Rip currents are to blame for most of the 59 deaths that have occurred in the surf zone along the nation's beaches so far this year.
POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — Rip currents have caused several deaths at U.S. beaches this summer, prompting warnings from lifeguards and weather forecasters for swimmers to be aware and keep themselves safe.
Six people died between June and July due to rip currents in New Jersey, including a 24-year-old Slovakian woman in the U.S. to work a summer job on the shore.
And rip currents are to blame for most of the 59 deaths that have occurred in the surf zone along the nation’s beaches so far this year. Now, scientists are hoping swimmers pay closer attention to the narrow currents that pull them away from the shore, as rip currents have claimed 735 lives in the U.S. since 2002.
There were 40 rip current deaths nationwide by the end of July compared with 58 in all of 2016, data from the National Weather Service shows. Florida leads the nation with 11 so far this year. New Jersey and Texas had six and North Carolina had five.
“What usually happens is a wave can knock them off their feet and start to pull on them,” said Atlantic City Beach patrol Lt. John Ammerman. “They don’t relax and float with it. They generally panic and have trouble.”
The desperation they create was illustrated in a video showing strangers on Panama City Beach in July forming an 80-person human chain to help rescue members of a family who had been pulled too far from shore.
Waves, tides and the shape of the ocean floor contribute to rip currents. But jetties, groins and piers create “hot boxes” where swimmers are especially at risk, said Greg Dusek, who studies tides and currents for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The New Jersey shore is dotted with these structures, and it is where six people died between June and July, including Zuzana Oravcova of Slovakia, who went for a swim in Point Pleasant Beach on July 30 but was swept away.
Two cousins, Emily Gonzalez-Perez, 12, and Mitzi Hernandez, 13, were pulled to sea and drowned when they went swimming at an unguarded beach in Belmar. Ramon Quinn, 15, died trying to rescue Kaliyah Hand, 16, who also drowned, off an Atlantic City beach.
“He was a hero, till the end, even as he tried to save his friend,” Quinn’s obituary read.
An Ohio teen died after he was caught in a rip current off Fripp Island in South Carolina in June. Eric Clark was swimming with friends when he disappeared. And Jevoney White, 19, drowned in July off Smith Point Beach on Long Island after he was caught in a rip current.
Rip currents often form where sand bars are near the shore, Dusek said, and they are easier to see from an elevated position.
“You can spot them in areas where waves aren’t breaking, or where there’s foam or muddy water being pulled offshore,” he said.
Swimmers who get caught in rip currents are urged to stay calm and try to swim parallel to the shore to get out of its grip or float until getting a lifeguard’s attention.
Most rip current fatalities occur during the evening after the beach patrols have gone home for day, said National Weather Service meteorologist Lance Franck.
Scientists are studying whether replenishment adds to the problem and NOAA is working to improve its method of forecasting rip currents.
“We’re validating a new forecast model that predicts the probability of the hazard every few kilometers up to five days ahead.” Dusek said. However, that likely will not be operational for a few years.