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Drownings

We’ve had three drowning fatalities in the past two weeks. For us, it’s hard not to think, or in this case write, about anything else.

The first one was eerily familiar. Many of you recall that last year, just a few days after our seasonal lifeguards ended their 7-month term of employment, two kids died off the end of the 17th street groin in a rip current. This year a man drowned in almost the same spot just a few days after the guards ended the season. Just off the head of the groin on the west side.

The second had similar conditions, but it happened at 53rd. This man was swimming with his two children, and they were able to get to shore. The man drifted near the rocks and was caught in the rip current. A bystander tried to save him and was nearly overcome. Fortunately, the bystander was able to make it to shore.

The third one was a very different scenario. A man walked out on the South Jetty to fish. He was wearing waders. We’ve been in a weather pattern with a consistent southeast wind. When we get this wind direction the wind travels a long distance over the water and there is a tendency for the water to pile up, especially on the east end of the island. It looks like this man walked out on dry rocks and was out there for some time. As the tide came up, it surged higher than normal because of the wind direction. The rocks were almost submerged as he tried to make it back to shore. There are a couple of cuts in the rocks and he was attempting to cross one of them when he went in the water on the east side. His waders filled and he went under as a result.

These are just heart wrenching accounts. They’re especially tragic because, as are the vast majority drowning fatalities, they were preventable. Drowning prevention is all about layers of protection. If the first two men hadn’t gotten near the rocks because they either knew swimming near structures is dangerous or because they’d noticed the signs, its likely they would have been fine. Or if we had a lifeguard in those towers, the lifeguard would have whistled them away from the rocks like we do for several hundred thousand people a year. Or if someone in their group knew to remind them to say in a safer area. If the third man had not worn waders or knew the area would fill up. If any of them would have worn lifejackets. The list of potential layers goes on and on.

My staff is working hard to be that final layer of protection. They’re even currently having a competition of who can log the most patrol miles in a shift. They’re preventing hundreds of accidents a day, but there’s nothing that compares with a stationed lifeguard at each potentially dangerous spot to make that simple, but critical, preventative action.

Support

I’ve been working on a really interesting side project for awhile now. For 20 years, on behalf of the United States Lifesaving Association, I’ve been part of a national task force between the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On the NOAA end, its specifically the National Weather Service and Sea Grant. This Rip Current Awareness project includes signage, brochures, teaching aids, videos, etc. Recently, we’ve started a new and really cool addition to the project.
Part of the difficulty in creating a national body of information is consistency of messaging. We may talk about rip currents in a certain way in Texas, but in New Jersey, Florida, or California, they may use different terminology to address similar concepts. Plus, we all think we’re right! So, a lot of the challenge has been to promote uniformity of messaging. To complicate matters more, even if the major organizations are on board with the message, there are often smaller non-profits that pop up after a drowning event that are well meaning and motivated, but aren’t familiar with the standardized terms and push out a similar concept using different terminology or materials. This can be confusing to the public.
So, the new project is to provide a resource specifically for people or groups that want to help spread the word on how to protect yourself from the dangers of rip currents. That’s pretty simple and involves tweaking existing material for that specific purpose. But in the conversation, I mentioned the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and how much of a difference they’ve made to us all locally. The NOAA crew was really interested in helping various National Weather Service offices and Lifeguard agencies facilitate the creation of SSN groups around the country as part of the tool kit we’re working on.
The mission of The Jesse Tree’s Survivor Support Network to help the families and friends of drowning victims by delivering support through emotional, spiritual, and physical resources. The intent is to assist the Lifeguard Agencies and other Emergency Responders with this support during the recovery process to allow them to focus on their mission to recover the victim, and to follow-up with support and assistance to both the family and the emergency response personnel to encourage closure, healing and preparation for future incidents.
Each incident that calls The SSN to action provides an opportunity to learn how to better assist the family in crisis. Translation, ministry, grief counseling, accommodations, meals, and negotiations with the County Coroner, foreign consulates, and funeral directors have all become standard procedures for the SSN. Community patrons have generously contributed motel rooms, meals, and “Compassion Kits” (coolers of juice, ice, snacks, towels, sun block, and umbrellas) as resources to assist the families.
Our hope is that this incredible program will make as much a difference to others as it has here in Galveston.

For information about becoming involved in the Survivor Support Network, visit the Jesse Tree website at https://jessetree.net.

