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The beach towns of Brunswick County have policies and procedures in place anticipating yet another busy summer season on the North Carolina coast.
After a deadly summer in 2013, which was marked by four drownings in a 36-hour period in July, town administrators, police chiefs and emergency personnel are buckling down in preparation for this year’s season.
Ocean Isle Beach Police Chief John Goodwin wants to remind the public that while he wants all who visit the beach to enjoy their vacation time, they must adhere to town ordinances.
“The beach is not a swimming pool,” Goodwin said. “The main thing is people have to be aware of their surroundings and be cautious. They need to look out for each other while they’re out in the water.
“We have beach patrol, and they work both ends of the beach. They respond to all emergency calls on the strand. I’m sure it eases the public’s mind seeing law enforcement (on the beach), but it’s up to them to use their best judgment. They have to be aware. The best advice we can give to anyone visiting our beaches is to be cautious.”
Also, Ocean Isle Beach has provided magnets with rip current information to all rental companies and renters to educate visitors. They had the magnets in every home by September of last year. The beach patrol will have two officers on the beach all summer and is planning on carrying inflatable rings and flying danger flags on mobile vehicles.
Each town provided a rundown of rip current protection plans at a beach consortium meeting at the end of last summer.
Sunset Beach Police Chief Lisa Joyner said the best way to warn swimmers about the dangers of rip currents is education.
“Education is the key,” Joyner said. “We’re providing extra signage to the beach accesses and distributing literature to the real estate companies. We’re also running information on the community TV channel.”
Joyner said it’s important for beachgoers to use the information available to them before going in the water.
“Read the signs, follow the advice on the signs,” Joyner said.
In Oak Island, Police Chief Van Eddinger’s water rescue squad responds to swimmers in distress. In addition, the police department patrols the beach with officers on ATVs.
On busy weekends, like Labor Day and Memorial Day, two officers patrol Oak Island — one on the east end and one on the west — from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We’re a response agency. We don’t have anything preventive, but we want people to use their best judgment,” Eddinger said. “Fortunately for us, we have the water rescue squad and the Coast Guard is stationed here, so we’re better off than some of the other beaches.”
Like Sunset and Ocean Isle, Oak Island will use informative brochures available to the public.
Holden Beach will also provide magnets to all homeowners. Its beach patrol is out every day in summer, and the fire department will have volunteers on the beach from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Brunswick County Emergency Services Director Brian Watts said municipalities do a good job educating beachgoers on potential threats, especially considering rip currents.
“Many of the municipalities have stations they’ll run warnings on,” Watts said at the consortium meeting. “This is very helpful. After last year, we started putting flyers out in all of the rental properties that educate people on rip current threats and provide other beach safety tips.”
Like Goodwin, Watts hopes vacationers will use their best judgment when deciding whether to venture out into the water.
“Our hope is that if it’s a day the warnings for rip currents are high, people won’t go in the water,” Watts said. “If you’re someone visiting the beach for a week’s vacation, the last thing you want to hear is about something bad that could happen.
“I think the towns, and the county, does a good job posting rip current threats and communicating those threats to the public, but they don’t always heed our warnings. Some people would heed those warnings, but they don’t know what the warnings look like.”
Watts encouraged vacationers to educate themselves concerning beach safety.
“Certainly people just need to use their best judgment,” he added.
Fort Caswell has lifeguards during the summer in a limited swim area; swimmers must stay within the boundary. The lifeguards also monitor for rip currents.
Caswell Beach has rip signs at all crosswalks and brochures in town hall and property management offices.
The town also uses a flashing electronic sign to warn of moderate to high rip current days.
Sunset Beach provides brochures in the town hall and property management offices. The beach patrol is on the beach all day. And the town has ordered signs to place at all walkways.
“(They are) the first thing you’ll see (at beach access walkways) and the last thing you’ll see before you go on the beach,” Sunset Beach Town Councilman Wilson Sherrill said.
Bald Head Island will use signs, programs and the 911 system. It will have watercraft in the water, as well.
“Our public safety director will perform an in-depth study,” Councilman Gene Douglas said. “Education is an area we are most interested in expanding.”
Oak Island Town Manager Steve Foster said there is always a concern that visitors ignore signs placed at the accesses.
Brunswick County Assistant Manager Steve Stone was one of the officials to encourage discussion through the beach consortium. The county administration had a contingent including County Manager Ann Hardy listening in to the discussion.
Simmons asked if the county is interested in taking over beach protection.
Stone said the county doesn’t want to dictate programs, but would, if it could help, take a support role to coordinate the town’s safety campaigns, offer technical assistance or have emergency management share information.
Town representatives lightly touched on possible use of lifeguards, but saw more problems than solutions from cost to benefit and liability issues.
Rip current deaths in 2013
Rip currents were blamed for four deaths along Brunswick County beaches within 36 hours during July 4 week last summer.
William Nicolaro, 72, of Palm Harbor, Fla., drowned at Ocean Isle Beach on July 3. Nicolaro and his adult son were swimming when both had problems with the current and struggled to get back to shore. Both men were taken to Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, where the father died.
Later that afternoon, 54-year-old Mitchell Lynn McLean of Wilkesboro died after assisting a swimmer who was in distress because of rip currents along Sunset Beach. McLean was the chief district court judge of the 23rd Judicial District.
Sunset Beach Police Chief Lisa Joyner said McLean and Edward John Galway III went into the water to assist Galway’s wife, Mary Anne, and another person who were in distress. Mary Anne Galway died that night.
Randall Joyce, 57, of Pfafftown, a suburb of Winston-Salem, drowned July 4 while visiting Holden Beach with his wife and two adult children, Brunswick County Coroner Greg White said. All four family members were in the water and needed assistance after they were caught in the rip current.
Additionally, two young men drowned earlier in 2013 in Brunswick County.
On June 11, South Brunswick High School senior James Prince died in an apparent drowning while swimming with friends along the beach in Oak Island. The well-liked member of the school’s football team was 17.
On May 14, 21-year-old Kwesi Sample, a member of the Xenos Christian Fellowship of Columbus, Ohio, drowned while trying to swim the Lockwood Folly Inlet from Holden Beach to Oak Island as the tide was rising. His body was recovered May 19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the fifth-leading cause of death for people of all ages, and rip currents account for 80 percent of ocean rescues. The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that more than 100 people nationwide die each year because of rip currents.
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or email@example.com.