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11 people have died in rip currents in less than two weeks along Gulf Coast

11 people have died in rip currents in less than two weeks along Gulf Coast

Rip currents have claimed the lives of 11 people within two weeks along the Gulf Coast, amid warnings from officials about the hazardous water conditions, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service.

The deaths have spanned the Gulf of Mexico between Fort Morgan, Alabama, and Panama City Beach, Florida, the weather service said.

A rip current is “a relatively small-scale surf-zone current,” according to the weather service. It forms as waves disperse across the beach, “causing water to become trapped between the beach and a sandbar or other underwater feature” so, “the water converges into a narrow, river-like channel moving away from the shore at high speed.”

Contrary to popular belief, a rip current won’t pull you under water, but they can pull even the strongest swimmer away from the beach beyond breaking waves, the weather service said. Rip currents often form at breaks in sandbars and close to piers and rock groins.

In the United States, the 10-year average for rip current fatalities is 71, according to weather service data. Rip currents were the third-leading cause of weather fatalities from 2013 to 2023, data shows, killing on average more people than lightning, tornadoes or hurricanes.

In the aftermath of a tragic weekend, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in Florida posted photos “of the trenches dredged in the sand under the water as a result of the powerful rip currents” to illustrate their impact.

“You say you are a ‘good’ swimmer, an experienced swimmer, a competitive swimmer, ” the office wrote. “But you are no match for a rip current.”

Panama City Beach has the highest number of beach fatalities of any location in the US for 2023, including seven from June 15 through June 24, according to weather service data.

The Panama City Beach Police Department reported and responded to three separate fatal water incidents behind three different resorts Saturday.

On Friday, Panama City Beach flew double red flags, closing the water to the public, city spokesperson Debbie Ingram told CNN Tuesday. Water conditions are assessed every morning at 9 a.m. by beach personnel, she said, and around 10 a.m., the city downgraded to a single red flag, cautioning beachgoers of dangerous water conditions.

“The waves turned rough, there were numerous rescues, and we upgraded back to double reds at 12:30 p.m.” Ingram said.

Over 10 days, the Panama City Beach Police Department responded to 70 swimmers in distress – 39 of those calls were on Saturday, the department said in a news release.

Currently there is a high rip current risk in effect through Tuesday night for Walton, Bay and Gulf counties in Florida, according to NWS.


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