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as 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, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

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. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

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. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!

Storm Season

Wading up to the wooden steps through the muddy water that smelled faintly of sewage, I laid my rescue board on the top of the porch and pounded on the front door. A woman came out and tried to hand me a mid-sized flat screened TV, followed by three kids all carrying pretty random objects and wearing small backpacks. They looked forlornly at the roiling clouds and the Water World landscape. Over the howling wind, we had what would be a pretty funny conversation in retrospect about how I didn’t’ have a truck, boat, or helicopter, as we negotiated what could and could not be carried on a rescue board as we waded the 6 blocks to dry land.

There’s a huge division between who is prepared and who isn’t when our normal society is disrupted. I’m not saying that we should all be preppers or be ready for a zombie apocalypse, but all of us should be ready for the little bumps that come along if possible. Our society is built on a tenuous house of cards. Our food has to be transported from far away daily, our water piped in, and many of us are a paycheck or two away from defaulting on car or house payments. Those of us who choose to live on the Gulf Coast live in a wonderful place but are especially vulnerable. It really only takes about a 5 foot tide to start closing off roads and to back up drainage. A couple more feet mixed with a little rain and many of us are locked into our houses or worse.

When storms come and the surf gets bigger than about 3-4 feet, we’re looking at strong rip currents both near structures and all along the beaches, huge tidal shifts that affect the ends of the island, and dangerous troughs and holes real close to shore. When that’s mixed with high tides, waves can destroy dunes and bulkheads and close off roads. That’s not really a surprise, but what always amazes me is how quickly this stuff affects the land to the point that it keeps people from being able to move around. And once roads start getting sketchy, evacuation becomes very difficult.

As we enter the peak period of storm season, we should all be really aware of how quickly things get out of hand, particularly for the next month. It’s always better to be over-prepared and to leave early when these storms happen. If you have the resources, plan on 3 or 4 trips a year that you take with short notice. Have your plan in place, emergency bags packed with the things you can’t do without, and everything as ready as it can be. That 4-hour trip to safety can be a lot longer and riskier if you wait till the last minute. We have great resources between the National Weather Services and our local, state, and national governmental groups. Follow their advice and prepare now, before the crisis hits.

Lifeguard Bower Rescue

It was a rough, windy, morning. Clouds scudded across the sky pushed by a strong wind from the west. The water was brownish because of currents pushing up from the mouth of the clay colored Brazos river. The 8-year-old boy floated along on his boogie board. As he neared the 61st street rock groin, a feeder current gently started pushing him farther out. As he neared the rock groin, he panicked and lost the board. He struggled for a moment before the current pushed him close to the rocks near the end of the groin where the fishing pier starts. He hung on tenuously as waves bludgeoned him.

Every morning before he reports to his tower, Lifeguard Bill Bowers walks down to the beach near his house and takes a swim. Bill has a long history as a competitive swimmer and coach. He joined the Galveston Beach Patrol network originally as a volunteer “Wave Watcher”, before deciding to try out to be a beach guard in addition. At 62, Bill was still a great athlete and trained regularly. He had no problem passing our swim trials and sailed through the lifeguard academy. Now in his third year of service, he’s become something of an icon. The younger guards ask him for advice and his supervisors love him. He’s a terrific guard. He’s proactive, personable, and goes the extra mile to make sure all the beach patrons in his area are taken care of. His work ethic and presence have raised the quality of what we do. He’s also very modest and shares any credit he gets with the team. He’ll hate it when he see’s I’ve written this column about him.

Bill was in the middle of his morning swim, towing a rescue tube behind him. He spotted the young boy, made contact, pulled him off the rock, wrapped him in the rescue tube, and navigated through the barnacle encrusted poles of the fishing pier. Popping out the other side, he swam past the rip current and brought the boy to shore safely. A bystander witnessed the event and was kind enough to write a letter about it, which I shared with the staff and asked him for a pic for social media. Bill’s response was as follows:

“Thanks Chief, but it wasn’t a heroic act. I had been swimming down the beach about a mile and I lifted my head to take aim at shooting under the bridge when I spotted the child. I simply snatched him up, kicked away from the rocks, shot through. We headed in and a truck was there almost immediately. I credit you with telling me to wear my buoy when working out!

As far as pictures what if they posted pics of all guards who have had a rescue. That would be really impressive number wise.

