Memorial Day Advice

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! Looks like sunny skies for the most part, some surf and a bit windy, but overall, really nice weather.

It’s a little bittersweet this year because this is usually the end of our “hell week” where we have a large mass casualty exercise, the “night swim” final physical challenge followed by food and a get together, and an all staff meeting. Because we’re committed to not encouraging gatherings, maintaining social distancing, etc., we’ve made the difficult call to not hold those events, cancelled our Junior Lifeguard Program for the summer, and are not hosting our annual BBQ fundraiser for the first time in over two decades. These are part of our culture and traditions, so for us it’s a big loss. But we also know its not just about modeling the behavior we hope the general public will observe when visiting both Galveston and our beaches. Its also the idea that if COVID spreads through our staff and takes a significant number of us out of commission, we won’t be able to protect people that use the beaches. So we’ve made these tough decisions with the knowledge that we need to focus on our primary purpose, and that we’ll resume these activities that are part of us and the other groups that use, protect, and enjoy the beach when the time is right.

With the bad, as always, comes the good. I mentioned all the masks people made for us last week. This week a wonderful woman named Joanne who is a “friend of the Sunflower Bakery” brought us gift cards so that each lifeguard on our staff could have a nice meal at a local business. People’s capacity for good when things get tough is just humbling.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend, remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, avoid swimming at the ends of the island, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We have a new crew of lifeguards that just completed over 100 hours of training that will be out working with the more experienced guards. And we’ll have yet another lifeguard academy start on June 15th so are on the lookout for some new guards. Spread the word!

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol. If the beach is part of your plans this weekend, please swim safe, swim near a lifeguard, and social distance. And have fun!

Together we can

Seems like during any type of crisis many of us struggle with filtering. Filtering information, increased need from others, and/or filtering the tasks that fill each day or the time each one takes. Some people have a vastly increased load and others are looking for ways to fill the day. I’m sure lots of you have had increased contact from old friends or family you don’t communicate with on a daily basis. And then there are these new expressions. I was getting really annoyed for a while at the expression, “unusual times we’re in”. Seems like everyone just has to say it at the beginning and end of each conversation. But then it hit me that this is something that ties us all together because we share this burden.

Stress management training teaches us to take time to do things center us. I’ve done busy summers, oil spills, hurricanes, drownings, etc., and have to make sure during the stressful period I get sleep, eat well, don’t miss workouts, mediate each morning, and take time to do things I like away from the maelstrom. I try not to miss chatting with friends and co-workers about shared interests, and spending time with family.

What’s been so amazing in this crisis is watching how some people and organizations just shine. I’ve been so impressed with our council, city leadership, Park Board members and staff, and the incredibly brave men and women in the Beach Patrol and all other Galveston and Jamaica Beach public safety groups. Not just the individuals, but the way everyone suddenly, when facing serious challenges, rises to the occasion and supports the overall good.

We’ve had some terrible beach tragedies lately. But the support and coordination between groups is inspirational. Our board and the city are working together to mitigate some very serious financial issues that affect the Beach Patrol. The city management, Police, Beach Patrol, Coastal Zone Management, and city traffic department have coordinated some pretty creative responses to the recent dramatic influx of people to the beach. Galveston Marine Response is routinely and efficiently responding to all kinds of craziness. And I have to mention the Police department dispatchers. Wow! They’ve been holding it down! All are a real credit to the citizens they serve.

Every time we hit a crisis; someone is there. One of many examples is that we had to get guards, park staff, Wave Watchers, Coastal Zone Management, etc. all out with 48 hours’ notice, but we didn’t have masks. Suddenly Peggy Baldwin, Jackie Cole, Trish Wooten, Robert Krout, Sue Carlton, Mark Poretto, and others were there unobtrusively dropping off packs of masks for everyone.

We were buried in all kinds of beach drama and thousands of people last weekend. I remember clearing some scene and looking up and seeing a plane pulling a banner reminding people about social distancing. Designed by the Park Board and funded by the city.

I dove back into the fray with a feeling that together we can get through anything.

Cinco De Corona

The 5-year-old girl was lost, although she didn’t know it. She had been playing in front of her parents and went a little deeper. A current pulled her parallel to shore as she played, bobbing with the flow. Suddenly, the sand bar she’d been standing on dropped off suddenly. She wasn’t able to swim, so she struggled briefly before going face down in the water, tiny bubbles blowing out of her nose and mouth and floating to the surface.

