Panhandle officials urge beach safety after weeks of deadly rip currents
Many of the deaths happened on days with double red flags — which are posted at beach entrances and on lifeguard stations to warn beachgoers of potential rip currents.
From Destin and Pensacola to the sandy banks of Panama City, the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast is home to some of the most iconic beaches in the state.
But those spots are at risk of rip currents, strong surges of water that pull away from the shoreline.
A firefighter from Georgia and two fathers who drowned while trying to save their children are among at least 12 recent victims of dangerous rip currents along Gulf of Mexico beaches stretching across Florida's Panhandle to Mobile, Alabama.
Many of the deaths happened on days with double red flags — which are posted at beach entrances and on lifeguard stations to warn beachgoers of potential rip currents. Since mid-June, there have been seven deaths around Panama City Beach.
The National Weather Service has declared it the deadliest beach in the U.S. this year.
Daryl Paul runs Panama City’s Beach Safety Division. He says over the years, many visitors have started to ignore warnings about rip currents.
“I don’t understand, this year is just a whole different ballgame. Most of our rescues has been people we already warn,” said Paul.
According to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, all public beaches are to fly colored flags to indicate the changes in the ocean’s tide and surf conditions.
Double red flags mean the water conditions are at their worst and beachgoers must stay out of the water, something Panama City Beach has seen for the past two weeks. Despite those posted warnings, Paul says his agency has rescued more than 140 people.
“You’re getting the initial swimmer in distress but you’re also getting the other two dudes on the shoreline that think they know what they’re doing," said Paul. "They go in and save the day, now you’re ending up having to rescue three people."
Nearby, in Destin,, ex-NFL quarterback Ryan Mallett, 35, drowned Tuesday, but local officials said rip currents weren't observed — and that day, yellow caution flags, not double red flags, were flying at the beach.
Three people drowned off the coast of Alabama between June 20 and June 23, according to the Gulf Shores Police Department.
The Gulf of Mexico's white sandy beaches are a draw for tourists, and as the busy Fourth of July holiday approaches, officials are hoping beachgoers will take extra precaution.
“I’m beyond frustrated at the situation that we have with tragic and unnecessary deaths in the Gulf,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford wrote in a Facebook post, accompanied by an aerial view that shows deep trenches that rip currents dug into the shoreline along Panama City Beach. “I have watched while deputies, firefighters and lifeguards have risked their lives to save strangers. I have seen strangers die trying to save their children and loved ones, including two fathers on Father's Day.”
Ford says his deputies have been cursed at as they've tried to warn visitors of the "life-threatening dangers” in the Gulf of Mexico.
He said deputies have handed out $500 fines when they've seen people in the water during double red flag days.
“We don’t have the resources or time to cite every single person that enters the water but we do our absolute best to use it as a deterrent to entering the water,” Ford said, explaining that an arrest is only authorized upon a second offense, unless the person resists law enforcement.
The sheriff notes there is only so much local officials can do, so he's asking tourists and residents to pay close attention to the flag status at the beach.
"Personal responsibility is the only way to ensure that no one else dies," he wrote.
That message is echoed by Greg Dusek, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ocean service unit. He said that people can't always see the deep channels on the shoreline caused by rip currents, or even tell how dangerous conditions are by the weather.
“Waves can happen when there's a storm where you are, but they can also happen from storms far away,” Dusek said. “It can be a really nice day at the beach, beautiful, not even much wind. But you have swells coming in from storms hundreds of miles away potentially, and those waves are big enough to drive in rip currents.”
Those are the days that officials often see higher numbers of water rescues and drownings.
“That’s why I think one of the big messages needs to be: Understand the flag system for the beach you are going to, and follow that guidance,” he said.
A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of water flowing away from the beach and often extending through the breaker zone where waves form. They can emerge on sunny days, and can quickly sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.
“A rip current, basically, is water likes to go downhill. When breaking waves hit the shore, they get pushed up the beach,” said Daniel Noah, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Ruskin. “It’s trying to find the easiest way to get back into the water. And it finds these rip current channels and it can rapidly move back into the Gulf or the ocean.”
“The movement of water has a lot of force,” he added. “It’s dangerous for kids, it’s dangerous for adults, it’s dangerous for vehicles.”
Adding to the danger is the chronic shortage of qualified lifeguards, Tom Gill, a spokesman for the nonprofit United States Lifesaving Association, told NBC News.
“Swimming on an actively guarded beach is always the safest option,” he said. “But not every beach is patrolled by a lifeguard and the high heat has been pushing a lot of people into the water.”
While the popular Shark Week documentaries and the movie “Jaws” may have etched the fear of sharks into many beachgoers, drownings caused by rip currents claim many more lives. For example, in 2022 there were 108 documented shark bites of all types on humans worldwide, according to the International Shark File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Of those, Florida accounted for 16 bites, all nonfatal, among the 41 in the U.S. There was one fatality in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, through June 24, NOAA statistics show 55 deaths related to rip currents in the U.S. The seven deaths in Panama City Beach came between June 15 and 24.
“Even if there are red flags flying, people look at the water and say, ‘Oh, I’ve been in waves that big before. It doesn’t look that dangerous,’” Dusek said.
“Many times people don’t think about it, and they're caught off guard by the risk,” he said. “I guess that’s natural human mentality. You get to the beach, you just want to have a good time with your family. You're not necessarily thinking about what can go wrong.”
Information from WFSU's Adrian Andrews was used in this report.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7