Bill”

 Heroism isn’t just about bravery. Its also about the discipline and drudgery of maintaining skills that may help someone, somewhere, someday. In this case an 8-year-old got to go home because of Bills heroism.

Holiday Weekend Wrap Up

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July Weekend, despite the weird thing of not being to celebrate it on the beach. Big news here is we’ll be having yet another lifeguard academy. Tryouts are Monday, July 13th, and info is on our website.

We spent most of our weekend doing the unenviable task of telling people they couldn’t have a good time. But it was also so eerily quiet that it was, in some ways, a welcome break from how hectic this summer has been so far. By Sunday evening, we’d moved around 2,500 people off the beach and responded to a handful of potential emergencies. This is completely different from what we’d normally have been doing. Normally we’d have reunited scores of lost children with their parents, moved thousands from dangerous areas, made a few rescues, and responded to a whole bunch of medical and water related emergencies.

The beaches are back open, so as a reminder there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, stay calm and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well-meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.

As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of protection if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids, or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Overall, use good common sense in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

4th of July Safety Tips

Happy 4th of July Weekend!

For lots this is all about grilling and chillin on the beach, and I’m sure even with the spike in Corona cases, we’ll still see plenty of people on the beach and elsewhere on the island.

It’s hard to believe how fast summer flies by, especially when you’re busy. This summer has been pretty intense so far with tons of people and very rough water on top of all the other weirdness. Fortunately, it looks like the rough water we’ve been having will ease up a little before the big weekend.

For the big weekend, there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, stay calm and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well-meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.

As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of safety if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids, or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Overall, use good common sense in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

But all that said, the 4th is intended to be a time to remember that despite how crazy things have been, this is still a wonderful place to live. Spend some quality time with friends and family while still social distancing.

Have fun you deserve it!

Galveston is Booming

Summer, summer, summer… The water is now up in the 80s and crowds are above anyone’s expectations. Driving down the seawall on the afternoons makes you face the fact that Galveston is booming despite a pandemic. The beach is in full effect. The lifeguards are doing a great job and the new rookies are integrating into the Beach Patrol culture well, even to the point of becoming accustomed to the heavy workload that each guard carries.

That workload primarily consists of moving people out of areas where they could drown and is of the utmost importance. The most dangerous areas in Galveston are the rip currents along the groins, and at the ends of the island where there are intermittent powerful tidal currents. We are perhaps the lifeguard agency that focuses the most on prevention in the entire country. Part of this is because we are in the fortunate position to be able to identify areas where rip currents are likely, because along the upper Texas coast these are almost always next to some type of structure. Other beaches with a steeper grade have other types of rip currents that can pop up anywhere at a moment’s notice.

The key is to be able to identify areas that could be potentially dangerous and keep people out of them. This concept applies anywhere, not just on the beachfront. Once you get to the point to where a lifeguard or another person needs to attempt a rescue, you are already in a very tough spot. Water is not our natural habitat. So, every time someone makes a save, there is a tremendous amount of risk for both the rescuer and the victim. Without the specific training and tools that lifeguards possess, there is a very high chance that not only the victim, but the would-be rescuer will drown as well. Every year you hear about tragedies where someone went to save another person and a double or triple drowning fatality was the result.

So, what to do when you see someone actively drowning when there is no trained and equipped lifeguard around? First of all, DON’T ENTER THE WATER! Call 911 or summon trained help and then extend something or throw something that floats to them. That way, you’ll be safe, and the chance of additional victims is diminished. On the end of each of our rock jetties here in Galveston, we have a “rescue box” that contains a ring buoy attached to a rope in a “throw bag”. All you have to do is open the box and hold onto the rope while you throw the ring buoy to the person having trouble and then pull them up onto the rocks. We estimate 20 or 30 people are saved each year by bystanders without additional risk to the rescuers.

If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, try to relax and float. No current pulls you under, just out. Call for help and either float or swim parallel to shore.

See you on the beach!

Busy Weekend

The storm swell arrived Saturday afternoon with some beautiful little ground-swell waves. A few surfers made it out to enjoy the conditions before it got dark. But by then the unusually large beach crowds we’ve been seeing merged with a very peaceful looking protest, and a large social media driven event. It was everything we could do to stay focused on what was a very busy day on the beach because of the traffic issues up on the seawall and elsewhere. Our always creative Supervisors moved their patrols down to the sand, which was slow going, but much faster than trying to make their way through the gridlocked traffic. Luckily, we didn’t have any major events aside from a couple of rescues, so slow response times weren’t an issue.