When the governor of Texas opened the beaches, we had two days to prepare. The slow measured approach the city Manager, Mayor, and Emergency Operation Center had been working through to gradually open the beaches was no longer relevant. People all over the Houston area and beyond had been cooped up in their houses and apartments with no where to go, making quick runs out for supplies. Suddenly, the flood gates were open, and hundreds of thousands flocked to the island. They peppered the beach, cruised up and down the seawall in the emergency lane, crammed into beach access points on the west end, and filled the beach parks. Many tried to create space on the beach a reasonable distance from other beachgoers. In other areas they jammed up together like bees in a hive. Practically the only people wearing masks were first responders, including lifeguards who braved the potential threat of infection to keep everyone safe. All public safety groups were pushed to the limit and way beyond.

A woman in waist deep water with her kids happened to notice the girl floating face down. She snatched her out of the water and brought her to the lifeguard tower. The guard called for assistance saying the girl was having difficulty breathing and I responded. Once the girl calmed down, I was able to listen to her lungs and check her circulation. She seemed fine but we called EMS to make sure. Fortunately, she was fine and was able to leave with her family.

Leaving the scene, I wound through the crowd looking for lost children, checking on guards, enforcing rules, answering questions, watching the hundreds of swimmers in the area, and reminding people to separate. Emergencies were popping all over the radio on all the channels. A man without a mask flagged me down and stuck his face in my window. Quickly pulling on my mask until he backed away a bit, I asked if I could help him. He asked me if we “just drove around not doing anything or ever did any work”. I asked if there was something, he felt like we should be doing. He said we should be keeping people apart and pointed to a diverse group of young people under a tent. A woman, also without a mask, waited behind him and told me something similar.

By the time Sunday night finally arrived, the Beach Patrol made 3,800 preventative actions, 2 rescues, 60 enforcement actions, and a number of lost children and medical responses.

Family

I have a brother that lives in Bogota, Colombia.  He and his wife can’t go out together. And when they leave one at a time, they can only go to the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor’s office. The police stop them and ask questions each time they leave. My brother is a runner, so he’s taken to running to the grocery store. Then sometimes he runs a loop to a couple of other grocery stores because he “can’t find an item he has to have”. He’s got a nice 6-mile loop that’s working for him, but he has to be careful. Last week a police car followed him the last mile and made sure he went into his apartment building.

My other brother has a wife and two small kids and lives in Panama. They live right off a fairly remote beach on a big piece of land. His daughter just turned 6, so they walked the 4 blocks down the path to the beach. After about 45 minutes, two officials walked up and issued both my brother and his wife tickets. It was an expensive birthday party. And it doesn’t stop there. Twice a week he gets two hours to go out for supplies at a designated time. He goes through roadblocks where they check his ID card to make sure the last numbers match his designated time code. His wife gets three times a week, same deal. And every night the entire country gets a national broadcast where the latest about the pandemic is shared with the whole country including updates on the numbers of cases and how the country is doing on their national strategy. There’s a campaign that’s everywhere called “Solidarity” where its re-emphasized that if everyone doesn’t pull together it drags on longer and more people die.

My brothers and I are close. They always ask about the Galveston beach when we talk. When I told them that the Texas beaches are opening up for business, they are incredulous. Then I showed them what the beaches looked like last weekend during “quarantine”. Explained how the Beach Patrol made almost 5,000 enforcement actions last weekend alone trying to keep people off the beach. Not to mention what the Galveston Police Department and Code Enforcement have done. They are from here and they still were shocked.

But now that’s water under the bridge and, as always, we deal with what we’ve got to work with. We’re ramping up as fast as possible. It’s Cinco De Mayo weekend so parks will be open, and the available guards we do have will be out. Fortunately, the Park Board has approved use of some of our reserve funds to cover the beaches during the summer. Until we get some new ones trained, we’ll be short staffed. So be smart, be safe, and swim near a Lifegaurd.

We’ll have a lifeguard academy starting May 5th. We need guards bad, so pass the word to check our website for details.

