Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Swimmers were not alerted to dangerous currents

Within an hour Wednesday, seven people in two locations were sucked into life-threatening currents off Pass-a-Grille in St. Pete Beach.

In the first case, two men were pulled to safety by beachgoers who rushed to their aid.

In the second, a family of five was swept away from shore. Four were saved in a dramatic rescue, but a 41-year-old Alabama woman later died.

In both cases, swimmers were given no warning of the dangerous conditions.

No warning signs or flags were posted. No lifeguards work the beach.

Just hours after the rescues, St. Pete Beach officials huddled to discuss options to help avoid another tragedy.

Beyond diminishing municipal budgets lies another huge challenge: six miles of beach with about 100 entrance points.

"There's just so many places, said City Manager Michael Bonfield, "to access the beach."

• • •

Dangerous currents formed quickly as Tropical Storm Debby hammered west Florida.

The storm pushed water to the shoreline and beyond. As the tide receded, water was sucked back out to the Gulf of Mexico, taking everything in its path.

"It starts with the winds," said Anthony Reynes, National Weather Service meteorologist. "The stronger the winds get, the stronger the currents become."

When wind speed and direction warrant, the weather service issues a beach hazard advisory, warning the public of dangerous swimming conditions. When the warning is "high," Reynes said, rip currents are possible.

The warnings are routinely emailed to cities and counties who oversee the beaches.

"We cannot tell the city to put a sign that says 'do not swim' in the water," Reynes said. "It's just like a hurricane — we cannot tell anyone how many shelters to open."

Pinellas County has about 35 miles of beaches, but only a handful have lifeguards.

Four lifeguards patrol Honeymoon Island State Park. Fort De Soto, Sand Key, and Fred Howard parks currently employ 20 full-time and eight part-time lifeguards who work from March until Labor Day weekend.

But amid declining city and county budgets, lifeguards simply are not a priority.

The drowning at Pass-a-Grille points out the necessity for lifeguards, said Kathy Cleary, Pinellas County's aquatics supervisor, who oversees the parks.

"If people don't have the understanding, the education of the conditions that create rip currents," she said, "situations like this unfold, unfortunately."

Dangerous currents such as ripcurrents underlie 80 percent of lifeguard rescues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At Clearwater Beach, eight lifeguards are present every day of the year.

On Wednesday during a dangerous current advisory, lifeguards at Sand Key and Frank Howard parks — Fort De Soto was closed for storm repairs — warned beachgoers not to go past waist-deep water.

"A lot of what we do is preventative," Cleary said. But prevention doesn't always work.

Thursday morning, lifeguards at Clearwater Beach rescued three people swept up in a strong current. Lifeguards performed CPR on one woman, who was taken to Morton Plant Hospital with life-threatening injuries.

The problem for many smaller cities is money.

The lifeguard operation for Pinellas County parks has a budget of about $400,000.

Some cities take a less costly approach by posting signs and flag warnings, but there is no replacement for a lifeguard, said United States Life Saving Association spokesman Tom Gill.

"There has to be some responsibility," he said. "People want to go where they are safe."

At St. Pete Beach, several city officials, including the police and fire officials, discussed their unguarded beaches Wednesday.

City Manager Michael Bonfield said that in the 10 years he has been there the city has never had a lifeguard. He said the "rarity" of a current-related drowning also makes lifeguards less of a priority.

But message boards might be an option, he said.

"We'll look and see what some other places are doing," he said.

• • •

On Thursday morning, Laura Ross and her three kids were not far from the scene of tragedy Wednesday at Pass-a-Grille.

A former lifeguard visiting from Italy, Ross knew about rip currents and didn't wander out too deep.

Instead, she walked barefoot along the sand, gazing at the calm, blue waves.

"Every time you're dealing with the ocean," she said, "there's a chance, there's definitely a risk."

Outdoors-Fitness editor Terry Tomalin contributed to this report.

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