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

May 24, 2001

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:
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