Cold Front

Cold front after cold front have been rolling in. We are now in my favorite time of the year, with moderate temperatures, warm water, some surf, and variable conditions. But this comes with specific hazards.

Changing winds can take people by surprise. On the beachfront a switch to offshore wind can blow you offshore. Once there the waves are rougher and can prevent you from making it back in easily. Strong side-shore winds typically produce strong rip currents near any type of structure like a groin or pier. These rip currents dig deep troughs by the structure and can pull people out when they step off into the deep area. And of course, big thunderheads can roll in causing lightning, gusty wind, or even waterspouts.

The tower guards are not going to be back on the beach until March, but we do have our rescue trucks patrolling the seawall and beach parks. That said, you should be more cautious than usual and stay farther from structures and closer to shore. Also check the weather forecast before heading out to beach or bay. Be particularly careful in boats this time of year because things can happen quickly. Of course, as always, use a Coast Guard approved lifejacket while boating. If you have a small child or are a poor swimmer a lifejacket is always a good idea when in or around the water.

Our year-round crew has been out patrolling daily and will continue to do so throughout the winter months. But with fewer people on the beach there is more time to catch up on some maintenance. This week they’ve been working on getting signs back up that were knocked down in the recent high tides. We maintain over 300 signs up and down the beach front, and it’s a constant process keeping them up. Every time the surf or tides get unusually high we have to get out there with a water pump and reset the posts or we need to re-attach signs that were blown down. Of course, we have signs to warn about areas that are dangerous to swim in like the groins or the ends of the island. But we also have beach ordinance signs on the back of each tower and rip current and beach rule signs at the base of every staircase, beach park entrance, and paths that people use to access the beach on the east end. We even have signs to warn about underwater rocks and debris. And if there is a rip current that pops up unexpectedly in an open beach area, we have temporary sandwich board signs warning the public.

These signs require a lot of work to maintain, but we don’t have the resources, personnel, or ability to be everywhere all the time. At least the bilingual, iconic signs we place around the island give the public a chance to avoid dangerous areas when they see them. A sign will never replace a lifeguard, but they are an integral part of the safety net.

Have a Safe 4th of July!

Hard to believe we’re already to the 4th of July holiday! Summer is flying by. We’re fully staffed, as are the other emergency services. But with up to 500 thousand visitors on the island this weekend, make sure you think of us as an added layer of protection and take protective measures to ensure your personal safety and that of your family. If you or yours are headed to the beach, remember not to check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway!

Finally, we’re seeing normal summer water conditions as opposed to the constant wind, surf and currents that have plagued us since early May. We’re also starting to see a slight increase in critters like jellyfish and stingray, but so far it hasn’t been above our threshold to fly the purple flag that warns of high levels of marine pests though. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or saltwater if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short-term event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

Stay far away from groins and piers to avoid rip currents. Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child, on boats, or wade fishing. One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, BBQ, and beer that brings this on? Don’t forget to hydrate the non-alcoholic way, wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses. And of course, avoid swimming on the ends of the island at the San Luis Pass or the Houston Ship Channel.

Forecast looks great. Should make for a great holiday weekend, so come on out to the beach. Just remember to swim near a lifeguard. We’ll have guards at all the towers from early morning until dark. So, stop by the tower and chat with the guard for the latest local beach info when you get there.

We really hope this holiday is a chance for you to spend quality time with family and friends and to remember how lucky we are to live here. Be safe and have a great 4th!

Sunday Race Day

The sun was just peeking over a horizon and the rough, windblown surf showed pink highlights as we lined up. Legs vibrated and hands showed white knuckles on our racing boards as the call came out, “Paddlers take your mark…. GO!”

The current swept from west to east, but I hedged my bets by lining up on the east side, hoping some of less experienced racers would overcompensate by playing it safe. As we punched through the inside break, to my right was Joe Cerdas and Kevin Anderson. We were first through the inside break and had a bit of a jump on the rest of the pack. But I knew there were some fast people in that group.

I edged up and was in first for a bit. Visions of reclaiming the rescue board race title danced through my 53-year-old head. But then we hit the outside break. Joe and I got nailed by 5 or 6 giant piles of whitewater. In the chaos I saw Kevin clear the break, barely skating around the big set waves, and streak around the first buoy. Finally, Joe and I clawed our way through and rounded the buoy. I expected the pack to have pulled ahead, but most of them had troubles of their own. Taylor Stickline was the exception, and he paddled straight through the outside impact zone unscathed.

