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Beaches and Risk

Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatamala. It was really steep and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars so no one collapsed on the way up.

We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. Plastic bags can suffocate you. Apple filling is hot.

All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk, but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, child proof caps, security checks, health codes, etc.

It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.

Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering the ocean is something that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 300 safety signs up and down the beach. And we have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But, ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.

There was a terrible, terrible tragedy last Saturday night. It was extremely rough and we held the guards late due to the abnormally large surf, strong currents, and crowds. The lifeguard at 24th called in that there was a swimmer out too far. The swimmer was past the waist deep we recommend for red flag days, but he was neither past the legal swimming limit nor was he in between the “no swimming” signs and the rock groin. And he was not struggling. The man did nothing wrong and our guard not only did nothing wrong, but was being more proactive than could be expected. But the man slipped underwater within just a few seconds without warning and died.

My heart goes out to both the family and our staff who are struggling to come to terms with this.

Man-O-War

Earlier this week in the morning I was out early training in the beach. We were swimming and, although still a little cool, the water was tolerable without a wetsuit. Suddenly I felt a familiar pain on the side of my stomach as a tentacle grazed me. After the swim lap we ran back to the starting point to jump on rescue boards and, as we ran, we noticed several small Man-O-War interspaced along the beachfront.

Man-O-War can come in at any time but they typically seem to be more prevalent in the late summer as currents bring them here from the Caribbean. They are not jellyfish, but are actually a colony of small animals that work together as one organism. They’re one of the more beautiful animals around with a blue, purple or pink balloon top with a sail. They have long tentacles that hang in the water and trail behind the balloon. Larger ones can have a 2foot top with 12 foot tentacles.

The treatment for both man-o-war and jellyfish that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is vinegar. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the vinegar, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then pour the vinegar on the area again to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) are neutralized. This will keep the sting from getting worse. Finally, if the person is in pain, use a topical anesthetic. Ice works really well for this. A sting from a man-o-war can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get and if it’s dangerous.

Another thing to remember about the man-o-war is that they, and their cousins the jelly fish, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The nice thing about the man-o-war is that when they are around they’re pretty easy to spot. They float on top of the water and if they’re on the beach, they’re in the water. Of course we’ll let everyone know if there are lots on a given day by flying a purple flag on our condition signs and by posting it on our website along with a flag that represents the water conditions. In fact, if you’re interested in getting daily updates by e-mail or text as to the beach conditions you can sign up for them on our website.

Hypothermia Story

Many of you probably remember the story from a couple of weeks ago about the little girl who suffered mild hypothermia after swimming in the beach water on a day when the water was 58 degrees over Spring Break. I was fortunate to have a long conversation the other day with her mother and found out there was much more to the story than we originally thought.

The details will be of interest to all parents who take their children swimming in the cooler months. From what I gather the mother and father of the little girl didn’t do anything different than any reasonable and careful parent would do- and they still had a pretty close call.

The family stayed at a hotel on the seawall. The dad took their 12 year old girl across the street to the beach. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but sounds like there may have been another kid or kids involved. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day and they set up on the beach while the girl went swimming. She was in the water for about half an hour and then came out chilled. She’s a thin and very athletic girl without a lot of body mass. Dad brought her back to the hotel and the kids were playing in the heated pool and then went to the hot tub to re-warm since the girl was still cold.

The parents became concerned when the girl couldn’t warm back up. Her hands stayed white and she was blue around the mouth. At one point the girl lost vision. Rescuers were called and stayed with her until she warmed back up and was feeling back to normal.

Upon hearing the mom’s account directly I was struck by how this story had an almost serious outcome even though the parents did nothing irresponsible. It’s rare that we have a sunny day in the 70’s while the water is so cold. Normally people that swim in cold water warm back up easily. The combination of the girl’s body composition and water temperature were no doubt contributing factors. My guess is that she was having so much fun and the air temperature was so warm that she didn’t pay attention to warning signs as they developed. It’s also probably rare that she swims in water that cold, so neither she nor her parents realized her limits. People vary greatly in how resistant to hypothermia they are. There are many contributing factors so the same person swimming in the same temperature on two different days may react differently.

