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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!

Staffing Difficulties

Staffing has been a real issue for us on the Beach Patrol for about three years now. At full strength, we run 135 Seasonal Lifeguards, in addition to the 15 full and part time employees we have. Our seasonal numbers have been more along the lines of 100-110.

When we’re short handed we still do our best to cover the beach. Guards pull longer hours, and/or we cancel morning training sessions, and some guards pick up additional shifts. Full time staff are also tasked with working lifeguard towers and we run fewer vehicles. Of course, there is a price for all of this.

I’ve come to think of the Beach Patrol as a living entity. When taxed, it compensates up to a point. When you’re hot, sweating helps maintain healthy temperature for a while. When really cold, your body will naturally shunt all the blood away from the extremities to the important parts (head and core) in order to protect your brain and vital functions. Your body does something similar for extreme injuries or illnesses when it goes into shock. So, the living entity of Beach Patrol has a built-in resiliency for emergencies like staffing shortages or lack of resources. These tricks work for a while but going into these modes of operation is not sustainable.  Eventually you pay the price for these measures in the form of staff burnout, lack of employee satisfaction, reduced staff retention, less reliability in attendance, loss of focus, etc.

This year has been a rough one on a variety of fronts. When Covid hit the hotels suffered tremendously. Since we operate exclusively off of hotel tax money, we took a proportional hit. We’ve already been struggling with meeting our number of guards in a part of the country where we don’t have huge amounts of swimmers to draw from, but we were looking at cutting the number of guards even more. Additionally, we lost our J1 Visa Cultural Exchange Visa foreign lifeguards because the program was suspended. We’ve been using these workers to close the employee deficit gap for a few years now with great success. And the crowds this summer are bigger than ever.

We were saved this year by two factors and have been consistently covering all of our 32 towers on the weekends. Our board wisely allowed us to use some reserve monies to allow us to hire enough guards. Additionally and unexpectedly, a number of older guards, who would have been working part time or not at all, were not able to work other jobs or internships which were cancelled because of Covid. That was a big help. Because many are not going off to school they’re still out on the beach taking care of beachgoers.

As we go through budgeting options for next year it looks like another challenging year is in store. I do, however, feel confident that our board, administrative staff, and we on the front lines will do whatever we can to ensure people are safe when they visit Galveston’s beaches.

IMAGE: DANIEL KRAMER

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.

Family

I have a brother that lives in Bogota, Colombia.  He and his wife can’t go out together. And when they leave one at a time, they can only go to the grocery store, pharmacy, or doctor’s office. The police stop them and ask questions each time they leave. My brother is a runner, so he’s taken to running to the grocery store. Then sometimes he runs a loop to a couple of other grocery stores because he “can’t find an item he has to have”. He’s got a nice 6-mile loop that’s working for him, but he has to be careful. Last week a police car followed him the last mile and made sure he went into his apartment building.

My other brother has a wife and two small kids and lives in Panama. They live right off a fairly remote beach on a big piece of land. His daughter just turned 6, so they walked the 4 blocks down the path to the beach. After about 45 minutes, two officials walked up and issued both my brother and his wife tickets. It was an expensive birthday party. And it doesn’t stop there. Twice a week he gets two hours to go out for supplies at a designated time. He goes through roadblocks where they check his ID card to make sure the last numbers match his designated time code. His wife gets three times a week, same deal. And every night the entire country gets a national broadcast where the latest about the pandemic is shared with the whole country including updates on the numbers of cases and how the country is doing on their national strategy. There’s a campaign that’s everywhere called “Solidarity” where its re-emphasized that if everyone doesn’t pull together it drags on longer and more people die.

My brothers and I are close. They always ask about the Galveston beach when we talk. When I told them that the Texas beaches are opening up for business, they are incredulous. Then I showed them what the beaches looked like last weekend during “quarantine”. Explained how the Beach Patrol made almost 5,000 enforcement actions last weekend alone trying to keep people off the beach. Not to mention what the Galveston Police Department and Code Enforcement have done. They are from here and they still were shocked.

But now that’s water under the bridge and, as always, we deal with what we’ve got to work with. We’re ramping up as fast as possible. It’s Cinco De Mayo weekend so parks will be open, and the available guards we do have will be out. Fortunately, the Park Board has approved use of some of our reserve funds to cover the beaches during the summer. Until we get some new ones trained, we’ll be short staffed. So be smart, be safe, and swim near a Lifegaurd.

We’ll have a lifeguard academy starting May 5th. We need guards bad, so pass the word to check our website for details.

 

Photo by: Keri Heath, The Daily News

We’ll get Through This Together

We really appreciate all the calls etc. about people who have not been following the beach ban order. We’re doing the best we can to stay on top of all of this. It’s been tough, especially on the West End. We have 4-6 vehicles a day on the beaches dedicated to just keeping them clear of people. The police have also done quite a bit, as are code enforcement officers. So far Beach Patrol/Park Board Police alone has given over 4,500 verbal warnings and removed those people from the beach. This amount of contact with people puts my staff and other emergency responders at risk, so I ask that you do your part and don’t be one of the people we have to move or ticket.

Most people have been really good about it and don’t need to be told more than once. To be clear NO ONE is allowed on the beach right now aside from people who have to work on the beach like police, lifeguards, and maintenance crews. The fine for breaking this mayoral order can be as much as $500 and it looks like enough people have been non-compliant to warrant more forceful measures. That said, of the thousands moved most seem to understand why its so important that we reduce congregation on the beaches and prevent large groups from coming here. They just seem to think it applies to “those people”.

