In advance of Hurricane Lee’s trek north this weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard and local officials are warning of life-threatening rip currents along the Mid-Atlantic coast.
“Although Hurricane Lee is not expected to make landfall along the Mid-Atlantic coastal region, there will be dangerous conditions along our shores,” said Capt. Kate Higgins-Bloom, Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay commander, in a statement Sept. 13. “Rip currents are a hidden threat to even the most experienced swimmers. If you’re spending time at the shore over the next few days, keep yourself and loved ones safe by paying close attention to surf conditions and warning signs posted by local authorities.”
The National Weather Service has issued a rip current advisory through 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15, and a high-surf advisory through to 6 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 16.
The warnings come two weeks after Hurricane Idalia created similar conditions in the water over Labor Day weekend. From Ocean City, Md., up to New Jersey, beach patrols reported a high number of rescues and multiple drownings over the three-day holiday.
One of those drownings occurred Sept. 3 in Rehoboth Beach, when 31-year-old Maryland resident Richard Boateng entered the water shortly after the beach patrol had left its stands for the day. A multi-agency response of state and local authorities methodically searched the water for hours, but Boateng’s body wasn’t found until it was reported as having washed up on shore in the early morning hours of Sept. 4.
The dangerous water conditions are coming at a time of year when local beach patrols are still on duty, but the number of lifeguards is limited and the areas of patrol have been downsized due to many lifeguards returning to school.
Rehoboth Beach Patrol and Delaware State Beach Patrol have a limited crew of lifeguards on duty through Sunday, Sept. 24. Dewey Beach lifeguards are done for the season.
As of Sept. 14, Rehoboth was already operating on red flag conditions, with knee-deep limitations. Water conditions are getting worse as the hurricane continues its northerly track, said Rehoboth Beach Patrol Capt. Jeff Giles, in an email Sept. 14.
Rehoboth will be operating with eight to 12 guards, patrolling from the Henlopen Hotel south to Brooklyn Avenue, said Giles, but it could change due to manpower issues.
“Safety is always our No. 1 goal. Preventive, proactive lifeguarding is the key,” said Giles, while adding a tip for oceangoers. “Know your limitations and respect the ocean.”
Delaware State Beach Patrol Capt. Bailey Noel said it’s hard to know if the water conditions this coming weekend will be comparable to the conditions of Labor Day weekend. It’s unpredictable, he said, and they won’t know how bad water conditions will be until Saturday morning.
Noel said DSBP will be guarding the Cape Henlopen State Park main beach area and the Delaware Seashore State Park south inlet area. There will be a yellow flag up to let people know the surf is still dangerous, but if needed, red flags will be put up that communicate there are restrictions for entering the water, he said.
“If anyone sees a yellow or red flag, they should talk to the lifeguards about the conditions of the ocean,” said Bailey.
What to do if caught in a rip current
As part of the warning to beachgoers, the Coast Guard provided information on what swimmers should do if caught in a rip current, which moves perpendicular to shore and can be very strong.
A person caught in a rip can be swept away from shore very quickly. The best way to escape a rip current is by swimming parallel to the shore instead of toward it, since most rip currents are less than 80 feet wide.
The most important thing to remember if you are ever caught in a rip current is not to panic. Continue to breathe, try to keep your head above water, and don’t exhaust yourself fighting against the force of the current.
Mental health support
Two days after Boateng went missing, during a commissioner workshop Sept. 5, City Manager Laurence Christian said the city was providing its lifeguards with support following the incident.
In an email Sept. 13, Lynn Coan, city spokesperson, said at a beach patrol meeting the morning following the drowning incident, RBP senior staff provided lifeguards with information about grief and emotional assistance available through the city as well as Sussex County EMS and the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company.
“Our lifeguards are passionate about keeping Rehoboth Beach as safe as possible – as demonstrated by the many off-duty lifeguards who assisted with the search for the missing swimmer,” said Coan. “The loss of a life, even though they weren’t on duty at the time of the incident, is certainly concerning and upsetting both professionally and personally to our lifeguards.”