Recent Oak Island drownings prompt changes to improve safety

Since the start of peak beach season on Oak Island, four people have drowned in the island’s scenic waters.

Most recently, a 52-year-old man suffered a rip current at the public beach access near the center of the island on July 3.

The tragedy cast a dark cloud over the July 4 holiday and inspired change among the island’s first responders seeking to educate citizens.

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From July 1 to July 9, some 80,000 cars crossed the Long Beach Road bridge into Oak Island, according to Oak Island Police Chief Charlie Morris.

In a recent report to Oak Island City Council, Morris said traffic volumes were average for the island’s peak tourist season, but it was a busy week nonetheless. Over the holiday weekend, Oak Island Police responded to 238 calls for service.

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Much of this traffic was headed for the beach. Brunswick County beaches do not have lifeguards and instead rely on local first responders to provide lifesaving services.

Educate swimmers

This year, the Oak Island Police Department, Oak Island Fire Department, and Oak Island Water Rescue have stepped up efforts to educate tourists and locals about one of the hazards of ocean swimming: currents. back.

According to the National Weather Service, rip currents are powerful surges of water that run perpendicular to the beach, pulling water from the shore toward open water. If caught in one, it can be difficult and taxing to swim to shore.

Using social media and other outreach activities, departments are encouraging beach visitors to learn about unsafe conditions on the beach before getting into the water.

Dotted along the island’s public beach access points are signs indicating which conditions are reflected in the color-coded flags: green, yellow and red for low, medium and high risk, respectively. Each panel also contains a QR code which, when scanned, shows visitors a deeper insight into current online danger conditions.

Oak Island signage shows swimmers how to interpret the day's current hazards, as indicated by the flags waving along the beach.

At least half of the island’s drownings in 2022 occurred on “yellow flag” days, indicating average surf conditions. According to Oak Island Water Rescue, rip currents are present even on low-risk days — though they’re likely less frequent and weaker than high-risk days.

Morris said emergency responders were working to monitor ocean conditions and update flags to reflect current conditions because the risk could change during the day.

On July 1, the city launched a new public notification system, “OKInformation”. The system allows the city to send email and text notifications to those who sign up, informing them of beach conditions and other city news.

Recent increases in island traffic and tourism have prompted some changes to its new beach services unit, Morris said. The Beach Services Unit is a civilian branch of the Oak Island Police Department. Unit employees work to patrol the beach, enforce parking and operate drones from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the island’s peak beach season from May 13 to September 5.

Now, Beach Service Patrol Utility All-Terrain Vehicles are equipped with first aid kits and display warning flags indicating current weather conditions, and some staff will soon undergo CPR training.

Ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend, the city installed new signage to remind bathers to keep emergency access points clear in case emergency response is needed.

At the July 12 city council meeting, councilman John Bach suggested the city consider adding warning signs at every public access, encouraging bathers to exercise caution and heed the conditions current before entering the water.

“It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about saving lives,” Bach said.

Bach said he thinks tourists will be more likely to notice a warning sign, rather than taking several steps to go online and check current conditions or learn about the meaning of beach warning flags.

“I’m telling you we need a sign because parents and visitors are busy, they’re carrying things, they’re not paying attention,” Bach said.

Council is expected to continue discussing adding warning signs at its August meeting.

How can you spot a rip current and what do you do if you are one?

According to the National Weather Service, there have been 171 deaths in the Carolinas since 2000. Of those who died, 80% resided in interior regions.

On June 14, Morris said, authorities responded to the beach and found a 67-year-old woman who had drowned. According to the National Weather Service, she had been caught in a rip current. She was from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Despite rescue measures, the woman died.

“The number one reason visitors and vacationers drown in rip currents is because they don’t know what to do,” said Oak Island Water Rescue. “They are unaware of the danger and don’t understand rip currents. They can’t recognize them and they don’t know the survival strategies of swimming sideways or floating to survive. It is unrealistic to expect everyone who vacations at the beach to understand rip currents.

According to the National Weather Service, rip currents can be spotted by locating areas between breaking waves where water flows toward the ocean, rather than toward the shore. If you get caught in a rip current, the easiest way to escape is to swim parallel to the shore.

Oak Island Water Rescue suggests bringing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved boogie board or floating pad to the beach, as they may come in handy in the event of a rescue. Wearing a life jacket can help an individual float if caught in a rip current, Oak Island Water Rescue said.

Jamey Cross is the public safety reporter at StarNews. Contact her at [email protected] or message her on Twitter @jameybcross.