Sunday morning the bigger swell arrived, along with a high tide exacerbated by both a full moon and storm swell. The combination of 5-foot waves and a 12 second period meant that fat waves pushed the already high tide even higher. The East Beach Park and Boddecker drive were both underwater by 7am. Stewart Beach was half full as well. The Park Manager at East Beach made a good call and closed the park. Stewart Beach was able to allow people in by some creative parking strategies that kept everyone on higher ground until the park drained with the outgoing tide. Another lucky thing happened in that the tides reached our towers, and in some areas covered them, but overall we made a good call in not pulling all the towers off the beach and trying to guard the thousands of people on the beach without the advantage of an elevated platform.

By the end of the weekend we gave 423 Water Safety Talks, made 5219 preventative actions, reunited 6 lost children with parents, and made 6 water rescues. It was an extremely busy weekend. In fact it was equivalent to most Memorial Weekends, which is typically our busiest holiday of the year.

On top of everything else, we’ve seen a recent influx of Sea Nettle, or Japanese Jellyfish. This jellyfish is one of our most common. They’re usually present in lesser numbers but lately, when the wind and currents are right, there have been quite a few. Over the weekend we treated 479 jellyfish stings.

For most of the types of jellyfish we have here in Galveston the most up to date treatment is to rinse the area with copious amounts of saline solution and carefully pick off any tentacles, while protecting your hand. If you don’t have the fancy bottled version, sea water works just as well. The reason its recommended is because when a tentacle touches your skin, only about 10% of the stinging cells (nematocysts) fire. Washing them off with a solution that resembles their natural environment does not cause more of the cells to fire, so the sting isn’t exacerbated. Then just treat for pain with ice or a topical anesthetic. Or swim near a lifeguard and we’ll do it for you!

 

Photo by: Billy Hill

Busy Holiday Weekend

Two swimmers entered the water late in the evening at the San Luis Pass. A strong outgoing tidal flow had already carved a steep drop off. The falling tide was exacerbated by having to funnel through the gap between Galveston Island and Brazoria County. A friend of the two people called 911 and a call went out to all the Galveston Marine Response Partners. Weaving through crazy traffic emergency workers made their way to the end of the island and across the flooding and sand. A Beach Patrol unit arrived and spotted a man struggling to stay afloat about 100 yards from shore. A lifeguard powered out to him on a rescue board and made contact before the man went under.

While he paddled the man to safety the other lifeguard noticed a head close to a mile out in the ocean. Galveston Fire and Police gathered witness information and Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue pulled up with their “Sea Legs” boat. This is an incredible piece of equipment. A boat with wheels that can retract once it gets in the water. It’s great for shallow water and also for beach launching. Unlike our Beach Patrol jet skis that we rely on so heavily, it has lights and can run at night.

As Jamaica Beach prepped the boat, the rescue groups figured out that there were two people missing. The lifeguard kept an eye on the head he’d spotted as it bobbed even farther from shore, while another guard jumped in with the Jamaica Beach boat. It was almost dark.

The boat got to the victim after what felt like a lifetime and radioed that they’d rescued one person. A short time after they spotted and saved another. This was the last call of an incredibly busy weekend for all of us.

Overall, rough water, strong rip currents, large crowds, and flooding made for a really busy weekend, which culminated in medical response to the shooting and the joint rescue with Jamaica Beach Fire/Rescue of three at the San Luis Pass. The GPD run Park Board Security Program did a great job at the parks, and the Galveston Police Department managed huge crowds all over the island like the pros they are. We had several afterhours calls that we worked with our Galveston Marine Response partner agencies. There was one near drowning (drowning that was survived) transported to JSER, but no drowning fatalities.

By the time the dust cleared we’d, over the 4 day weekend, made 20,163 Preventive Actions (removing beach patrons and swimmers from dangerous areas/situations), enforced around 200 city ordinances and park rules, reunited 13 children with their parents working with GPD/Park Board Security, and made 7 rescues. We also made 60 medical responses including the gunshot.

No drowning fatalities is a huge thing on a weekend like this. We couldn’t have done that without all the help and support from the Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, County Emergency Response Team, Beach Park Staff, Coastal Management Crews, media, NWS, and our partner agencies in Public Safety.