Published: 2020-07-30 19:00:00
Updated: 2020-07-30 19:00:00
By Elizabeth Gardner, WRAL meteorologist
Even when beach conditions appear sunny and calm, tropical systems can cause rip currents so dangerous that lifeguards often refer to them as drowning machines.
Even a tropical system hundreds of miles offshore can create strong, narrow currents flowing outward from the beach through the surf zone. Rip currents are typically about 30 feet wide and most dangerous during low tide.
Often, the most dangerous rip currents occur when skies are clear.
Large swells produced by storms well offshore can create conditions that cause rip currents. For example, in 2019, when Hurricane Lorenzo was over 2,000 miles away from the U.S., the beaches were sunny and temperatures were in the 80s.
It was great beach weather, but Lorenzo generated large ocean swells stretching from Florida to New Jersey. There were seven drownings, four of which were in the Carolinas, including two at Kure Beach. The takeaway? We have to pay attention to tropical systems even when they are thousands of miles away.
Rip currents contribute to 80% of surf rescues in the Carolinas. In North Carolina, we average 10 rip current deaths every year. Since 2011, half of the people who drowned were bystanders trying to help someone caught in a rip current, and 84% of deaths were vacationers.
Check the rip current conditions before you hit the beach, and only swim at a beach with lifeguards. Watch for warning flags, and never try to out swim a rip current.
If you get caught in a rip current, float on your back or swim parallel to the shore until you are safe. Call for help if you see someone in trouble.
Above all, remember rip currents can be out there even if there is no tropical system in sight.