I tried to take deep strokes and control my breathing as we headed to the second buoy. Taylor hung tough but angled too far out. I focused and ignored burning muscles, pulling a little ahead of Joe. I still had a chance at 2nd, but I knew Joe is exceptional at catching waves and reading currents, so I was far from in the clear. I rounded the buoy and tried to stroke into an outside wave. I caught it but slid sideways, so only got a short ride. As I recovered and straightened out, Joe flew by on the next wave. Looking behind me, a solid 5-foot monster reared up. It broke hard and I was tossed forward. Somehow, I held on to the handles of my racing board, which was completely sideways, while getting bounced around by the whitewater. I saw a blue board floating on the inside to my left. I assumed Joe had lost his board and that I’d caught him. I snagged a small, foamy inside wave and rode it to shore against a small rip current. But, as I stood up in shallow water, Joe ran by from my right, passing me and sailing through the finish gate. The board I saw belonged to one of the competitors that didn’t make it around the course.

We have two races early each Sunday. Surf racing can be anyone’s bet, which is a huge part of the fun. Speed, training, experience, trickery, and luck are all in play. But there is no way to better hone rescue skills than to push and learn from each other in the conditions you might have to save someone in.

Beach Safety Week

We’re in the middle of a lifeguard academy and lots more. We ended up with about 20 candidates out of the almost 40 that attempted the tryouts. But these 20 have some pretty serious challenges ahead of them in their 100-hour course that they have to complete before being able to work the beaches.

Next week is national “Beach Safety Week” and is arguably the most exciting week for us of the year. And we want you to participate!

Tuesday the 21st will be the annual Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation (M.A.C.E.O.) event. This is a huge drill held at 5pm at Stewart Beach. It’s designed to be a final practical test for our lifeguard academy, but has turned into something much larger through the years. The Lifeguard Candidates play the part of rescuers and medical responders as they rescue and triage “victims”, who are played by the more experienced guards. As they do this, they interface with emergency responders from a myriad of other agencies. So, they may rescue someone in conjunction with the Police Department Marine Division, bring them to shore where other candidates work with EMS and Fire to triage and treat injuries. Or they may assist peace officers in gathering information or blocking off an area. Wave Watcher volunteers will play the role of distraught family members as other volunteers from the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network practice crisis intervention techniques. So far it looks like agencies participating include the US Coast Guard, Galveston Police and Fire Departments, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Sheriff Office Marine Division, Galveston EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston PD Dispatch operations, and of course the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. After we finish, we’ll all work together to look for lessons learned and ways we can improve performance. This is a real good way to shake off the cobwebs and improve communication and operational procedures as we all head into the height of the tourist season.

In conjunction with this, the Park Board is hosting a first-time event called “Tourism Pays”. On Stewart Beach we’ll have equipment and personnel from the Park Board and Emergency Response groups from the area. Kind of a show and tell. Around 6:30 will be the presentation of a new award given in honor of Galveston lifesaving legend and Guinness Book of World Records record holder, Leroy Colombo. Following all of this will be hot dogs, hamburgers, and fellowship for participants and the community.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 22nd, is the final physical challenge for our academy. Candidates and returning guards will undergo a grueling course that includes running, swimming, special exercises (torture), skills, and lifesaving knowledge tests for an approximately two-hour challenge called the “night swim” We’ll start about 5:30 and end around 7:30 or 8. We’d love to see you at both events!

Following all this will be Memorial Weekend, so start making your plan and be sure you think about having fun, spending time with friends and family, and being safe!

Upcoming Events!

Game time!

Tomorrow morning (Saturday, May 11th) at 7am Lifeguard Candidates will line up to attempt to become Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguards. Those that complete the swim will be interviewed, submit to a drug screening, and join our Spring graduates in a run-swim-run challenge. If they get through all these obstacles, they’ll start the 100 hours of training needed to “ride the pine” and work as a tower lifeguard. It’s not too late to tryout. Info is at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/lifeguard . While all this is going on, returning guards who didn’t come back in the spring will be swimming, doing paper work, and taking the drug screening test. Many of them will then head out to work for their first day this season. We’re expecting 40-50 candidates to qualify for our lifeguard academy. These new guards will be a welcome addition. Not only have the crowds been unusually large for the past few weekends, but the busiest part of the year is almost on us and we need every trained and able-bodied lifeguard we can get out there to help keep the millions who visit the beaches safe.

Weather permitting there will be a lot going on this weekend with a paddle out ceremony for legendary G-town surfer Chris Hill, La Izquiera Surf Contest and Music Festival at the 91st street Fishing Pier, Bring Your Mom to the Beach Day Volleyball Tournament hosted by the Gulf Coast Volleyball Association at East Beach, Historic Homes Tour, and the Yagas wild Game Cook off. Next week is the annual Beach Review, and we’re only two weeks out from what is usually the busiest beach weekend of the year, Memorial Day Weekend.

