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Rip Current Awareness Week along the Gulf Coast

Region National Weather Service offices across the Wiregrass are bringing awareness of rip currents while at the beach.
Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 10:37 AM CST
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DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) - As those temperatures begin to warm across the Wiregrass over the next several months, more people will be packing the car up and making a trip down to the Gulf Coast for a vacation or a day trip. The National Weather Service offices in Tallahassee, Florida and Mobile, Alabama are hoping to spread awareness of a threat that many non-locals may not know of--rip currents.

“Most folks that live near the beach, say Panama City Beach, Pensacola Beach. They’re already aware that rip currents exist and what kind of harm they can play in,” Mark Wool of NWS Tallahassee tells us. “It’s those folks that are on vacation from well inland, that’s our target audience... Some of these folks are maybe used to swimming in lakes or rivers are just not used to the extra hazards that come from swimming at a surf beach.”

Rip currents are narrow channels that can form along the beach and rapidly pull water away from the shore and out toward the sea. Rip currents can be strong enough to pull swimmers away from the shore as well. They happen most frequently beside man-made structures like piers or jetties.

From 2002 to the end of 2020, rip currents are responsible for more fatalities along the beaches in Alabama and the Florida panhandle than tornadoes, lightning, flooding, and tropical systems combined across the rest of the coverage areas for the Tallahassee and Mobile NWS offices. While rip currents can also happen during times of “bad weather” that can also produce tornadoes, lightning, and flooding, they can also happen on days when the sun is shining.

If you ever get caught in a rip current, the most important thing is to remain calm and don’t panic. The rip current will only pull you away from the shore, not underwater. Float on your back, wave, and yell out for help. Conserve your energy as much as possible. Most drownings related to rip currents happen when swimmers try to swim against the current. Once you notice the rip current starting to weaken, swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current. Swim with the waves to push you back to shore when you are out of the current.

Be aware of your surroundings when you are at the beach. A rip current is occurring in places where a small portion of a wave is not breaking like the rest of the wave. The water in that portion of the wave will be darker and not have as much foam as the rest of the wave. You may notice seaweed or foam being pulled away from shore through that section. These are easier to see from higher ground, such as a lifeguard’s post. Swim where lifeguards are present.

The best way to be aware of rip currents is knowing the beach conditions before you step into the water. Florida and Alabama beaches use a colored flag system to alert the public of beach conditions. Yellow flags are most commonly seen during calm weather days, but don’t confuse its message. Yellow flags mean there is a moderate risk for rip currents. Red flags mean there is a high risk for rip currents. Double-red flags mean the water is closed to the public, and law enforcement can hand out fines and penalties to anyone caught in the water.

The National Weather Service offices in Tallahassee and Mobile are always working on making the public, especially non-locals, aware of rip currents and the risks they pose. For more information and safety tips on rip currents, check out the following websites:

National Weather Service Rip Currents page: https://www.weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent

NWS Tallahassee Rip Currents page: https://www.weather.gov/tae/ripcurrentawareness

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