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Easter Wrap Up

A young boy and girl lay on a small sand dune. They were 3-4 years old and looked to be brother and sister. Although the day was not hot, the sand was nice and warm once the sun peeked out. They jabbered at each other while they piled the sand up and rolled around. A man who looked to be their dad looked on from just the right distance. Close enough to make sure they were safe, but far enough to give them the space to explore and discover.

As part of my routine, I often get tacos and eat them on the beach somewhere on the west seawall. When we get busy, we end up going from crisis to crisis. When we’re not so strapped, there’s always work waiting for me in my office or in my mobile office (truck). I like eating on the beach and watching people that are just out there enjoying themselves, like these two kids. Taking a few minutes to remind myself what an important space the beach provides for so many people helps to keep perspective. So much of our lives as coastal dwellers are punctuated by moments on the beach. People come for solace, to commune with nature, for exercise and sport, to share moments together, to have some time alone, or just to enjoy being out there on a beautiful day. I couldn’t help but think how I could be witnessing a moment for this particular family that they’d remember for the rest of their lives. For that matter, any number of the thousands of people that visited the beach over Easter Weekend (or any day on the beach) could be having that kind of moment.

Looking back, Easter has at times been a huge event for us with loads of rescues, lost children, medical emergencies, etc. But not this past weekend. Not to say that there weren’t lots of people here. The entire island was full of people and there were plenty of people on the beach. We were steady but not slammed. All told we made over 3,000 preventative actions, 5 medical responses, 118 enforcement actions, 2 lost kids reunited with parents, and one rescue. Comparing this to previous years and looking at the crowd, there was one factor that made the difference.

With the water temperature being in the mid 60’s it was just cold enough to keep people from staying in the water for long periods of time. They would get in, swim around for a bit, then get out and warm up. This took the burden of the guards. 3,000 people moved from rocks is a lot of work for our staff, but nothing like the 5-7,000 people we’d have moved if the water was just a few degrees warmer. This little “buffer” wont last long as we’re quickly approaching the magic number for water temp- 70 degrees. Once we hit 70, any time there’s people on the beach and warm air we’ll get real busy real fast.

OTB: Pre-Easter

The Easter holiday has been a big beach day for many years but has grown to be one of our major holidays. The seawall, beach parks, and west end have been packed on this weekend in recent history. For many people, particularly for families, going to the beach on Easter Weekend is a tradition.

For the Beach Patrol, it’s an especially busy holiday because normally, waves, currents, and people create equal work for lifeguards. Historically, the numbers support that. Looking back and picking a weekend just a few years ago, we had a total of 36 missing children reunited, 63 medical treatments, 7 rescues, 2 near-drownings, and 1,529 people moved from dangerous areas like those with rip currents. We could see numbers like that or even more with the increase in beach tourism we’ve had lately. Over Spring Break alone, we made over 5,200 preventative actions.

Part of the reason our “preventative actions”, of which the vast majority are moving people away from groins and piers where there are always rip currents, are so important is that each of these could potentially be life threatening. Its also especially impressive to see these numbers this time of year because the bulk of our workforce are students who are in school. We have very few available guards in the spring compared to the summer months. A lot of the work falls on the shoulders of mobile patrols which are largely staffed by our 12 full time Lifeguard Supervisors, including one Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. Mobile patrols are great for emergency response, much the same as EMS and the Fire Department operate. They are also critical in covering large swaths of beachfront and looking for situations that could potentially develop into something life threatening. But nothing compares to a trained lifeguard who is stationed in a tower and watching a section of beach. In the summer months we are able to staff most, or all of our 32 lifeguard towers each day. In the Spring we strategically place available guards in our highest risk and most populated areas. Statistics and experience help us figure out where these spots are. This is why our most important safety tip is to swim near a lifeguard.

After reading a glimpse into our inner workings, I’m sure you understand how important our Wave Watcher Program is, which involves volunteers who are trained to have a practiced eye, patrolling sections of the beach and letting us or other emergency response groups know if they see anything developing. If you or anyone you know is interested in joining this group and our Beach Patrol family, there is a free training course starting April 12th and information on our website.

The weather looks to be favorable for a big holiday event. The water is in the mid to high 60’s and is a little cold, but if the past few weekends are any indicator that won’t slow a lot of people down. Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!

OTB: African American Lifeguard Heroes!