The amount of preparation and training that has to happen each year to get all the seasonal staff, partner groups, and auxiliary staff members trained and re-trained is staggering. In addition to the Lifeguard Academy and Supervisor Training Academy within the next three weeks we’re also looking at a Dispatch Training Academy, Public Safety Responders Basic Water Rescue Course, Surf Camp Instructors Water Rescue Course, Park Board Police Firearms Requalification, and a Self Defense/De-Escalation class for our Wave Watchers. Additionally, on May 21st several first responder groups will join us for the annual “Mass Aquatic Critical Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) at Stewart Beach. Joining us will be the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who will use the event as a training scenario. Additionally, the new “Tourism Pays” event will be done in conjunction with MACEO. Once the Beach Patrol and the entire beach safety net gets through all this training, we’ll be sharp for Memorial Weekend and the summer. And as anyone who visits the beach knows, we’ll need it!

One thing to watch for is our annual BBQ fundraiser which will be at the Press Box this year on Friday, June 14th. This has, for over 20 years, been the beach party of the summer, so block off your calendar. We need silent auction items, so if you’re in the giving mood contact Tricia at tlimon@galvestonparkboard.org .

Tech and Harvey

As Beach Patrol Supervisor Austin Kirwin navigated his jet ski to the side of the highway to drop off another group of rescued people, his partner helped them dismount the rescue sled attached to the ski and walked them to shore. Meanwhile, Austin pulled out his phone in its waterproof case and squinted through the rain and wind as he checked his messages. He had several new addresses that had been sent to him by someone who was combing social media platforms looking for people stranded in the Dickinson area. He chose one and directed the other three Beach Patrol rescue crews to other addresses.

It’s amazing what a role technology played during Harvey in comparison to just a few years earlier with Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Ike. In Austin’s case, while power was down in many of the areas where people were stranded, they still had cell service and a charge on their phone. While waiting for rescue on roofs, in attics, or in the second stories of houses, many people were actively communicating via social media, text, and by making calls. While our emergency management structures were getting a handle on the immense scope of the problem, some of our more tech savvy responders were getting information through other methods. Later, when we were getting addresses directly though emergency management the process was much more efficient. But during the early stages, new technology was pretty useful.

There’s a web based program that emergency management centers use to coordinate aid and requests for aid now. If you are leading a city, county, or emergency response group you can request what you need via this program. It will be assessed and compared to other groups offering all kinds of aid. There was also an app created during Harvey to coordinate first responders in Houston. And there are several apps you can go to for requesting everything from donations of clothing or household items to volunteers who are willing to come help you rip the sheetrock out of your walls.

My crew used cell phones more than their radios to keep track of each other by sending maps with pins in them to indicate an address they need to evacuate people from to showing each other what their location is.  I was pretty impressed with my team. Most are young and tech savvy and did an amazing job of combining their grasp of newer technology with a strong base of rescue skills. But even as this played out a little voice in my head was saying not to become dependent on this. One thing those who have gone through a few disasters learns is that each crisis is very different and you can’t count on anything. Just because cell phones worked during Harvey doesn’t mean that we can count on that for the next one.

Modern responders are using new tools and technology to the best advantage, but should remain flexible and build redundant systems into any preparation or response.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Galveston Beaches and their History

 

I mentioned in a previous column that when I started working for the Beach Patrol back in the early ’80s I was assigned to the area of 29th street for a couple of years as a tower lifeguard. At the time, it was unofficially an African American beach. Later, I realized that my time there came at the end of a long history of African American beach patronage at that location.  Supervisor Lauren Hollaway has been working on an on-line museum for our website for awhile that focuses on the beginnings of lifesaving in Galveston up to the agency we are today.

I was speaking with my wife about where Lauren and our staff want to go with the museum project next and I mentioned that we thought we might include the two historically black beaches that were unofficially designated African American beaches. My wife, who teaches English at Texas A&M Galveston, suggested that we look at recreational beach use of the various immigrant groups of Galveston. We’re beginning with the history of African American beach use in Galveston.

