Rip currents along Alabama’s Beaches lead to deadliest year for Gulf swimmers since 2017

By Allison Marlow
Posted 11/19/21

In the days before Hurricane Sally spun ashore, double red flags were flying on Baldwin County’s beaches. No one was allowed in the churning waves.

Still, a pair of swimmers headed into the …

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Rip currents along Alabama’s Beaches lead to deadliest year for Gulf swimmers since 2017

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In the days before Hurricane Sally spun ashore, double red flags were flying on Baldwin County’s beaches. No one was allowed in the churning waves.

Still, a pair of swimmers headed into the surf. Orange Beach lifeguards spoke with the men and reiterated the message: rip currents were strong, conditions were deteriorating quickly as the storm approached - the water was simply not safe.

The men assured them that they swam all the time at home, in a lake and a pool. The lifeguards said again, double flags meant no swimming. The men left the water, and the lifeguards continued their patrol.

An hour later the men were back in the waves, but this time, they needed help.

The pair of lifeguards headed into the swirling sea and pulled the men ashore. Embarrassed but alive, they sheepishly thanked the guards.

It could have been a tragedy.

For many people this year, a visit to the beach was.

2021 has been the deadliest year for drownings due to rip currents in Baldwin County since 2017. Five people drowned on Baldwin County beaches, including Baldwin County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Smith who perished off Fort Morgan in June while rescuing distressed swimmers. Three days later, another swimmer drowned off Fort Morgan.

In August three people drowned in less than a week - two in Gulf Shores and one in Fort Morgan. All of their deaths were deemed due to rip currents.

This summer rip currents were especially frequent. Officials said more red flags - meaning the water is unsafe for people - have flown this year than in the last several years combined.

After each death, officials and locals seem to ask the same question: how to stop the deaths?

But after years of battling fickle Gulf waters, the county has posted flags, guards, signs and this year kicked off an electronic messaging system to warn beach goers every morning of the conditions.

Drones and jet skis have been purchased to aid rescue crews.

At what point does personal choice trump the safety and prevention efforts?

“For some people we can scream at the top of our lungs, ‘double red flag, stay closer to shore’ but people are on vacation, they paid their money, and they want to get in the water,” said Brett Lesinger, City of Orange Beach, Beach Safety Division Chief. “Our beaches don’t always look intimidating. It’s tough to explain to someone that a high surf height is not always what you should be looking for.”

Why Baldwin’s beaches are dangerous

The most dangerous waves are often also the most fun to play in, said Brian Dzwonkowski, associate professor for the School of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama.

The land masses under Alabama’s coastal waters have subtle curves with high and low spots. Rip tides form as the waves interact with those geographic features as they roll ashore, Dzwonkowski said.

When the water rolls in, its wave structure breaks against the land and the water essentially piles up around the structure. At some point, the water has to move away. When it does, it forms jet-like exit routes, narrow swift currents that shoot out and bust through the breaking waves coming ashore.

The more intense the waves, the more likely there is a rip current.

Often when the waves are breaking on the sand and the water is frothy and foamy, that is a day to be on the lookout for rip currents, Dzwonkowski said. It’s also the water that draws the crowds off the sand.

“If you don’t have experience in an ocean environment that is the day you probably don’t want to go in the water,” he said.

Dzwonkowski said swimmers who know how the current works can swim left or right to exit the strong pull.

“But if don’t know whats going on you panic and end up exhausting yourself - that’s how drowning occurs,” he said.

On Fort Morgan, where many swimmers are closer to the mouth of Mobile Bay, the sheer amount of water moving in and out of a relatively small area may pose a danger.

As the tide rises and falls, the water moves quickly, stuffing itself in and out of the bay. The flows quicken and slow and then quicken again. Because of this, conditions are always changing.

“A swimmer who went out yesterday and experienced no issues may not face the same type of water tomorrow in the same spot,” Dzwonkowski said.

Dzwonkowski, who lives on Dauphin Island, said he often visits the beach and sees visitors from inland states leave their children alone in the surf.

“It’s not my job to parent other people’s kids but man it worries me,” Dzwonkowski said. “It seems like they don’t completely understand the ocean.

“The ocean doesn’t have feelings. It’s something to be taken seriously,” Dzwonkowski said.

Guarding the beach  

Lifeguarding has been a staple of the beach scene for decades in West Coast locations like California and Hawaii, where waves can reach staggering heights of 20 feet or more. Along the Alabama coast, however, the profession is relatively new.

In Orange Beach, for example, the lifeguard agency was founded in 2012. Now a full staff patrols eight miles of beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

From March to Memorial Day and again from Labor Day to Nov. 1 the beaches are patrolled but staffs are shortened since most visitors have headed home.

Despite their job title, their primary mission is prevention.

“They talk to people, give them tidbits on how to stay safer. Every person they talk to is a life you can potentially save. They don’t necessarily get credit for that,” Lesinger said.

During the height of the summer, Orange Beach’s lifeguards complete 10 – 15 rescues per week, roughly 200 a year, meaning someone was in a life-or-death situation and the lifeguard saved them.

