National average for chances of drowning on a lifeguard-protected beach is 1 in 18 million. In Destin this year that statistic was much worse at 1 in 400,000.
As October comes to a close, so does the official lifeguard patrol season. Beach safety officials are touting a record year for attendance, public education and, on at least one beach, drownings.
Officials estimate approximately 4,100,357 people visited beaches in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties since lifeguard patrols began at the beginning of March. Of that number, there were five reported drownings, 1,140 rescues and nearly 1.8 million public contacts made informing beachgoers of beach safety conditions and tips.
Three of those drownings took place on Destin beaches, one took place at Henderson Beach State Park (which is not monitored by Destin Beach Safety lifeguards) and one took place in Miramar Beach on Monday, just two days after Walton County lifeguards stopped patrolling beaches.
Destin Beach Safety Director Joe D’Agostino said two of the Destin drownings occurred while lifeguards were present and one occurred when they were not. He said he was concerned about the comparatively high number of drownings in Destin compared to both other local beaches and the national average.
“The national average is 1 in 18 million (for chances of drowning on lifeguard-protected beaches), so that obviously puts us way behind the eight ball compared to the national average,” said D’Agostiono, who cited a statistic from the United States Lifesaving Association. He estimated a beachgoer’s chance of drowning on a Destin beach was around 1 in 400,000 this year.
D’Agostino believes more funding to provide additional lifeguards and more beach safety equipment would help reduce the amount of Destin drownings.
In Walton County, South Walton Fire District Beach Safety Director David Vaughan said he saw triple the number of double red flag days this season compared to last season, caused mostly by surf impacts from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate.
“One notable thing was that with the storms we had that affected us in one way or another, we ended up having 18 days of double red flags, which is over triple the number we had last year and a record number since we started keeping track 12 years ago,” Vaughan said.
He added his department hired “more lifeguards than we’ve ever had to hire” and added four additional guard towers, bringing the total number to 14.
Rich Huffnagle, Okaloosa Island Beach Safety Director, said his lifeguards made 400,000 public contacts this year — a record for them.
“This is the first year we’ve really reached that number,” Huffnagle said. “That is significant because getting out and educating people is the number one way to avoid water safety incidents. There’s a direct correlation between the amount of rescues that we had, which was under 50 (and the 400,000 number).”