The problem and danger here is that the way you treat mild hypothermia versus more severe cases varies considerably. Normal things we all do to warm back up when we experience normal mild hypothermia can actually be dangerous for more severe cases.

Fortunately, this case ended up fine and was merely a learning experience and a chance to warn other parents how to avoid a similar incident. Stay tuned for a follow up with more specific information…

Dune Planting with Artist Boat

CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS!! There are still spots available to help us plant dunes on Super Dune Sunday, February 1st from 1:00-5:30 PM at the end of Seawall and Delanara RV Park! Contact Nate Johnson at njohnson@artistboat.org to volunteer!

Dune Planting

Puerto Rican Beach Story

Wispy clouds scudded across blue Puerto Rican sky as the woman entered the water to cool off. 10 steps into the water the bottom disappeared. Surprised, she swam to the surface and began to swim back to shore. To her dismay she found herself being pulled out to sea despite her efforts.

The current ran, as it normally does from right to left down the beautiful Puerto Rican beach. As the farthest point on the left side, in front of a beautiful 4 star resort, there was a rock groin and breakwater that extended out into the ocean. Just like in Galveston, there is always a rip current by the rocks.

Suddenly, as the woman was pulled near the rocks, she hit a turbulent area. A wave broke over her head. Coughing and sputtering she made it back to the surface, but she’d choked on some water and found it hard to breathe. Panic gripped her as she realized she couldn’t make it back, and she was disoriented by the rough sea. She thought about her children and husband up in the hotel room. She remembered a load of laundry that she’d left in the dryer back in her New Jersey home, and then wondered why that would occur to her. The realization that she would not survive this event hit her like a punch to the gut. She struggled harder despite having trouble breathing. She quickly tired and felt impossibly heavy. She started slipping under water.

The resort offered all kinds of amenities, but the main draw was that it sits right on a very beautiful beach. The designers and investors thought about every little detail so their guests would have the ultimate experience. Every little detail but one. It sits right in front of a permanent rip current, and rip currents are the cause of 80% of ocean rescues (and likely ocean drownings). They didn’t plan for a beach safety program for their guests. Like many resorts around the world, this one was placed on a beautiful beach without thought to the safety of the beach itself.

Just as the woman slipped beneath the surface strong hands grabbed her. She found herself floating on a ratty old boogie board as a man yelled in Spanish and kicked her back to shore. Upon arriving to safety the man walked off and she sat down numbly. After a time she looked around and saw the man selling coconuts to tourists out of a shopping carts. Behind him under a bench she saw an old sleeping bag.

This beach sees about 10 drownings a year, usually rich tourists. The man selling coconuts averages 5 rescues a day. Partly because of the success of Galveston’s beaches, I’m part of a small team from the United States Lifesaving Association working up a proposal to combine private sector funding with governmental management of a beach patrol there. Until then, our hero, who is 62 years old, will hopefully be hard at work…

 

Image by cogito ergo imago.

Labor Day Advisory

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been several rescues that we’ve had to make by the rock jetties despite our best efforts to keep people far enough away to avoid trouble. There have also been a couple of incidents involving young children in area pools that nearly drowned and two men drowned in the San Luis Pass area while boating from the Brazoria County side. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment or seconds of inattention for things to break bad.

But is doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water remember to take a minute to be aware of your surroundings and potential risk. You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers  and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it. See you on the beach!

Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?

Drowning Prevention for the City of Galveston

Swimming Safety- English

Swimming Safety- Spanish

 

For a downloadable version of the brochure, click here.

4th of July Tips

If you’re like several hundred thousand others, you’ll be heading to the beaches on or near Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula this weekend. For many, the beach is a perfect place to spend time with your friends and family while you enjoy some Texas or Tejano style BBQ, surf, and sand. Some 3-500 thousand people will likely be on the island this weekend and we would all really like to see all of them get home safely. There are several ways to do that.

