PANHANDLE, Fla. (WMBB) — This past weekend, strong rip currents and double red flags proved to be deadly as 5 deaths were reported in Bay and Walton County.
The five deaths were all the result of drownings. Additionally, all victims were from out-of-state, leaving responders and lifeguards concerned about tourist adherence to the hazard flag system.
“Our problem that I found is just the lack of compliance. The blatant disregard to heed the lifeguard’s warning,” said Panama City Beach Safety Director Daryl Paul.
South Walton Fire Rescue Public Information Officer Mackenzie McClintock also added that, “it’s not a lifeguard’s fault when Mother Nature takes her course. It’s never going to be their fault. They’re just there to keep people safe.’
In Panama City Beach alone, Saturday saw 39 rescues, along with 3 deaths occurring in a 5-hour span. Paul says they still don’t have the full total of rescues conducted over the weekend, attributing the delay to the large influx of assistance his department required.
“We’re still tallying up the numbers and going through all of our reports,” affirmed Paul. “Making sure we get accurate, honest data that we can pump out to the city.”
McClintock noted that a large number of rescues were due to bystanders entering the water to assist people already caught in the water, thus getting caught themselves and turning the rescue from single-person to multi-person.
“The major concern that we have is not necessarily with our first responders entering the water because they know how, but it’s the so to speak, domino effect of when bystanders go into the water to attempt to rescue because they may not be swimming near lifeguard towers,” McClintock said.
However, SWFD Beach Safety Director David Vaughan commended his team for their efforts this weekend.
“These last 11 days have been quite a test,” Vaughan said. “They’re worn out. They’re frustrated but we’re very proud of them.”
Officials conceded that the frustration visitors feel when the water, a premier attraction in the region, is understandable, but stressed that the value of human life far outweighs any monetary expense.
“You want to get in that water and you get frustrated when you hear a lifeguard saying no, don’t get in the water, you got to stay on shore. I understand that,” conceded Paul, “but what we’re trying to prevent is that one empty car seat on that ride home.”
Violators of the flag system are subject to a $500 fine. If paid within 20 days, these fines can be reduced to only $250.