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NWS Rip Current Safety Program

Rip Current Headlines

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Melbourne, FL, Rip Current Program

The Melbourne NWS Office has been issuing rip current outlooks since May 1997. Response from the media has been positive and television broadcasts routinely mention when conditions at the beaches support the formation of rip currents. Countless newspaper articles have been published about rip current rescues and drownings, many mentioning the Melbourne Rip Current Program. The media coverage has led to an increased public awareness about what a rip current is and how to avoid being a victim of one. Additionally, communication with the local Beach Patrols has improved and led to a better transfer of rip current rescue information to the Melbourne Office.

Unfortunately, there are still rip current related drownings in east central Florida, though the average number has decreased since the inception of the rip current outlooks. From 1989-97 the average number of rip current related drownings was nearly five per year. Since the inception of the Rip Current Program, the average number of drownings per year has dropped to one or two.

With east central Florida being a popular tourist destination and steady population growth occurring, rip currents will continue to be a serious danger at the beaches.

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Miami, FL, Rip Current Success Story

More than 50 million people a year visit southeast Florida surf beaches. Many of these are visitors from other parts of the state or the country, and from other nations. Since 1979 the number of rip current fatalities along the southeast Florida surf beaches has been tabulated. Although there is a large year-to-year variability in rip current deaths, a downward trend has been seen, especially since 1991. Beginning in 1991, the Miami Weather Forecast Office has been issuing statements whenever the rip current danger is forecast. The statements, according to the Beach Patrol, have triggered a heightened awareness of the rip current danger to the beach-going public. Before 1991 there were an average of 12 deaths a year while since 1991 the death toll has averaged 5 per year and in 2000 there were no reported rip current deaths.

chart showing rip current deaths 1980 to present

blue rule Kure Beach, NC, NOAA's NWS and Sea Grant Recognize Rip Current Preparedness

On January 15, 2002 Kure (pronounced "cure-ey") Beach Police Chief Dennis Cooper received the NWS Public Service Award for his efforts to inform vacationers of the hazards of rip currents. After a couple of rip current-related drownings in 2000, Chief Cooper worked with the North Carolina office of NOAA Sea Grant and the NWS to prepare, publish and distribute educational brochures to motels and tourist centers. He posted signs at all beach walkways, ensured lifeguards were well-trained, and spoke to organizations to promote rip current awareness.

Steve Pfaff, the NWS Wilmington, NC, Marine Program Leader, worked to improve rip current forecasting and public awareness through a partnership with coastal towns and Sea Grant. The work included developing and distributing rip current safety signs. These informative signs will be installed at every public beach entrance along a 40 mile stretch from Surf City to Fort Fisher, NC. "The signs are especially useful at beaches where there are no lifeguards, and provide the public with the knowledge of what to do if they encounter a deadly rip," Pfaff said. The initial rip current sign partnership totaled 475 signs in the Wilmington warning area.

Kure Beach Mayor Betty Medlin and Sea Grant's Spencer Rogers recognized Chief Cooper's leadership, citing Kure Beach as the most proactive in the Carolinas. Former NWS Wilmington MIC Richard Anthony (retired) presented the award, describing Chief Cooper's work, along with that of Sea Grant and the NWS, as potentially lifesaving. "Thank you Chief Cooper for helping keep our community informed and safe," Anthony said. (From NWS Focus, January 2002)

Chief Dennis Cooper, Kure Beach, NC Police Chief on left

Photo: Chief Dennis Cooper, Kure Beach, NC Police Chief on left

2) WFO Wilmington has partnered with several beach communities from Myrtle Beach, SC to Topsail Beach, NC to install rip current safety signs at all public beach access paths to the ocean. This effort has been ongoing over the last two years and is part of an overall collaborative effort between the NWS and Sea Grant to promote rip current awareness. The metal signs provide people with information on what to do if they encounter a rip current and where to find rip current outlooks through the NWS rip current web page.

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Rip Current Science, Forecasts Featured

A Rip Current Technical Workshop entitled "Rip Current Science: Coordinating Coastal Engineering Research and Forecast Methodologies to Improve Public Safety" brought together university researchers, NWS marine forecasters and Sea Grant extension specialists. The Workshop was held in Jacksonville, FL on April 6 and 7, 2004.

Presentations highlighted the science behind rip current formation, efforts to improve rip current forecasts around the country and outreach efforts. The workshop also helped each organization identify data gaps, partnership opportunities and future research needs to enhance and improve rip-current prediction and forecasting.

Florida participants included researchers Bob Dean and Bob Thieke from the University of Florida; NWS rip current forecasting pioneers Jim Lushine of Miami and Randy Lascody of Melbourne; and Florida Sea Grant extension staff members. Lushine and Lascody discussed the Weather Service's Surf Zone Forecast and the Rip Current Outlook. The highly successful collaboration between Sea Grant researchers and NWS forecasters in Florida was highlighted and serves as a model for additional Sea Grant--NWS collaboration around the nation.

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Miami Herald: Perilous Currents Being Researched

May. 10, 2004: GAINESVILLE Perilous currents being researched.

Engineers are trying to figure out how to predict rip currents, the country's No. 1 cause of ocean drownings and rescues.

GAINESVILLE - (AP) -- A team of Florida engineers is conducting a six-year study to try to learn how to predict when and where rip currents will occur.

The deadly currents are the country's leading cause of ocean drownings and rescues and if engineers can learn how to predict them it may soon be safer to go in the ocean.

Two University of Florida professors and some graduate students are in the fourth year of the $400,000 study with the aim of creating an advance-warning system that beach managers can use to help warn beachgoers of dangerous rip currents.

So far, civil and coastal engineering professors Robert Thieke and Andrew Kennedy have been able to predict increased rip current activity by comparing wave height, wave direction and duration.

Bigger waves with longer periods between crests that move perpendicular to the shore seem to be the best scenario for danger, Thieke said.

Researchers checked their prediction with lifeguard rescue logs in Volusia County and found that on days they had predicted increased rip current activity, ocean rescues increased.

''The ultimate goal is to get people to see this on their news the day before,'' Kennedy said.

The National Weather Service issues rip current updates as part of their daily surf forecasts.

But Kennedy said the service's releases, while important for determining relative risk, are based on regional weather patterns, not localized data. And because Weather Service updates are broad in scope they cannot provide site-specific warnings, he said.

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, about 80 percent of the nation's surf-related rescues are attributed to rip currents.

Better local advance warning systems could also be used to determine staffing levels for lifeguards. On days when there are predictions of rip currents, the public could be warned and local governments could make sure there are lifeguards working to watch those who don't heed warnings.

© 2004 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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Last Updated: May 31, 2007