At the time of writing this, City Council was about to meet to look at a plan to partially open the beaches in May. If they approve it, looks like there will be, for starters, some early morning weekday hours that we can all get out there and walk, run, fish, surf, bike, and walk our dogs. All the things that make living in a beach town so wonderful. As long as people follow the hours, maintain social distancing, and don’t set up chairs or lay on one place, we should be able to gradually open up more hours and days. Much will depend on Houston, so they’reworking to open during days and times that are less likely for the beaches to get inundated with people while we wait for the Houston area to get a little more past the crisis point. Moving too fast could mean we have to get more restrictive again, and none of us wants that.

Many of us have been very impressed with our leaders here on the island and how thoughtful the public and private discussions have been. I’m proud to be working with all the groups and people involved in management of the beaches and of the city response to the pandemic. That also includes all the thoughtful citizens who are willing to do things for the greater good. And,of course, my staff, who consistently surprise me with their patience and determination to keep people safe even if it puts my crew at risk.

We’ll get through this together. Please keep yourself healthy and watch out for your neighbors.

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

I want to hand it to my staff and the Galveston Police officers who are out there day after day keeping people off of the beaches. This is hard for everyone and they have not faltered or complained, even though they’re putting up with a lot. Right now the lifeguard trucks alone are moving a little less than 100 people off the beach per day on the average, but when it’s nice it’s a few hundred. Here are a few examples of the type of thing they’re seeing and hearing:

“Oh, I’m allowed to be on the beach. It’s a private beach and I own a house/condo there”.

“I thought that was just for the tourists. I’m a local. In fact, I’m a BOI.”

“I know its not allowed. Its just a dumb rule so we’re doing it anyway”.

“I agree that we don’t want people moving around or spreading Corona. But it doesn’t hurt anything if its just me out here”.

Then there are the extreme cases. Last Tuesday we had a guy run out on the south jetty to get away when we told him to get off the beach. It took two lifeguard vehicles and a police car about half an hour to fish him off of the rocks. Another day one of our Supervisors was working the west end and found a few kids frolicking along the shoreline. When they asked the kids to go back to their house one of the kids told them they didn’t have to. When the Supervisor looked to the beach house for some help from the parents, Dad lead by example and whistled at the kids. But instead of calling them to the house he told them to go back out in the water.

My favorite one so far reminded me of something I saw back when I lived in Botswana, Africa. On the edge of my village, there were a number of farms with big fences around them to keep out wildlife that would have eaten the vegetables. This big group of baboons lived on a nearby hill. Baboons are super smart. They knew that humans wouldn’t hurt a cute little baby, so they’d throw the little baboon over the fence. The baby picks the fruit and tosses it over to the adults. Then it waits till people come and they always release it because its so cute and cuddly and all. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not comparing people to baboons in any way, but I did catch some parents doing something similar and lowering some really little kids over the barricades on the seawall steps so they could go play in the water. 7 kids and two adults. It hurt to see the face of the cute little 4-year-old girl’s face that had just been lowered to the steps to go down and play with her siblings when I made Dad call her back.

We’ll be happier than anyone when the beaches open back up, but for now we all need to just keep doing the right thing.

 

 

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.

Spring Break!

Tomorrow, Saturday March 7 it all starts. We have lifeguard tryouts at 7am and will begin training the ones who pass immediately afterwards. Returning guards will do their swim test, drug screen, and rehire paperwork and many will head to the towers to start their first day of guarding of the season. And, of course, Spring Break really kicks off this weekend.

This marks the turning of the season for many of us who work and live on the beach. Its really nice when everyone comes back and starts enjoying themselves on the beach. Its great that we’ve completed all of our winter tasks and my staff can get back to the part of the job they love, which is protecting people who come to the beach from accidents. Its great to see the parks open, smell grilled meat, help lost children find their parents, help people who are injured, serve as island tourist ambassadors, and train in or enjoy the ocean without being encased in a big rubber suit. But its hard to not feel nostalgic about empty winter beaches shared with a few die-hard people who love the beach as much as we do.

Having several hundred thousand people about to hit the water and sand over the next couple of weeks means that there are many opportunities for them to get in trouble. This is a great time for reminders of how to avoid bad things happening.

Learn to Swim- it’s the only sport that will save your life!

Swim Near a Lifeguard- You’ll have an extra layer of safety and there is a trained professional near if you get in trouble.

Stay Away from Rocks- Any structure causes strong, dangerous rip currents.

Swim with a Buddy- There will be someone to raise the alarm if you get into trouble.

Check with the Lifeguards- They’re there for you! And they can give you information about local hazards.

Use Sunscreen and Drink Water- Avoid dehydration and overexposure which increase your risk of something bad happening.

Obey Posted Signs and Flags- Beach Patrol maintains over 300 safety signs along all 33 miles of beach. Many dangers are marked, and the signs let you know where the dangers are.

Learn Rip Current Safety- Rip currents are responsible for 80% of rescues, and likely the same for fatal and non-fatal drownings. If caught in a rip, relax and float and you’ll probably end up on shore without doing anything. Yell for help if possible and if you’re a good swimmer try swimming parallel to shore towards breaking waves, then back in.

Enter Water Feet First- The open water can hide dangers beneath the surface that you can’t see and that can cause a spinal injury if you’re careless

Wear a Life Jacket- especially if you’re a non-swimmer or child when in or around the water.

Don’t Swim at the Ends of the Island- There are dangerous tidal currents at the ship channel and San Luis Pass.

And most importantly, have fun!

 

 

Photo by: Billy Hill