(NEW YORK) — An outbreak of rip currents at beaches in Florida has claimed several lives and endangered dozens more in recent days, prompting the National Weather Service to extend its public warnings to beachgoers.
Over this past weekend, two people drowned and more than 70 had to be rescued from rip currents in a single Florida county on the Atlantic coast, officials there told ABC News.
A 14-year-old boy went missing Sunday after getting caught in a rip current while swimming with friends at New Smyrna Beach, Fla. His body was found on shore Monday morning. Volusia County Beach Patrol Capt. Tammy Marris told ABC News that the teens were swimming at an unguarded beach, over 300 yards away from the nearest lifeguard.
The same day the boy went missing, a 66-year-old man died after getting caught in a rip current just off another beach in Volusia. He was pulled in by lifeguards but fell unconscious during the rescue process and did not recover, Marris said. Authorities have not released the identities of either victim.
The deaths follow another pair of fatal incidents that took place on Florida’s opposite coast along the Gulf of Mexico the previous weekend.
There, 42-year-old Sonia Westmoreland died June 9 after she was caught in a rip current while trying to rescue her daughter and her daughter’s two friends. The girls were saved by their father but Westmoreland was “blue around the mouth and non-responsive” when officers arrived, according to a police report obtained by ABC News. She died several days later.
Also on June 9, a 23-year-old Mississippi man drowned while swimming at an unguarded beach in Pensacola, Fla., according to the Pensacola News Journal.
Though the weekend is over, the threat from rip currents is not, according to the National Weather Service. Other Atlantic beaches, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, faced a high risk until Monday afternoon.
What Is a Rip Current?
Rip currents are strong gushes of water that flow through a low point in a sandbar often away from beaches. The channeled force of the current can drag swimmers away from the shore at a rate of up to eight miles an hour.
“People are being pulled away from shore — in a sense like a treadmill — they are not able to get back in and, in most cases, due to their physical conditioning, or distance from the shore, or their swimming ability, the rip current takes a lot of out of them, and which then leads to potential fatalities,” Gerry Falconer, a lieutenant with Miami Beach Ocean Rescue and president of the southeastern region of the United States Lifesaving Association, told ABC News in a 2005 20/20 special.
According to USLA statistics, which are self-reported by participating agencies, most drowning deaths blamed on rip currents occur at unguarded beaches. Last year the association counted 16 deaths due to rip currents at unguarded beaches and three at beaches where lifeguards were present.
“The most basic and important thing is to swim in front of a lifeguard tower, no matter what the conditions are,” Marris said.
Falconer told ABC News that the frequency of drowning because of rip tides reveals a lack of awareness about the hazard.
“If people were out on the beach and the word ‘shark’ was used, they’d clear the water without a doubt, but to hear the word rip current, a lot of times, it has little effect…and it is just as deadly,” he said.
The 2005 20/20 investigation highlighted the problem of drownings along the unguarded beaches of Florida’s Panhandle.
Eight people drowned in one day in 2003 — known as Black Sunday — including retired CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte of Atlanta, Ga., and Ken Brindley of Conway, Ark., who were vacationing with their families. LaMotte had gone in the water to rescue his son who was caught in a rip current and got swept up himself. Brindley, seeing LaMotte in distress, went in to help but could not make it out.
LaMotte’s wife Sandee told ABC News that the families had been completely unaware of the danger.
“Here we are, two families, two husbands, two fathers leaving behind two sets of children all because we didn’t realize that were in danger playing here at the water’s shore,” said Sandee.
How to Escape a Rip Current
Lifeguards insist that the safest option for inexperienced ocean swimmers is to swim at a beach with lifeguards. For beachgoers who find themselves caught in a rip current, they offer these potentially life-saving tips:
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jennifer Graham, Deseret News