The main thing is to swim near a lifeguard. You chances of drowning in an area protected by guards trained to the minimum standards set by the United States Lifesaving Association are 1 in 18 million. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency by this group, which is their highest level. You are responsible for your own safety but guards provide a valuable additional layer of protection.

Rip currents are the cause of 80% of rescues made in the surf. In Texas the strongest rip currents are found near structures like rock groins and piers. That’s why on the seawall the guard towers are near the groin and why we put signs and ropes in the area. Stay away from the rocks and while swimming check the shoreline to make sure you’re not drifting near them without realizing it.

The ends of the island are very dangerous with strong periodic tidal flows. You should not swim or wade in the areas of the San Luis Pass and the Houston Ship Channel. Both ends of the island have a long history of drownings. Both ends are now heavily patrolled but it only takes a few seconds for tragedy to strike.

Now that the Texas heat is on us be sure and take extra precautions for the heat and sun. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay hydrated. If you start feeling nauseous, weak, or dizzy you could be feeling the effects of the sun and should rehydrate and seek shade.

Be sure you keep your kids in sight and get in the water with small kids or kids that are poor swimmers. Stay close to shore. Strong currents all week mean there are deep troughs near the shore so be extra careful.

In case you haven’t heard, most of the Caribbean and Gulf has been heavily impacted by Sargassum. The Park Board maintenance department has been working unbelievable hours to keep the beaches looking nice. Stewart Beach, East Beach, and the Seawall are the most clear. Over the weekend the Galveston Park Board is sponsoring beach “Bucket Brigades” where kids can join a tour led by marine biologists to learn about the environmental benefits of seaweed and how it is a habitat for marine life.   Look for our beach volunteers wearing bright orange t-shirts while out on the beach or visit www.galvestonbeachinfo.com.

Well be out in force, so check with the guard when you arrive for specific information and have fun!

Texas City ‘Y’ Oil Spill Information

Oil Spill Cleanup Efforts
For updates on the entire scope of the Texas City “Y” Oil Spill, a website has been created where press releases are being posted. For the most current information, visit http://www.texascityyresponse.com.

Weekend Beach Forecast

While some oil remains on the east end of Galveston Island and Sea Wolf Park area of Pelican Island, clean-up efforts are making progress and environmental testing approved by Unified Command indicates that oil-related compounds are not present at levels that would pose a human health-concern. The beaches along the Gulf are open as usual! Check out the Final Galveston and SeaWolf Park Statement for more information.

The health department has released a public health statement in relation to the oil spill and precautions people should take if they come in contact with oil.

To see live, real-time video fo the beaches, visit: www.galveston.com/webcams

Birds Impacted by Spill
The impact of the spill on birds and wildlife in the Galveston Bay area has been tragic, however we are happy to report that Wildlife Response Services is working very diligently to clean and care for the animals they’ve been able to capture, having saved many of them. Assessment crews are out scanning the coast and are reporting any oiled birds or other wildlife to Wildlife Response Services, which is then taking the animals to its rehabilitation center to clean and care for them. The public is reminded to refrain from capturing any potentially affected wildlife and is urged to contact 1-(888)-384-2000 if oiled wildlife is observed. Reporting photos of wildlife can also be emailed to wildlife@co.galveston.tx.us.

Health/Safety Updates
The Galveston County Health Department released a Galveston Bay Oil Spill Public Health Statement. Please read by clicking the link below:
http://www.gchd.org/press/2014/Galveston-Bay-Oil-Spill-Statement.html

Important Contact Numbers

Bolivar Ferry
409.795.2230

Wildlife Response Services
888.384.2000
If you encounter wildlife that has been in contact with oil, please contact the Wildlife Response Services number listed above.

Joint Information Center
713.435.1505

Claims Number
855.276.1275
A claims number has been established for persons or businesses that may be impacted by the oil spill incident.

Beach Patrol Dispatch
409.763.4769