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In 2023, this was the deadliest time for beachgoers in Bay County

PANAMA CITY BEACH — The beach is in the middle of what was its deadliest period last year.

From June to July 2023, six beachgoers drowned while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City Beach. There were also three other drownings off the beaches of unincorporated Bay County during the same time.

As of June 7, the city had recorded one drowning beach in 2024. It happened in March behind the Ocean Villa condominium.

With the tourist season in full swing, Daryl Paul, beach safety director for Panama City Beach Fire Rescue, said his lifeguards are working tirelessly to prevent a similar outbreak of drownings this year.

“The lifeguards are on the shore every day,” Paul said. “They’re seeing the number of beachgoers increase and the lifeguards have been training hard. … We’ve done a lot of work in the offseason updating our policies, our guidelines, our procedures, and we’ve found different ways to save the lifeguards’ time to maximize the coastline.”

He said that as of June 7, lifeguards had carried out 20 rescues, more than 100 public assists and approximately 51,000 preventive actions.

During rescue operations, swimmers on the verge of drowning are pulled from the water. Public assists occur when lifeguards enter the water to prevent swimmers from needing rescues. Preventative actions are when lifeguards prevent someone from needing help.

Common flag colors used in beach flag warning systems include a green flag for low hazard conditions, a yellow flag for medium hazard conditions, a red flag for high hazard conditions, and two red flags for very hazardous conditions.

However, Panama City Beach and Bay County never fly green flags, as officials say beachgoers should always exercise caution when entering the Gulf. It is also illegal in PCB and Bay County to swim under double red flag conditions, subject to a $500 fine.

Of the nine local beach drownings last year, two occurred under single red flags, while the other seven occurred with double red flags flying overhead during very rough surf conditions. This year’s drowning also occurred under one red flag.

All victims were tourists who died after being caught in the current.

Rip currents are fast-moving currents that arise through channels in sand banks. The channels run perpendicular to the coastline, causing the water to flow faster to deeper waters. Rip currents can vary in strength depending on how developed the channels are. They can sometimes be identified from shore where there is a gap in the wave break – areas where the white caps of the breaks are less noticeable.

Cracks can form when there are larger waves, but also when the Gulf appears calm from the shore. As a result, local beach flags do not indicate the size of the waves, but the strength of the rip currents at that moment.

According to beach safety officials, the best thing swimmers can do if they find themselves in a rip current is to swim parallel to the shore, that is, to the left or right of where they are in distress. When they do this, they can break away from the current and often end up on a sandbar where they can stand. If they still can’t stand, at least they are in calmer water where it will be easier to get back to shore.

Beach Safety: Panama City Beach reminds beachgoers that deadly currents can exist even in calm surf

Paul noted that two of the most important things beachgoers can do to avoid a water emergency are to follow the beach flag warning system and swim under the supervision of lifeguards. In Panama City Beach, lifeguards are stationed at the Russell-Fields Pier, and in Bay County, lifeguards are stationed at the MB Miller Pier. There are also roving lifeguards who cover other parts of the coast.

To sign up for daily text alerts about local beach flag conditions, text “PCBFLAGS” to 888777.

“Visitors and members of the public should heed lifeguard warnings,” Paul said. “We don’t fly our flags based on wave height. We fly them based on the danger that is present, namely rip currents.”