PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Ahead of the spring and summer tourism seasons, the National Weather Service is working to educate vacationers and residents on the hidden danger of rip currents.
It’s all through their first ever “Gulf Coast Rip Current Awareness Week;” the issue is in the spotlight after increased water rescues through the Panhandle over the last couple of years.
According to the NWS, rip currents are the number one weather-related threat in the Northern Gulf Coast region, killing 172 people since 2002.
That statistic is all too real for Vernon resident, Alisha Redmon, and her family.
“We went to the beach with five people and came home with four,” Redmon said on Monday. “I noticed a little girl coming out of the water, and her brother coming behind her and he just got sucked back and the waters are coming over and I was like ‘Stacey, that boy’s in trouble.’”
Her husband rushed into the water to help save the young boy and his mother, who was also stuck in the rip current. Both the child and his mother were saved, but Redmon lost his life.
He was only 48 years old.
“Besides that being hard, being told he didn’t make it, was having to tell my children,” Redmon said. “That was probably the hardest.”
Now, she says her husband continues to save people through his story; she warns beachgoers regularly to honor the flag system, which she says many don’t know even exists.
Beach safety officials in Panama City Beach and Walton County say they’ve noticed an increasing trend of people who disregard the flags entirely, putting themselves and others in danger.
“Our goal is for people to go back home safe,” said Wil Spivey, Beach Safety Director for Panama City Beach. “People that think you know well, this is my time here and I’m going to get in the water and go against those warnings, that can have very dangerous consequences.”
In Walton County, Beach Safety Director David Vaughan, agrees.
“On one day right before Labor Day, [during] one three-day series, we had to do 30 water rescues,” Vaughan said. “One of those put one of our lifeguards in the hospital.”
They said those situations can be avoided entirely if beachgoers abide by the flag system, which can be found at every beach access. When double-red flags are flying, the water is closed. Violators can expect to receive a hefty $500 fine for entering the water in both Panama City Beach and in Walton County.
“It is life or death,” Vaughan said. “When it is double-red, we’re not messing around.”
They said even in single-red or yellow flag conditions, there’s still danger.
“A lot of times people don’t even know they’re in a rip until they get the sense that, ‘hey, the shore’s going the wrong way,’” Vaughan said.
If caught in a rip current, lifeguards say the most important thing to do is to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore, not against the current. That will wear a swimmer out quickly, and many panic, making it an even more life-threatening situation.
“I’ve seen people that can swim wear themselves out trying to swim straight into shore,” Spivey said.
They also said that when possible, beachgoers should opt for a guarded beach, such as near the Panama City Beach pier near Pier Park. Otherwise, swimmers do so at their own risk where it will take longer for help to arrive.
Redmon said on red flag days, it’s better to stay out of the water entirely.
“It’s not worth it to lose your life or your spouse’s life or your children’s life because you had to have a moment of fun,” she said.
For more information on rip currents and the NWS effort to educate the public on the danger of rip currents, click here.