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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.

Teenager Days

When I was 11 or so, I started at a new school and met Kevin, Jack, and Steve, who had foam boards, bikes, and were already surfing. The four of us lived in the same area and started riding to the beach whenever there were waves. We got wetsuits with beaver tails and were hooked. We’d ride the “mountain trail” at Fort Crocket (now the San Luis Hotel) in the coldest conditions, lock our bikes up at 53rd, surf till we couldn’t feel our feet, and barely make it back to our houses and hot showers.
We widened our net of surfers, and friends, but somewhere in there it became more about the ocean and the sport of surfing than about hanging out with friends. I found surfing alone had its own rewards you couldn’t find in groups. Teen problems, a messy parental divorce, family money issues, and everything else melted away when you were surfing glassy waves alone at sunset. More and more I found myself in the water with or without friends before school, at lunch, or between school and work. When I was finally old enough, I joined the Beach Patrol and started training in Lifesaving Sport in addition to surfing.
Many years later, after living in different places and doing a bunch of globetrotting, I started working as a full-time professional lifeguard/EMT/Peace Officer and administrator. The beach became something else. More complicated. The weight we all bear of all those millions of visitors can be heavy. Drownings are horrible, disruptive, and life altering to everyone connected to them. They happen to people who had a lot of living left to do. We lose really good guards sometimes afterwards and, worse than that, they can negatively impact good people’s psychological balance. But there are also other challenges like staff shortages or conflicts, anxiety that lack of understanding by decision makers of what we need can impair our ability to protect people, fear of our own people’s physical safety, etc.
And lately, all of us are facing additional serious stressors related to natural disasters, disease, racial/cultural/economic injustices, and absurd politics. And lets not leave out just moving around our life and dealing with people who are way more stressed and ready to pop than normal.
The struggle is to remain centered. To focus on the simple things that keep us operating closer to our best version of ourselves. Sleep, good diet, and a little exercise each day are the thing. Simple but hard to do when life is crazy.
And of course, pick that thing that brings you back to you, and don’t get too busy for that.
Even after surfing for 45 years and guarding for 37, every morning when I swim or paddle out into the Gulf, I feel that same magic I did when my friends and I waded out into the water with those beat up boards all those decades ago. And I come back to shore closer to that person I strive to be.

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!

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.

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!

Captain

After Hurricane Ike there was a very clear psychological effect on the general population. Right afterwards there was this sort of heightened manic cheerfulness that slowly seemed to turn sour in a number of different ways. A psychologist friend told me that he felt like we were all suffering from group post-traumatic stress that was not acknowledged. Several months into the Covid pandemic and standing on the precipice of an economic recession/depression there seems to be a number of different social psychological forces at work simultaneously.

While much of the population has been sequestered in their safe places and have developed some kind of mild agoraphobia and/or depression an entirely different thing seems to be happening on the beachfront. Enormous crowds have inundated the island each weekend and even the weekdays are pretty crazy. The crowds, in true Galveston fashion, are really diverse. But there’s definitely a segment of the beachgoing population that has this sort of manic/hedonistic energy. No masks or social distancing, and traffic rules seem to be seen as weak “suggestions”.

One on the beach it seems like lots of people are on edge. What would normally be a small issue often explodes into something major. Things as simple as asking people to not swim in dangerous area like at the ends of the islands or near rock groins turn into big arguments. Same thing for the usual litany of things we enforce such as dogs on leashes, littering, campfires, alcohol in some areas, glass containers, etc. It seems a crisis brings out the worst in us at times. But it can have the opposite effect.

My staff, for the most part, has been exemplary. Not that they’re perfect and we definitely make mistakes, but they’ve suited up, showed up, and handled everything with grace. We’ve been through the beach closure, extreme budget cuts, staffing shortages, enormous and sometimes rowdy crowds, and extremes in weather. Sure, some have fallen into blaming others for their anxiety over Corona, or fear of being overwhelmed by the call volume. But generally, they’ve all made me so proud. Particularly one person.

Captain Tony Pryor has been here over two decades and oversees our operational side of things. Day after day without pause he sits in the vortex of the storm, calmly assigning placement of guards and Supervisors creatively to make up for our staffing deficit. He also makes the schedule, organizes maintenance details, and generally takes care of business. These are all in his scope of job responsibilities. But because of staffing issues, he is currently also starting every day at 6:30am, and preparing equipment to place on the beach and to drop to the towers so guards don’t meet at headquarters. He patrols until midday when the troupes come in for the busy afternoon, then picks up anything that needs to be picked up or done from the bottom to the top, including the inevitable crisis. All with grace, and all without ever losing his sense of humor. Because he’s 100% Lifeguard and because he cares.

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.

 

Memorial Day Advice

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

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

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

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

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