 

Photo by: Keri Heath, The Daily News

We’ll get Through This Together

We really appreciate all the calls etc. about people who have not been following the beach ban order. We’re doing the best we can to stay on top of all of this. It’s been tough, especially on the West End. We have 4-6 vehicles a day on the beaches dedicated to just keeping them clear of people. The police have also done quite a bit, as are code enforcement officers. So far Beach Patrol/Park Board Police alone has given over 4,500 verbal warnings and removed those people from the beach. This amount of contact with people puts my staff and other emergency responders at risk, so I ask that you do your part and don’t be one of the people we have to move or ticket.

Most people have been really good about it and don’t need to be told more than once. To be clear NO ONE is allowed on the beach right now aside from people who have to work on the beach like police, lifeguards, and maintenance crews. The fine for breaking this mayoral order can be as much as $500 and it looks like enough people have been non-compliant to warrant more forceful measures. That said, of the thousands moved most seem to understand why its so important that we reduce congregation on the beaches and prevent large groups from coming here. They just seem to think it applies to “those people”.

At the time of writing this, City Council was about to meet to look at a plan to partially open the beaches in May. If they approve it, looks like there will be, for starters, some early morning weekday hours that we can all get out there and walk, run, fish, surf, bike, and walk our dogs. All the things that make living in a beach town so wonderful. As long as people follow the hours, maintain social distancing, and don’t set up chairs or lay on one place, we should be able to gradually open up more hours and days. Much will depend on Houston, so they’reworking to open during days and times that are less likely for the beaches to get inundated with people while we wait for the Houston area to get a little more past the crisis point. Moving too fast could mean we have to get more restrictive again, and none of us wants that.

Many of us have been very impressed with our leaders here on the island and how thoughtful the public and private discussions have been. I’m proud to be working with all the groups and people involved in management of the beaches and of the city response to the pandemic. That also includes all the thoughtful citizens who are willing to do things for the greater good. And,of course, my staff, who consistently surprise me with their patience and determination to keep people safe even if it puts my crew at risk.

We’ll get through this together. Please keep yourself healthy and watch out for your neighbors.

Recover and Rebuild

Corona’s effects on our beach are both eerily familiar and completely foreign all at the same time. But Galveston, like the rest of the world’s beaches, has had a long history of disruptions.

Reading accounts from the 1800’s there are times when the bay and parts of the beach water froze completely over. You could ride a horse drawn cart to the mainland over the frozen surface of the bay according to one account. Other times in the 17th century, the lifeguard service fell to a minimum or was completely disbanded for a time, at least until there was a traumatic event with multiple deaths. This was a pattern that continued all the way until the 1980’s where, after the event, the community invariably renewed their interest and commitment in maintaining a lifeguard service.

In the 20th century we saw Waikiki Beach ruined and rebuilt because of erosion caused by construction projects. Part of Miami Beach, Jersey coast, and Southern California were also lost to a pattern of erosion caused by building projects, dams, and natural disasters.

Here in Galveston, we are no strangers to this pattern in the past few centuries. In the later 1800s there were massive wooden beach pavilions that were lost in two storms in the later part of the century, and again in the Great Storm of 1900. The Great Depression had a huge effect on beach attendance, both because people didn’t have resources for recreation, but also because the beach is free recreation. We see this pattern even today when the economy dips or gas prices increase, and we get more day trippers to the island.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been with the Beach Patrol we’ve been knocked down by Hurricane Alicia, where I sat helplessly with another guard watching pieces of the Flagship Hotel being ripped off by high winds and falling into the water. The next year the guards spent the second half of the summer keeping people out of the water and capturing birds for cleaning because of a massive oil spill. We’ve seen our resources swell because of new beaches created in the 90’s and dwindle again when the convention center was built. And of course, we worked up to and through Hurricane Ike, only to see budget reductions right afterwards when the Great Recession hit.

Corona had brought, and will bring, another big challenge to Galveston’s lifeguard service. We’ve cut all seasonal staff and are not working any tower lifeguards. Our amazing, dedicated year-round staff is still working and tasked with the unenviable job of keeping the beaches clear of people. But the real challenge lays ahead. We are almost completely funded by hotel tax dollars and the hotels have taken a serious financial hit. No one really knows at this point when things will get back to the point when business picks up, or how the larger economic picture will affect the hotels and tourism industry.

Rough times are no doubt ahead, but history shows us that we will recover and rebuild.

