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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.

Seasonal Guards

The first weekend after the clock ran out on our Seasonal Lifeguard coverage was something else. As we say people were “all down up in that beach”. They were in the water, on the sand, driving around in golf carts, trying to swim in the no swimming areas by the rocks and at the ends of the island, and anywhere else you can think of.
It was a challenge keeping everyone safe while working from the 5 scheduled lifeguard trucks. Not having guards stationed at fixed locations watching to make sure people stayed away from the dangerous areas forced to trucks to stay constantly moving. I was proud of how hard our staff worked. But even with that we still had some near misses. By the end of the weekend we’d made 8 rescues and moved over 1,400 people out of areas near the rip currents by the rock groins.
The thing that saved us (and a lot of people) was that the water was calm. Generally, we have fewer problems when the water is calm or very rough. The toughest time to guard is when the water looks pretty safe but isn’t. A prime example would be a day with small surf but with longshore current that pulls people parallel to the beach.
Longshore, or literal, current is dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that if it runs for awhile it digs deeper troughs between the sandbars, which means steeper drop-offs closer to shore. This can be especially hazardous to children; whose parents think because they’re close to shore they’re safe. It also can mean more lost kids who drift down and come out down the beach with no familiar reference points.
The second danger of a longshore current is that, when it comes into contact with a structure like a pier or groin, strong rip currents can be generated. This means that on both sides of a structure people who are in the water near it will be pulled offshore into deeper water. If they try to swim against it, people can tire, choke on water, panic, and go under. 80% of the rescues beach Lifeguards make both locally and nationally are a direct result of rip currents.
We’ve probably got another month before the water temperature drops to the point that it keeps the recreational swimmers out. And lately it seems that the season stretches farther and farther into the winter months and more and more people are using the beaches. So we’ve definitely got some work ahead of us before we can divert attention to our winter tasks of refurbishing all the towers, repairing equipment, training our full time staff for the next season, and lots of other things we’ve put off until the beach is not so pressing.
All that said, please find some time to come to the beach during a time of year that the water and air temperatures are absolutely perfect, without the pressure of summer crowds. Just remember to be safe!

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

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!

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.

Sooner or Later

Sitting in the middle of storm season brings all kinds of things to mind. Have you ever seen the pictures of the amazing structures that existed before the 1900 storm? Huge wooden beach pavilions that stretch into the water. Galveston was such a draw and such an important place at the time we neared the industrial revolution. This was really before recreational swimming was even in the public consciousness. I love to sit and imagine what was going on in the pictures. What were they talking about? How did people speak differently than we do now? How did people see the world, each other, race, gender, religion, and politics? When one of those people in the pictures walked along the sand, did it feel the same to them? Did they see the marine environment differently before recreational swimming became commonplace?

After each hurricane, these structures were re-built, or new ones were added. Thousands flocked to the beachfront and used the buildings. Then they’d be demolished again by the power of the sea. It sounds like there would be considerable debate whether or not to rebuild and, some weren’t rebuilt for some time. But eventually, the economic draw was too much, and they’d put something else there.

This extends to the present. Why do we choose to live in a beach house or rebuild a structure in front of the seawall when you know there is a time limit? If we look back at those incredible beachfront structures from the 1800’s or early 20th century knowing they would only exist for a few years or decades, why spend the energy and resources? Is this wasteful and self-indulgent, or is there something else at work here?

It seems we, as a species, have a tough time thinking past our immediate experience and the short term. We seem to have a baked-in inability to give serious consideration to the long-term effects of our actions. When the population was small, and the world was big, this may have been a survival trait that allowed us to take risks that eventually allowed the human population to flourish.

It also seems that we are capable of incredible optimism. Why did people cross the Bering Strait? Why do we collectively choose to live on this vulnerable barrier island? Why choose to put such considerable resources into a place where there is such a risk of impermanence?

I believe the answer is simple. Because your life is not what you accumulate. It’s the sum of your lived experiences. If you have a deep, meaningful connection to a place that facilitates connection to something bigger than yourself, all the rest pales in comparison. Galveston, for all its many shortcomings, provides this to those who are open to it. The privilege of living close to the ocean is worth the risk and impermanence.

And, at the end of the day, everything we build only amounts to a sandcastle. Sooner or later, the tide takes it all away, leaving just the memory of building it with someone you love.

A Dynamic Environment

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, on top of that, we had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents (not rip tides!) which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter and I body surf a lot in the evenings lately and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell

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.