A tough issue: Should lifeguards patrol all Anna Maria Island beaches?

July 11, 2013 

A Winter Haven family grieves today after the loss of 14-year-old Dushay Nelson in a rip-current drowning off Anna Maria Island last weekend. The boy went missing late Saturday afternoon while in the water on an unguarded beach in the city of Anna Maria.

The tragedy is sparking a community conversation about lifeguard staffing and stations.

"We have a moral obligation that deals with tourists," Anna Maria City Commissioner Gene Aubry stated in a Herald report Tuesday. "Tourism is our biggest industry. ... we need lifeguards and lifeguard stations -- as many as it takes."

This is a terribly difficult dilemma. More affordable options should be discussed, too.

Manatee County operates two beaches on the island, the only ones with lifeguards: Coquina Beach at the southern end and Manatee County Public Beach in Holmes Beach near the middle. Those two beaches are patrolled every day of the year but only cover a small portion of the seven-mile Gulf shoreline.

The county employs 10 full-time lifeguards. Budget cuts over the past lean years have reduced staffing.

Whether Manatee County and the cities of Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria and Holmes Beach can provide the funding for new stations and staffing along the entire Gulf beach -- and whether this is a practical response given some spots attract few swimmers -- remains to be debated.

Rip currents are a regular threat along coastlines across the country. The danger becomes more frightening by the fact that Dushay Nelson was only in knee-deep water when swept offshore by the powerful current.

One recommendation: Only swim at beaches with lifeguards. Also, pay attention to the warning flags. And learn about rip currents.

We also implore parents to instruct their children about the strong currents, to remain calm when caught and swim parallel to the shore until out of the current.

We implore resort owners and vacation home operators to warn guests, supply a sheet of instructions on surviving rip currents and post warning flags when strong tidal action is forecast.

The National Weather Service provides "rip current risk" reports daily that specifically target West Central and Southwest Florida -- with the link at www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov.

Wednesday's forecast called for low risk with this warning: "However ... strong currents can occur near piers and jetties. Always have a flotation device with you in the water."

Resorts could access those forecasts and post information on reader boards -- even print out copies and deliver them to guests. We recommend parents, teenagers and other beachgoers check the website, too -- especially if heading to a spot without lifeguards.

The weather service website also contains brochures and signs for downloading. This is where resorts can easily access materials for posting and delivering. This is also where parents can locate information to discuss with their children.

There are subtle signs that indicate the presence of a rip current: a channel of churning and choppy water; noticeable differences in water color; a break in the pattern of waves.

The United States Lifesaving Association states that 80 percent of surf beach rescues are due to rip currents. Manatee lifeguards rescued 40 swimmers on July Fourth alone. Protect yourself and your loved ones with rip current forecasts and knowledge to prevent a drowning.

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