Once a swimmer is in distress, lifeguards have roughly a two-minute window to reach them, Lesinger said.

The Orange Beach lifeguards begin their summer training in the chilly February waters, learning to swim 550 yards in under 10 minutes, operate jet skis, and pluck the weary from the waves. The training to work the beach is more physically demanding than that required of pool lifeguards said Orange Beach Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling.

“These guys are 18 to 21 years old, out there really saving lives and making a difference every day in our community,” Kimmerling said. “These kids working the beach are special.”

Knowledge saves lives

More than 80 % of water rescues at U.S. beaches are due to rip currents according to statistics kept by the National Weather Service. Since 1996, more than 110 people have drowned in rip currents in Baldwin County and the Florida Panhandle. Many of those deaths were vacationers.

Many officials at the beach say they believe that visitors do not understand the complexities of the Gulf’s waters.

“People know when they go to the pool, they do a zero entry and walk right in. They tend to think the same thing happens at the beach and that the water gradually gets deeper. But it doesn’t,” Kimmerling said. “There is no side to grab onto and the bottom is not smooth. You can be standing in waist deep water, a wave come in and suddenly water is over your head.

“We are trying to educate people on all the dynamic things that go on here that are much different than a lake or swimming pool.”

Rip current warning signs were added to Fort Morgan Road in 2018 after a Wisconsin teen drowned nearby. Flags are changed daily from green to yellow to red all along Gulf Shores and Orange Beach beaches to indicate the hazardous water conditions.

This summer Mobile Police donated drones to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office that are capable of dropping an inflatable vest to a swimmer.

The Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency also launched an app, “ALbeaches” that provides daily surf reports to subscribers’ cell phones. While the flashing signs on Fort Morgan Road are great the first day visitors arrive, the daily notifications, Kimmerling said, will hopefully keep their focus on safety.

“We’re hoping it would be like a trigger that they need to pay attention to the conditions that day,” Kimmerling said. “Hopefully it will cause them to pause and avoid a situation.”

Kimmerling said the addition of jet skis has cut the time it takes for lifeguards to reach struggling swimmers. It also allows the guards to communicate better with people in the water.

“They used to have to wave them down and call them out of the water to point out they were in a dangerous spot. Now with the skis, they pull out there next to them and tell them they are in a rip current or a bad spot. They have direct communication with people in the water,” Kimmerling said.

Still, none of the warning systems take into account the individual swimmer’s ability, Kimmerling said.

“You can never say the water is perfectly safe, even when the flag is green,” Kimmerling said. “It depends on your swimming ability, and that can be hard for people to gauge.”

Moving forward

 

On Fort Morgan where a high percentage of Alabama’s drownings happen, there are no lifeguards along the 12 miles of sand that wraps around a long-curved finger of land. There are limited access points and hidden coves slowing emergency response times in the best of conditions.

Currently, the stretch of beach is patrolled by volunteer firefighters and Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputies.

Inside the city limits of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, swimmers who enter the water under red flags can be ticketed.

Out on Fort Morgan the mix of properties - owned by private entities, the county, city, the federal government and unincorporated areas - make having that type of ordinance in place difficult.

Even if the county passed an ordinance to cover those unincorporated areas, the Sheriff’s Department enforces state law, not local ordinance.

County commissioners have looked at the notion of county-funded lifeguards, but that would require the passing of state legislation, a venture that could take months, even years.

Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said deputies monitor high-traffic hours and weekends and holidays when the beaches are expected to be busy.

Still, he said, the deputies are not rescue swimmers. When they enter the water, it is as a last resort he said.

“They are there to monitor and assist,” Mack said.

While the drones and even the jet skis are helpful, he said, they can be weather dependent. The worse the waves and wind, the less they can be relied on.

When Smith, one of Mack’s deputies, died this summer, conditions hindered other agencies from assisting quickly. So, Smith headed into the water.

“The water where Bill drowned was totally different than four miles to the east” Mack said. “When Bill got there to assist, the weather was already kicking up. By the time we got him out of the water it had gotten three times worse in a span of 30 minutes. The water here can change on a moment’s notice.”

Mack said that signs, daily electronic messages and even lifeguards on the sands may never be enough to counter personal decisions.  

“There are speed limit signs all across Baldwin County, and people still speed,” Mack said. “We try to get the word out the best we can but there is a certain amount of personal responsibility that falls on the individual to not get in the water,” he said.

A grim reality

Sen. Chris Elliott said the flow of visitors into dangerous waters may never stop.

“Something I have come to realize over my term in office is that visitors are going to go into the water and no amount of flags, surf or lighting is going to keep them out,” Elliott said. “Another thing I have learned is that a first responder is going into the water to save someone in distress and there is nothing we can do to stop them.”

Elliott said he wants to find ways to “robustly” fund requests from the sheriff’s department to purchase equipment that can assist deputies and rescue teams. The focus on finding ways to rescue swimmers is just another way to keep first responders safe.

“It’s frustrating to realize visitors are sometimes not exercising personal restraint and responsibility and too often fatalities result,” Elliott said. “But it’s our reality none the less.”