“We as a community have to ask ourselves, are we okay with two, three, four, five of our visitors coming here and dying every year?”

DESTIN — On a warm but windy Wednesday afternoon, Destin Beach Safety Lifeguard Officer Jourdan Perrin drove down the beach on an ATV, scanning the water for swimmers.

The chilly wind kept people out of the water, but a group of adventurous spring breakers holding red Solo cups had waded past the first sand bar and were jumping over incoming waves.

“We see people like that going out a little bit further and further, and you just want to make sure you're close by, watching them,” Perrin said as she parked her ATV on the sand and eyed the swimmers. “Just watch their body language and how they're swimming. All of those things come into play when looking for a potential safety situation.”

Following the first drowning of the 2018 season, Destin Beach Safety lifeguards are on high alert and hope that last weekend's death their last.

But Beach Safety Director Joe D'Agostino said that won't be easy. He said funding issues mean he can't hire enough lifeguards to adequately cover the beaches, and the lifeguards he does have sometimes must cover an entire mile of beach — and thousands of swimmers — by themselves.

“When you have the kind of beach attendance that you have in Destin, which only goes up every year, and you compare us to world-class beaches in South Florida like Fort Lauderdale, they have towers with full-time employees every 250 yards, and that's how they're able to pull off zero drownings,” D'Agostino said. “We as a community have to ask ourselves, are we okay with two, three, four, five of our visitors coming here and dying every year?”

One drowning is too many

Roscoe Brooks, 43, of Mississippi drowned March 17 while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico near the Henderson Beach Inn, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.

D'Agostino said Brooks apparently had gone out swimming on a boogie board when he began to call for help. The man was swimming on the very western edge of Zone 4, one of five zones Destin Beach Safety uses to divide up the six miles of beach it patrols. The closest lifeguard was on the eastern edge of Zone 4.

“Our lifeguard got the call and was on the way in, but by the time we got to the shore it was a code in progress,” D'Agostino said. “We had to drive across a mile of beach. We can only be so close to a call.”

The drowning was the first of 2018 — there were four in Destin in 2017 — but Perrin said spring break crowds are only the “calm before the storm” and feared the number could rise.

Lifeguards do as many preventive measures as they can to keep people out of dangerous situations, Perrin said, including making as many as 4,000 contacts a day.

But they can only do so much.

“We have such a big area for one or two lifeguards to cover,” Perrin said. “With so many people in such a big area, you always have to be roving and making public contacts. It's massive, but it's important. ... We tell people we want them to get home safe, and occasionally you have people who want to argue with you and you've just got to have patience with them.”

Only getting worse

During spring break, Destin Beach Safety has nine lifeguards on duty every day, including five roving patrols, two lifeguard chairs and two officers. Ideally, D'Agostino said he'd like to have double that number, but it's about stretching his budget to the fullest.

The budget for Destin's beach safety program comes from the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council and the city of Destin. The 2018 budget clocks in at $714,200, including $614,200 from the TDC and $100,000 from the city.

For comparison, the county has budgeted $442,000 for Okaloosa Island, also with TDC money. Neighboring Walton County's beach safety budget is $931,000, funded by its TDC, with an additional $100,000 spent on a beach flag awareness campaign from March through September.

Before becoming Destin's beach safety director 11 years ago, D'Agostino was beach safety director in Fort Lauderdale, a place he said had zero drownings and a $3 million budget.

He said Destin's budget has not increased enough over the years to match the growth of tourism.

“It's just too much of a stretch of beach and too many people attending,” he said. “The budget has only grown a few percent every year, but the visitation has more than doubled.”

During the summer D'Agostino employs between 60 to 70 lifeguards, almost all of them part time. He said lifeguards make anywhere from $13.17 an hour to $18.17 an hour, with two officers making $20.17 an hour. D'Agostino said he's lost lifeguards to retail or restaurant positions that pay more and are less demanding, and has had trouble hiring people for that amount.

The result of understaffing has proven to be deadly, and will only get worse, he said.

“It seems like every year I've had to counsel a 19-year-old who had to drag dead bodies out of the water,” he said. “There's some sort of disconnect in this community. ... People are dying. I don't think everybody in our community realizes how bad things are getting, and how bad they can still get.”