Status quo won't do at popular state park

Something needs to change at Hunting Island State Park to better protect the public that flocks there to swim in the ocean.

Earlier this month, three young men found themselves in a desperate situation after being pulled away from shore in a rip current. One broke free of the current and went for help, but two had to be rescued by a "guardian angel." The young mother, a former Marine and high school lifeguard, just happened to be there and see the trauma. She started a chain reaction that prevented any drownings.

Last month, two women were rescued while clinging to a wall of rocks covered with jagged barnacles and oyster shells. They too had been pulled offshore by a rip current. A friend and strangers pulled them to safety. They shared their story hoping to warn future swimmers at the park.

Last summer around Labor Day, a man disappeared while swimming off the coast of Hunting Island on a day that five people had to be saved by firefighters.

Earlier in the year, around Memorial Day, a 9-year-old drowned at the park.

Something must change. We cannot accept this as a matter of course.

The park is one of the state's most popular, attracting about a million visitors last year. Its $1.1 million profit helped support other state parks that get far fewer visitors.

Some of that profit needs to be funneled into improved public safety at Hunting Island State Park.

An important ingredient would be lifeguards. The park has had lifeguards in the past, at least in portions of the oceanfront. Today, it has none. Adding lifeguards would not be a cure-all, but it would be much better than a hope and a prayer that others will see swimmers in danger.

A lot has been done to enhance public safety at the park. Warning signs are in place. Patrols by law enforcement and park personnel have been increased at peak times. And the state constantly assesses the safety protocols. But that is proving to be not enough.

The park is isolated -- a long trek from Beaufort. That is believed to be a key reason it has had no success in the past in attracting lifeguards when it wanted to employ them. That challenge should be countered with higher wages and benefits. The cost not to provide lifeguards is much higher. Without even considering the cost of the loss of human life, the cost of search and rescue operations by public and private entities should be considered.

Better education is needed so the swimming public knows ahead of time how to best cope with a rip current. Warnings are clear at the park, but more warning signs and brochures may help as well.

Something needs to change.