems like a secret to some degree.”
“People see one shark and everybody goes nuts,” he said. But twice as many people are killed by currents and waves in the U.S. than are bitten by sharks.
Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach for his annual ranking of the nation’s best beaches, calls the ocean’s strong currents “silent killers.”
The National Weather Service posts warnings about dangerous conditions in an effort to prevent such deaths. It did so throughout late September as Hurricane Lorenzo churned the waters from Florida to North Carolina.
On the morning of Sept. 30, it advised beachgoers in Duck, North Carolina, that the risk of rip currents was high: “It is recommended that you stay out of the water.”
But Bill Lapenta did not heed the warning. Rescue personnel pulled NOAA’s director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction from the ocean unresponsive and could not revive him. “Surf conditions and a rip current in the area were likely a factor” in his death, according to a town news release.
Lapenta’s death was especially discouraging, Leatherman said.
“Here’s a trained meteorologist, a leader who understands weather and waves, and yet he didn’t recognize them and got swept offshore and drowned,” he said. “If he’s that knowledgeable, what chance does the average person have who doesn’t have that training or background?”
John and Suzi Merical know the answer to that question all too well. Their only child, Paige, was pulled out to sea in a rip current on April 19 during a beach trip to Emerald Isle, North Carolina.
She had been at the beach just 45 minutes when a stranger used Paige’s phone to call her mother to relay the horrific news. Although Paige was rescued and taken to the hospital, she died a week later from her injuries.
A friend with Paige, Ian Lewis, was also swept away in the current and died.
“It is the greatest nightmare I will ever experience,” said John Merical. “I’ve cried more tears in the last five and a half months than I have in my entire life.”
The two athletic teenagers were in water below their knees when the rip current knocked them down and pulled them out, he said. Paige, who started swimming at age 2, had been taught if she became trapped in a current to swim parallel to the shore, advice long given to swimmers.
Rip currents: Flip, float and follow
But now the Mericals believe their advice was wrong. They are among a growing group of community organizations and researchers working to change the message.
Swimmers should “flip, float and follow,” said Jamie Racklyeft, executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium. Flip onto their backs, float with the current and follow the path of least resistance.
Rip currents form when water piles up on the shore and rushes to the lowest point to return to the sea. The water finds an existing channel or carves out a channel in the sand beneath the water’s surface, perpendicular to the beach.
Many beachgoers have never heard of a rip current, said Leatherman, who’s working with his son to develop videos with drones and environmentally safe dyes to help people visualize the danger. The powerful currents can be deceptive or hard to see, even for experts.
Many swimmers aren’t strong enough to swim out of a rip current, Leatherman said. Drowning can happen quickly.
“When you panic,” he said, “your brain stops working.”
When a swimmer starts swallowing water, it immediately attacks the air sacs in the lungs, said Smith, the University of California scientist and former lifeguard. “Your body just shuts down,” he said. “You don’t get the oxygen you need, especially to your brain.”
Swimmers who can flip over and float give themselves time to control their panic, breathe and make themselves more buoyant by filling their lungs with air. Once they’re calm, they can get themselves to shore or wait for rescue.
The drownings in North Carolina also prompted renewed calls for additional lifeguards and other safety measures.
In Florida, the country’s leader in surf zone drownings, only a fraction of the state’s 825 miles of beaches have lifeguards. But Leatherman points to the success of lifeguard programs like the one in Volusia County, Florida, home of Daytona Beach.
On Sunday Oct. 6, the county’s lifeguards rescued eight people from Lorenzo’s rough surf. Two were later hospitalized as a precaution.
“We’d like to see lifeguards everywhere,” Leatherman said, “but it’s expensive.”