Collaboration needed to prevent drownings

info@islandpacket.comJuly 19, 2013 

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Fire and rescue services search for three swimmers who went missing July 14 near a campground at Hunting Island State Park.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

Three drownings this week in the Atlantic Ocean at Hunting Island State Park demand change.

Sadly, they are part of a terrible trend.

Four people drowned July 3 and 4 on beaches in Brunswick County, N.C., just north of Myrtle Beach.

An Ohio man drowned July 5 in Calibogue Sound off Hilton Head Island.

Two men drowned in the ocean off Myrtle Beach on July 4, and authorities said almost 100 were rescued.

And Wednesday, the body of the last of three drowning victims at Hunting Island was recovered after a search that began Sunday afternoon.

This demands a collaborative reaction from authorities. Communities throughout the Carolinas need to talk about best practices and new ideas to better protect the public. More can be done, and it must be done.

Each case has different variables, but a typical factor is the presence of strong underwater channels of water called rip currents, which flow from the shore out to sea. They carry unsuspecting and unprepared swimmers offshore. Local residents may have heard that swimmers should not fight the current, but instead swim parallel to the shore until they are out of the rip current, then turn toward the beach. A more common reaction is panic at sea and chaos on shore.

Millions of people come to Beaufort County beaches every year, including more than 1 million to the state park and more than 2 million to Hilton Head. This community owes it to our visitors to provide the most help possible to ensure a safe visit.

Hilton Head has lifeguards on duty in the summer, but Hunting Island does not. For years, the public has asked why lifeguards are not on duty at Hunting Island, known for strong offshore currents. State park officials have said they could not fill the jobs and eventually quit trying. They say they beef up patrols of the beach in the busiest times.

Is that good enough? Are better warning signs needed on beaches countywide? Can warning flags be used? Can safety education for visitors be improved?

What more can be done?

A woman who just watched her husband drown while trying to rescue others at Sunset Beach in Brunswick County, N.C., told The Associated Press she want to be an advocate for flags and lifeguards. But right now she is too hurt and angry and has too much else on her mind.

That's where we who live at the beach must come into the picture. We must help her. We cannot prevent all drownings, of course. But when a community thrives on visitors who flock to the ocean not knowing its brutal strength, it must make sure it is doing everything possible to prevent the kinds of tragedies we have seen this month.

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