Beach Closures

I want to hand it to my staff and the Galveston Police officers who are out there day after day keeping people off of the beaches. This is hard for everyone and they have not faltered or complained, even though they’re putting up with a lot. Right now the lifeguard trucks alone are moving a little less than 100 people off the beach per day on the average, but when it’s nice it’s a few hundred. Here are a few examples of the type of thing they’re seeing and hearing:

“Oh, I’m allowed to be on the beach. It’s a private beach and I own a house/condo there”.

“I thought that was just for the tourists. I’m a local. In fact, I’m a BOI.”

“I know its not allowed. Its just a dumb rule so we’re doing it anyway”.

“I agree that we don’t want people moving around or spreading Corona. But it doesn’t hurt anything if its just me out here”.

Then there are the extreme cases. Last Tuesday we had a guy run out on the south jetty to get away when we told him to get off the beach. It took two lifeguard vehicles and a police car about half an hour to fish him off of the rocks. Another day one of our Supervisors was working the west end and found a few kids frolicking along the shoreline. When they asked the kids to go back to their house one of the kids told them they didn’t have to. When the Supervisor looked to the beach house for some help from the parents, Dad lead by example and whistled at the kids. But instead of calling them to the house he told them to go back out in the water.

My favorite one so far reminded me of something I saw back when I lived in Botswana, Africa. On the edge of my village, there were a number of farms with big fences around them to keep out wildlife that would have eaten the vegetables. This big group of baboons lived on a nearby hill. Baboons are super smart. They knew that humans wouldn’t hurt a cute little baby, so they’d throw the little baboon over the fence. The baby picks the fruit and tosses it over to the adults. Then it waits till people come and they always release it because its so cute and cuddly and all. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not comparing people to baboons in any way, but I did catch some parents doing something similar and lowering some really little kids over the barricades on the seawall steps so they could go play in the water. 7 kids and two adults. It hurt to see the face of the cute little 4-year-old girl’s face that had just been lowered to the steps to go down and play with her siblings when I made Dad call her back.

We’ll be happier than anyone when the beaches open back up, but for now we all need to just keep doing the right thing.

 

 

Beach Closures

It’s amazing how quickly our lives change. Last week we were out enjoying some really nice beach moments as the Corona cloud started to close in. Suddenly the Mayor and City Manager made the difficult decision last Sunday to close the beaches. If you drove down the seawall last Sunday afternoon right before we stared clearing the crowds, you’d have seen that the amount of people who came down to enjoy the beach and the beautiful weather left no choice. Tens of thousands of people were out, and it looked like one of those booming Spring afternoons. As nice as it was to see everyone out having fun, there’s no way we an tamp down the spread of Corona unless we reduce the people moving on and off and around the island. It was a good call.  

Our guards were fairly busy with the crowds and had moved quite a few swimmers from dangerous areas. We’d even made two rescues. They were already on point, but when the call came and I told them to clear the beaches, I was really impressed how they rose to the occasion. Both the tower guards and the Supervisors in the trucks went into action, as did quite a few Patrol Officers of the Galveston Police Department. Within two hours, all 32 miles of beach, including beach park parking lots were clear of people and cars. As I made my way home around sunset, I saw city Park Department crews out erecting barricades, and by the time noon Monday rolled around, every beach access point on the west end was blocked from vehicular traffic, every access point on the seawall was blocked, and the Stewart and East Beach Parks were gated and barricaded. Couldn’t be prouder of my crew and more impressed by the police, park, and public works departments for how quickly and professionally they made all that happen. 

All that was on the heels of a huge grass fire at the East End Lagoon Saturday. The wind was blasting from the north, which caused the fire to spread really quickly. Galveston Fire Department responded quickly and called for help from a number of other departments, including Galveston Marine Response partner Jamaica Beach. It was a heroic battle that lasted throughout the night. When the sun rose, it was still smoldering and there were little spot fires popping up, but it was mostly out. The fire made it to the berm behind the East Beach pavilion, over to Apffel Road. But fortunately was stopped just short of jumping the road and devouring Beach Town.  

Now the dust has cleared from a crazy weekend. Tower Guards aren’t working and our full-time supervisors, along with the Galveston Police Department, have the unenviable job of telling locals they can’t use their beach during sometimes beautiful Spring weather. But, as always, they’ve jumped into the task wholeheartedly because they know how vitally important it is that we all reduce contact so we can save a lot of lives.  

