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Deadly Riptides Prompt Warnings

Swimmer in dangerous riptides graphic
CBS
Over the last week, at least six people drowned in riptides along a stretch of the Florida Panhandle. Swimmers anxious to make the most of what had been a rainy vacation were apparently unaware of the dangerous riptides that had formed just off shore, CBS News Correspondent Bobbi Harley reports.

Once the thunderstorms cleared, people packed the Florida Panhandle beaches, only to find out that remnants of the storm still lingered.

Tourist Eric Wallis says, "The undertow kept pulling my younger girls back out and my wife kept losing her footing, trying to pull them in."

Not everyone made it back to shore. Six people drowned in the Gulf of Mexico along a 40-mile stretch of beach last weekend and Monday. Dozens more had to be pulled from safety.

"They didn't realize the currents were so strong," says one resident.

Rip currents, created by crashing waves, are like fast-moving underwater rivers, rushing back out to sea. Trying to swim to shore against one is nearly impossible, experts say.

Tourist Seburn Dunn says, "You could barely walk out on the bank there and it would just pull you in."

Many of the beaches don't have lifeguards. Instead, they rely on a flag system to warn people of dangerous conditions. This week, red flags were flying in Daytona Beach and sheriff's officers were even driving up and down the beach, advising people to stay out of the water. But some still went swimming.

Dennis Wise of the Florida Sheriff's Office says, "When we would order everybody out, they would clear the Gulf. Soon as he'd go down about quarter of a mile, they would go back in the surf."

Some tourists, trying to make the most of a rained-out vacation, found they paid for it with their lives.

Les Hallman, chief of the South Walton Fire District where the weekend drownings took place, says rip currents are common in the Panhandle but drownings are avoidable.

The following are some tips he had on how beachgoers can have fun in the sun.

  • Familiarize yourself with the beach.
  • Familiarize yourself with the warning system, the most common of which are red flags.
  • Know danger signs of rip currents: A stream of murky water or a stream that is darker than surrounding water; a stream of objects or foam moving steadily seaward; a stream with waves that are lower and choppier than surrounding water.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Always supervise children.

If you are caught in a rip current, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has these tips:

  • Remain calm. Remember a rip current will not pull you under.
  • Swim out of the current, parallel to the shore. Since the currents are relatively narrow, you can escape the flow by swimming parallel to the shore until you break free, then swim diagonally toward the shore.
  • Float if you cannot swim out of the current. Float until it dissipates, then swim diagonally toward the shore or float and summon the beach patrol by waving your hands.
  • Use a flotation device if you attempt to rescue someone.