Last week’s column was an overview of our local lifeguarding history that left off with the time that African American beaches were designated by law and by Galveston’s dominant culture of the time. To talk about this part of our collective beach history I have to lean on someone who knows much more about this (and about pretty much everything else), my wife.

Carol Bunch-Davis works at Texas A&M Galveston as the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, is an Associate Professor of English, and is the Chair of the Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Committee. No, she doesn’t write these columns for me (looking at you Tom Linton)! At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Anyway, Carol recently wrote an essay called “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards” that I’ll draw from for this column.

In 1922 there were already two African American Beaches. One was at 28th and was referred to as “Brown Beach”, and the other on the west end and was called “Sunset Camps”.

Waverly Guidry worked the 28th street beach location from 1942 until 1957. When he died his obituary didn’t mention his lifesaving career, but referred to him as a ‘self-employeed

When Wavery Guidry died in 1986 at the age of 74, the obituary did not mention his 14 seasons as lifeguard at 28th Street Beach, or “Brown Beach” as it was sometimes called. It instead identified Guidry as “a self-employed vegetable man” and a “merchant seaman”. But he was the second African American lifeguard to work that beach and is credited with nearly 30 rescues that were documented in the local news, and likely many that weren’t documented.

One example that illustrates just some of the challenges that lifeguards, and particularly African American guards, of the day faced occurred when an African American worker on the Pleasure Pier fell off some scaffolding and drowned. Being a white beach, they called Guidry from his guard post to find the body. He spent hours with a grappling hook, which was the technique of the time, looking for the body as the two white guards on duty stood watching him.

The African American community petitioned for a paid lifeguard from 1921 until 1935 when James Helton was officially hired. He’d actually been volunteering as a guard from the time he graduated from Central High School a year earlier. He worked most of his career at the port as a stevedore and finished his beach guarding in1943. Early in his career, a fully dressed white woman walked into the water. A white deputy noticed her and turned his car around to see what was going on. Helton dove into the water and saved the woman from drowning and potential suicide. Effecting what was, no doubt, a difficult save as a young man starting his career, he woke the following day to read in Galveston Tribune that the rescue was attributed to “the intuition of a special deputy sheriff with the assistance of a negro lifeguard”.

 

 

Photo:  Courtesy of Rosenberg Library

Emergency Plan

We really dodged a bullet this week. Unfortunately that’s not the case to many, many of our neighboring communities.
Even though we didn’t take a direct hit, this is a clear message that occasionally our number comes up. The tough thing is that if you didn’t evacuate and nothing happened, it reinforces the idea that its not worth leaving when a storm threatens. And if you did evacuate and come home to no damage at all, there’s a tendency to think it wasn’t worth the inconvenience, effort, and expense. But all you have to do is look to the east and you see what can happen with these storms.
Right now, there are more psychological factors at work than storms. We’re all stretched and frayed from Covid, socio/political/economic factors, and nearing the end of a busy, crazy summer. When planning for this storm, there was, understandably, quite a bit of resistance to acknowledgment that this could be a serious thing and we needed to take quick, decisive actions to make sure we were ready as we could be. It’s not that anyone didn’t want to do the needed work, it was more that many of us felt we just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on yet another stressful situation. But fortunately, we have a pretty well thought out hurricane response plan that has specific actions for each department. So, for example, Stewart Beach has specific things that need to happen when a forecasted category 3 hurricane is 72, 48, or 24 hours out.
Plans like this are really similar to why people have a coach for sports. If you’re a swimmer and you’re halfway through your workout, you start hurting. There’s a temptation to let up or cut it short. That’s when the coach starts yelling and tells you to pick it up, or gives you some validation and encouragement. A good emergency response plan is like a coach.
A good emergency response plan is a template. It allows for the ability to react to each different crisis while still holding you to the general course of what needs to get done. And like a good coach, it reminds you of all the little things you have to do to achieve your goal, so you don’t forget important things. Our coach/emergency plan made sure all lifeguard towers, trash cans, and portlets were off the beach by the time the heavy winds hit. All the other groups that manage our town, businesses, parks, roads, and emergency response groups did the same thing. All of this was choreographed so that everything would be ready by the time the storm hit, so we could all focus on protecting life and property without other distractions.
We should all create our own emergency plan to coach us through these things. It’s easy in the heat of a disaster to get tunnel vision and forget little important necessaries. That plan and a “go bag” and you’re ready for coastal living!

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.

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.

 

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

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.