Beyond Coronavirus

It’s hard to think about anything but Corona right now. It’s all we hear about, and I feel like I just go from one meeting about Corona to another about the economic impact of Corona on the tourist industry. Then we worry about our budget which now relies 100% on hotel tax. But since I wrote about the effects of all this craziness on the Beach Patrol last week, I decided to make a conscious effort to focus on something else.

We, as humans, get so completely concerned with our immediate interests that we forget that we’re only one of the many creatures sharing this planet. The rest of the world is moving on without a care for our concerns about whether or not we can get enough toilet paper to make it through the week.

I’ve been so impressed with, and proud to be a part of, our local emergency management team. Galveston in particular has taken very proactive steps to reduce the spread of the disease. One of the things they’ve been working to do is to find a balance between reducing people coming down to our beaches, and the need for locals to get out of their houses for a run or a walk on the beach. Our Mayor and City Manager have made it very clear that if people don’t adhere to the mandate to stay in place as much as possible to contain the threat, they’ll have to take an even more restrictive approach. But they’ve also made it clear that if we all voluntarily follow the rules that we can, within reason, still get out there and enjoy the beautiful place we live in. On my daily patrols, I’ve noticed quite a few people out jogging on the seawall, going for a solitary surf, catching fish, or walking their dog. I have to think that will keep us a little more sane as a community.

And what a great time of year to get out there! Those of you who’ve been out west or on the east end may have noticed that the migratory birds are showing up. These visitors come every year starting around this time and add so much to the beachfront, bays, and marshes.

The water being up into the mid-70s finally means no more wetsuits, which is always a big marker for the change in seasons for me as well. Early the other morning in the fog I was enjoying some particularly beautiful, glassy waves on my stand-up board. As I was paddling back out, I caught a strong whiff of that unique watermelon smell that means the trout are back. That to me is the true mark that Spring has sprung.

The natural world has a cycle. And, like Galvestonians have done time and time again for a century and a half, we’ll get through this as well and get back to enjoying our island, our community, and all the creatures that we share this beautiful place with.

Spring Break Updates

Spring Break has been interesting this year. So far, we’ve had quite a few people down on the island, but the weather has alternately been very near perfect or awful. Cold water and warm air have also resulted in quite a bit of sea fog, which makes guarding a real challenge. But every time the sun comes out the beaches suddenly fill up, so there definitely are people here on the island.

With water being in the low to mid 60’s its just warm enough for people to get in for a short time. Seems like just long enough to drift near the rocks so they need to be moved by guards working out of towers or trucks!

The two new fiberglass towers we’re testing came very much in handy last weekend. With wind chill temps in the 50’s, the guards were miserable even bundled up. But the lucky ones assigned to 53rd and 61st were totally happy in their space pods. The new towers have worked out really well so far and have a lot of options for air flow. Windows can be opened our closed so the guards can focus more on their job than how cold they are. Hopefully when it gets really hot and they start opening all the windows there will be plenty of air flow to stay cool. Soon we’ll be installing lightning rods to allow guards to work safely through thunderstorms. Right now, we’re pulling the guards out for their own safety when lighting comes within 10 miles. Even though we have trucks go to there area to clear the water and try and keep an eye on the swimmers, there are gaps in our coverage when we have these conditions. And lightning is no stranger to the Gulf Coast! Part of the test is to see if we’ll be able to recoup the cost of these towers with sponsorship monies. If so, there may be more of them in the future.

We are in the middle of teaching a lifeguard academy right now as well. We had a poor turnout for this one, so hopefully we’ll have bigger turnouts for the next three. The next one will start after tryouts this coming Saturday, so please help spread the word!

The Galveston Marine Response Group had an organizational meeting this week which went well. The addition of the UTMB and the Port Police departments are very welcome. We scheduled upcoming re-certification training for all the team members and are looking at some of the Beach Patrol staff providing training in CPR and First aid to several other departments. We are working on a Swiftwater/Urban flooding course for local agencies. And in May we’ll run a big mass casualty drill to fine tune our coordinated response and communication. With no dedicated funding it’s definitely a labor of love, but to me its really encouraging to see how much these different groups want to do whatever it takes to protect the public.