By JOY CRIST
Ask anyone who follows news and conversations about Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, and they’ll attest that one of the biggest topics for the summer of 2018 is rip currents.
With this recent rash of heavy rains, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have had a moderate or high risk of rip currents on a near-daily basis, and in late June, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CHNS) made national headlines with a total of four drownings occurring within the park boundaries.
You could argue that it was after these June fatalities that the conversation about rip currents started to heat up, and has been ongoing ever since. Free local classes that teach newcomers about identifying and getting out of rip currents have received a wave of media attention, while multiple websites, social media pages, and news organizations are offering daily rip current forecasts for visitors, (our paper included.)
So this noticeable increase in rip current conversations across the board begs the following question: Are rip currents a bigger threat this summer than in previous years, or is there just more attention to the topic?
To save you some time, let’s go ahead and answer – The number of rip currents may be above average this summer, but it’s very hard to tell for sure.
Unlike concrete measurements, (like total amount of rainfall, wind speeds and direction, and temperature), it’s difficult - if not impossible - to physically count the number of rip currents in the 70-mile stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on a daily basis, and to compare that with previous years. Keep in mind that current tools used to gauge the probability of rip currents, like the Experimental Beach Forecast, are still relatively new, and only provide estimated risks of rip currents based on weather conditions like currents and wind strength and / or direction.
But with that being said, there are a few indicators that can be examined to determine that this is an above-average year for rip currents – namely, weather forecasts, fatalities, and personal experience.
Jack Scarborough is the Chief of the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, which is an essential and volunteer non-profit organization that patrols the beaches from Avon to Hatteras village.
And while Chief Scarborough says this isn’t the worst summer in recent memory when it comes to rip currents, there does appear to be more rip currents around. “Our calls were up 48% in June 2018 [over June 2017], but it’s not the worse I’ve seen it - Just above average,” he said.
Chief Scarborough and his team have been instrumental in getting the word out about rip currents, too.
In 2017, they launched a free weekly class on Mondays to teach newcomers about rip currents and what to look for, and the classes have continued for the summer of 2018 as well, with solid attendance all summer.
“We’ve been running between 15 and 30 people per class,” said Scarborough. “It’s a definite increase over last year, just because of all the media attention it’s been getting.” In fact, the class was recently featured in a July story by the Virginia Pilot.
“People have been putting it out there, and we’ve had [attendees] coming from as far away as Kill Devil Hills,” he added.
The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad (HIRS) also produced a video this year – (a two-year project due to multiple moving parts like enlisting a film crew) – which summarizes the important points of rip current safety. This video, which has been making the rounds on social media, has helped spread the word about rip currents, and informs folks who can’t attend the weekly class.
“Basically, with the video, we wanted to let people know who we are, what we do, and just get the message out there [about rip currents] to everybody, regardless of where they are vacationing,” said Scarborough.
Though it’s hard to measure the influence of public education on rip current safety and its effectiveness, the steps taken by HIRS seems to be helping. More and more people are now aware of what to look for when it comes to rip currents because of these videos and classes, and this is never a bad thing.
Another factor to consider when trying to determine if there are more rip currents than normal this year is the weather, and it looks like this may point to an above-average year as well.
Hal Austin, Forecaster for the National Weather Service Newport / Morehead City office, says that while there’s no precise way to know if there are more rip currents than average, the weather has been conducive to a higher risk.
“We’ve probably had more events this summer where you’ve had an onshore flow of winds,” he said. “When winds are perpendicular to the coast, around low tide, that’s when you get a lot of rip currents.”
And looking at the National Weather Service’s Experimental Beach Forecast for rip currents, it does seem like the risk has been higher, especially in the last week or so when speedy southwesterly winds and a strong longshore current were a daily occurrence.
“There have been a lot of days recently where we have had a moderate to high risk of rip currents,” said Austin.
One last grim factor to look at when examining the prevalence of rip currents this summer is the number of fatalities. The Hatteras Island Rescue Squad and Chicamacomico Banks Water Rescue, (along with other organizations such as the National Park Service), prevent countless causalities on a daily basis through in-person warnings, public outreach on where rip currents are occurring, and even signage or conversations on the beach. There’s no telling how many lives have been saved already, but it’s a safe bet that these organizations have already prevented an untold number of rip current-related incidents.
However, by the end of June, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore had reported four drowning deaths, with at least two believed to be linked in some way to rip currents. Comparatively, the National Seashore had seven drowning deaths in 2017, eight in 2016, 0 in 2015, and two in 2014, 2013, and 2012.
Hopefully, this number does not rise in the last remaining weeks of summer, although there have been additional fatalities in the northern Outer Banks as well, with a rip-current related drowning reported in Southern Shores just last week.
But it should also be noted that as rip current-related calls have gone up, so has the number of visitors. The National Seashore had an almost 9 percent increase of visitors in June 2018 compared to June 2017, with the most number of June visitors recorded in 16 years.
And in total, the Seashore hosted 1,130,473 recreational visits in the first half of 2018, which is roughly a 12 percent increase from the same period last year. So it stands to reason that more beach-goers would result in more reports of rip currents.
Media coverage on the topic has skyrocketed this summer, with papers all across the country covering the June fatalities. But since the most recent drowning death in Avon on June 28, there has not been any other rip current-related deaths within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, even during the past week when the risk current risk remained at continually high levels.
So, the risk for rip currents may be up, but the knowledge of the potential dangers – and what to do if you’re caught in a rip current - is up as well.
On a recent July trip to the beach in Avon, I noticed a rip current near my stretch of sand, as well as a family splashing dangerously close to it. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it, but when I looked around at the other people on the beach, I noticed that other folks couldn’t keep their eyes off of it either.
Finally, a woman under the umbrella next to mine approached the family, and while I didn’t hear the conversation, I saw her pointing to the current and chatting, and soon saw the family move a little further down the beach. I went up to her afterwards, found out she was a visitor from Connecticut, and asked her if she had told them about the rip current. She replied “Yes - I’m in the middle of a really good book, and I didn’t want to put it down and swim after them if they got caught.”
So though the storm of information on rip currents in recent weeks may not be proportionate to the amount of rip currents we’ve actually had, it doesn’t hurt that people are gaining more knowledge.
And because a rip current doesn’t have to be fatal if you know what to look for, and what to do if you’re caught in one, keeping rip currents in the conversation for the rest of the summer might not be a bad thing at all.