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NOAA weather service, Sea Grant Program offer rip current safety information

National Sea Grant College Program



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Washington D.C. With Memorial Day Weekend signaling the traditional start of the summer beach season, NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS) and National Sea Grant College Program are teaming up to help educate the public about the dangers of rip currents which account for 80 percent of beach rescues annually - 36,000 rescues in 1997.

"The main goal of the NWS rip current program is to warn the public when there is a likelihood of dangerous rip currents," explains Steven Pfaff, senior forecaster at the NWS's Wilmington, NC office where a pilot program pairing the education and outreach resources of the Sea Grant program and the forecasting resources of the NWS is underway. Last year, about 10 deaths were connected with rip currents in the surf along North Carolina's coast. This year, beachgoers can check several sources of rip current information before they head to the shore.

Using local area Web sites, the NWS in North Carolina now provides rip current forecasts for most North Carolina beaches. Developed in cooperation with North Carolina Sea Grant, the sites provide twice daily updates from the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area north to Dare County, N.C. Easy-to-read maps alert the public if conditions along various strands pose a low threat, increased threat or dangerous threat for rip currents.

For rip current forecasts for Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties in North Carolina, and the Myrtle Beach, S.C. area, go to http://nwsilm.wilmington.net and follow the rip currents link. For information on Dare, Hyde and Carteret and Onslow counties, go to http://tgsv5.nws.noaa.gov/er/mhx/ and follow the links for local threats. Background information on rip currents is also available on the sites.

Further north along the coast, the NWS office in Wakefield, Va., expects to soon add rip current forecasts for its region, which includes Currituck County, N.C., and the popular Virginia Beach area.

The North Carolina coast is the first in the nation to be covered in this fashion, and other state Sea Grant programs in Florida and Michigan are exploring similar partnerships with the NWS regional offices. About 150 drownings (30 in Florida) occur each year due to rip currents. Florida Sea Grant is currently funding research at the University of Florida to develop a database of rip currents, and hopes from that to develop and test a predictive model within the next two years. The hope is that such modeling will further help reduce the loss of human life.

"Wave modeling, buoy information and surf reports are factors that signal the potential for strong rip currents. Based on the local conditions in individual counties, we can determine the rip-current threat for each day," Pfaff adds.

In addition to the North Carolina-NWS partnership program using the Web for current conditions-outreach and public education, a good many regional NOAA Weather and Sea Grant state Web sites have rip current safety information. NOAA's NWS offers information at: http://205.67.213.10/Information/Ripcurrent/RIP.htm

"The key message is: Don't Panic," says Spencer Rogers, North Carolina Sea Grant coastal construction and erosion specialist. "If you are caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore."

Rip currents can pull even experienced swimmers. The currents are formed when water rushes out to sea in a narrow path. They may form in a break in a near shore sandbar, or if the current is diverted by a groin or jetty. Many rip currents are temporary, while others are permanent. Most trouble spots are less than 30 feet wide. Often they occur after storms.

Reaching the public through printed material is also underway. More than 35,000 information brochures that emphasize the signs that rip currents may be present - and appropriate responses are being distributed this year in 12 states: California, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin. Additionally special weatherproof riptide posters have been provided to local beach patrol units for their use.

Texas Sea Grant has developed a bilingual English-Spanish educational campaign that includes posters, table tents placed in hotel rooms and on restaurant tables, and a brochure. The USC Sea Grant program provides multi-language information at its popular Guide to Southern California Beach Web site: http://www.usc.edu/org/seagrant/beach/beach.html

"If more people take the time to learn about rip currents, then more people will understand what they must do to protect themselves if they encounter a killer rip," Pfaff says.

The Sea Grant brochure is now being reprinted. Up to 30 copies of the brochure will be available free from North Carolina Sea Grant. Call 919-515-9101. For larger orders, the brochures are 20 cents each. Enclose a check with your order and send to North Carolina Sea Grant, NCSU Box 8605, Raleigh, NC 27695-8605. Sea Grant also has 7-minute rip current videos available for $6 each.

NOAA'S National Weather Service offers RIP current survival tips

As millions of Americans flock to the beach this summer, NOAA's National Weather Service offers important tips to survive rips currents and surf conditions. Bathers can stay safe this summer by keeping in mind some simple rules:

  • Do not overestimate your swimming abilities. If the surf is up, and you are not experienced with large waves, stay out of the water. If you are not an experienced swimmer and cannot keep yourself afloat for extended periods, do not enter the water when the surf is running.
  • Learn to recognize dangerous ocean conditions and rip currents. As waves pile up onto the beach, the water forms rip currents as it heads back out to sea. You can usually identify these currents as rivers of white water flowing away from the beach. These currents are powerful and will pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea.
  • Stay calm, do not panic. Your chances of surviving a rip current or any swimming experience are drastically improved by staying calm and maintaining your ability to assess the situation.
  • Never fight the rip. If you find yourself being pulled out to sea, do not fight the current by trying to swim back to shore. Stay calm and go with the flow. Keep yourself afloat by treading water or swimming parallel to the beach. In a few minutes, the current will dissipate.
  • Duck under the waves. Breaking waves pack a pretty good punch when they hit a floating object. The secret is to duck under the waves. By submerging yourself only 2-3 feet under the water, you will avoid almost all of a wave's impact and safely pop back up on the other side. You will only have to hold your breath a few seconds and this simple maneuver-routinely used by surfers and experienced swimmers - can save your life.
  • The other side of the Impact Zone. Waves on any given beach usually break in an area known as the Impact Zone. This is not a friendly place for swimmers or someone caught in a rip current. Just on the other side of the zone, however, conditions are generally calm, the rip current fades, and a swimmer can easily float over the waves while keeping their head above water.
  • Catch your breath/call for help. After you have gone with the flow and have allowed the rip current to take you out past the Impact Zone, you can catch your breath and signal for help. It may seem like you are very far from the beach, but you are generally safe here as long as you can tread water and keep yourself afloat. At this point, you can swim parallel to the beach to a calmer area to wait for help to arrive.
  • Let the waves do the work. If no help is available and you need to get back to the beach on your own, swim with the waves back toward the beach. Take your time and remember to duck under the larger waves. Again, go with the flow, and soon, the waves will push you back toward the beach.

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    Contacts for More Information:

    North Carolina Sea Grant Communications: Pam Smith, 919-515-9069, North Carolina Sea Grant Coastal Hazard Specialist: Spencer Rogers 910-962-2491.

    National Weather Service Public Affairs: John Leslie, 301-713-0622, National Weather Service Rip Current Program: Bob Chartuk,631-244-0166, Wilmington, North Carolina National Weather Service Senior Forecasters, Steven Pfaff or Tom Matheson: 910-762-4289. Michigan Sea Grant Great Lakes Rip Currents Ron Kinnunen: 906-228-4830.

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