BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — Panama City Beach could see its busiest weekend of the year this Memorial Day as the county is expecting an influx of tourists for the holiday.
As the Gulf waters have been rough this week, Bay County and Panama City Beach officials will have all hands on deck on the sand to ensure all the beachgoers get back home safe.
“There’s always concern. The biggest thing is safety. Watch the flags, be near a lifeguard is always what we recommend and just pay attention to the warning signs especially the flag system,” said Bay County Beach Operations Manager Tabitha Kimball.
The flag warning system tells swimmers how they should approach the waters but when the double red flags are flying, swimming is off limits.
“You cannot be in the water at all, we will get you out. It’s not because we don’t want you in the water, it’s because it’s extremely unsafe to be in the water. The rip currents are very dangerous, the surf is very dangerous. It’s just safety precautions to keep you, your family and everybody safe,” said Kimball.
Those rip currents, Kimball says, can pull someone out deeper into the water extremely fast but it may not seem like it.
“You could be in an area that’s not maybe very deep out. You don’t realize it and before you know. I always give that, if you see your stuff, you’re out having fun and then you look and your stuff is down the shoreline. You’re getting pulled out and didn’t even realize it.”
She says if you are caught in a current, swim parallel to the shoreline until help can reach you.
One of the individuals who may get you safely out of the water is Michael Sehlhorst. He is now in his fourth year as a Panama City Beach lifeguard.
“We’re always thinking about the crowd, the heat is going to be a big factor, preparations have included an emphasis on eating well, hydrating up, we’ve done some medical scenarios, some rescue scenarios out in the water to prepare our guards for this up and coming weekend,” he said.
Sehlhorst says a big part of their job is also educating the public on the flag system and what a rip current is.
“You’re always going to have those few but most of the people have been compliant with us, understanding,” Sehlhorst said.
Kimball says it’s important for people to realize when someone defies the no swimming law during double red flags, you’re not only putting yourself at risk.
“It’s putting not only lifeguards that have to go out there and rescue, making multiple person rescues but family members, if they see someone in need, it’s human nature to want to go in and help,” Kimball said.
While it is their job, Sehlhorst says they also prepare on protecting themselves and eachother.
“We’ve had some situations but we’ve been good at backing each other up. If we get a call, everyone’s responding so you know that if you go in, within about a minute, you’re going to have a supervisor or another lifeguard there getting in the water with you,” he said.
Overall, Sehlhorst encourages all who are on the sand to follow the rules, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
‘Hydrate, swim near a lifeguard, if you have any questions, come up to us and ask us, that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
Flags are posted along the beach near each access point. Flag system signage and also more information on rip currents are posted at each beach access gate as well as both piers.