The two areas that we are aware of so far are 29th Street and the west end of the seawall at 8 Mile Road. We are getting assistance from Peggy Dillard, Special Collections Manager at the Rosenberg Library and Sharon Gillins, a Galveston based genealogist, and Carol Bunch Davis at TAMUG, but we could use your help. If you, or someone you know of has information about the historically African American beaches, we’d love to get in contact with you. We’re looking for:

  • Submissions of old pictures, names and stories of lifeguards who worked on these beaches.
  • Any articles or newspaper clippings from the Galveston Spectator or Galveston’s The Great Idea (both African American newspapers)
  • Anyone interested in being interviewed about these beaches or the businesses associated with them.
  • Information about and pictures of the businesses on the historically African American beaches.
  • Any information about Beach View, the first African American bathhouse that opened in 1922 at 29th Street.

If you are interested in giving an interview or have any submissions, please post in the “Save our Stories Galveston, Tx” Facebook page at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com, or email is at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org, or give us a call at (409)763-4769 and ask for Lauren to give you a call back. The long-term plan for this project is to complete an e-museum and then to develop a traveling exhibit. Also all the interviews will be kept for posterity at a central location and edited versions will be able to be put on display on some type of device that could also be included in the traveling shows. Once we complete this first phase, we’ll be reaching out again for other groups’ historical use of the Galveston beaches.

There are plenty of people around who either were actually there during the times the project relates to and we want to make sure and capture those oral histories of people who experienced it first hand or heard about it from the generation before them.

Beach Re-nourishment Project

We’re all about to get a big Christmas present.

 

The start of the the much talked about beach re-nourishment project has been moved to Christmas day. Four miles of beach, starting from 12th street to 61st, will be extended by 100 to 150 feet. For those of you who were around on the beaches in 1993, you’ll remember when we got the first big project done. The sand extended 3/4 of the way out to the end of the longer groins and you could drive around some of the shorter ones.

 

The project is a partnership between the Galveston Park Board, the City of Galveston, and the Texas General Land Office and has a price tag of 18 million. Sounds like a lot but we’re actually getting an amazing deal on the sand, which the Corps of Engineers is having dredged from the mouth of the ship channel. We’re basically just paying for the transportation of the sand which would go to some area as spoils otherwise.

 

There are many benefits. Aside from the obvious protection the seawall and the island receive, a significant short term benefit is that a study done a few years back reported that for every dollar put into the beaches we, as a community, get 4 to 7 dollars in return. So money put towards improvements, cleaning and maintenance, security, lifeguarding, and beach nourishment all brings a lot back.

 

The plan is to use an offshore pipe in 15 feet of water to run sand to the beach at 12th. From there, a “pipeline dredge” process will gradually work its way west, only blocking a small part of the beach off at a time. Working 24/7, they should be finished by March, so by the time Spring Break rolls around we’ll have a whole new beach. Also, the pipes will be covered by periodic pedestrian sand ramps.

 

This project will mark the third sand nourishment project to be undertaken in Galveston in recent months. In May 2015, more than a half-mile of beach was added west of the Seawall at Dellanera RV Park. In November 2015, a second project added more than a mile of beach along the Seawall west of 61st Street. When combined, the three projects represent a $44 million investment in the Galveston coastline.

 

For surfers this will have an effect on the waves that will last a few months. Back in ’93 the nourishment project essentially shortened the groins and a sandbar developed a little farther offshore. The waves broke harder, which was nice. But, we also weren’t able to use the shelter of the jetties much for protection from the lateral current. The Flagship (now Pleasure Pier) got really good on both sides with a nice break just inside the “T”. This will probably happen again, but it should be temporary. There also may be places that, for a time, have more of a beach break, like we had at 63rd after the last project. Ultimately there will be more sand in the system, which means better sandbars and better waves once everything settles.

 

 

Winter Weather

It’s unbelievable that the water stayed in the 70s until December this year. There have been people swimming in the ocean all fall during times that normally only surfers equipped with proper wetsuits normally venture out. Our year round staff has been busy while patrolling keeping people away from rip currents near the groins and responding to a myriad of beach emergencies. Hopefully the water will stay cold enough to keep the casual beach visitors out for a couple of months so our crew can rebuild lifeguard towers and take care of all the projects we postponed until the two months we don’t usually patrol. Of course we’re still available for emergencies and provide rescue response 24/7.

In the winter getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should wear the right wetsuit for the specific activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way, when the unexpected happens, you’ll be able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming. Sometimes in the winter, and often in the spring, the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in.

Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. When we see cold air and warm water they may put out a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition stay busy during these times when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay, San Luis Pass and the Coast Guard typically handles the off shore area.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water, especially during the winter. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on fancy electronics! Be sure you have a back up. A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once, and I personally never go out on the water without wearing it.

Winter on the beach and water can be incredible, just be sure and take appropriate safety precautions. And have fun!