Panhandle Drownings

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Rescuers and emergency personnel in South Walton County say they did all they could do to prevent the five drownings along the Florida Panhandle coast on Sunday.

The water off south Walton and Okaloosa counties had been churned up by several days of bad weather. When the sun finally came back out Sunday, it seemed like everyone wanted to get back in the water.

Rescue officials say the riptide problem was obvious in many areas. Red flags were flying and a sheriff's helicopter flew over with a loudspeaker, telling folks to stay onshore. But one official says outside of physically grabbing people, there just wasn't much anyone could do.

Walton County does not have lifeguards. Officials say drowning isn't usually a problem, as evidenced by only three since 1996. They say the red flags and public information warnings have sufficed.

In addition to the five drownings Sunday, nearly 40 other people were rescued along a 30-mile stretch of beach in the two counties Sunday. A sixth man drowned Monday off Pensacola Beach. Extended Web Coverage

Recognize The Flags

Many beaches use a flag warning system to keep beachgoers informed about daily conditions. Learn the system -- and what each flag means -- before going into the water. These flags are flown from the lifeguard stands along the beachfront. The color code is:

Red Flag
Prohibited to go in the water, stay out. Flown when conditions are determined to be out of the ordinary, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf.

Yellow Flag
Indicates caution should be used when entering any body of water. This flag is flown when undertow and riptide exists.

Blue Flag
Indicates calm seas, use everyday caution.

Know The Currents
Rip currents are narrow, river-like, currents that have been fed by the long shore current and sets of waves. You can easily spot a rip current by its foamy and choppy surface. The water in a rip current can be dirty brown from sand being turned up as it moves rapidly out to sea. If you are caught in a rip current - do not panic.

Stay Calm! Rip currents are not undertows, you can be pulled away from the shore but not pulled under the water. Call or wave for assistance or swim parallel to shore with the long shore current until you are out of the rip, then swim directly towards shore.

If you see someone caught in a rip or in distress, do not go in after them! Throw something that floats or extend a reaching object.

Never underestimate the power of the ocean.