Nine rescued from Gulf of Mexico, Destin beaches closed to swimming due to inclement weather

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — Southern winds have blown in to create strong rip currents and life-threatening conditions for beachgoers along the Emerald Coast. 

Nine people were rescued Monday from the Gulf Of Mexico at beaches in Walton County. One swimmer needed help in Okaloosa County, and red flags have been flying along the shore in both areas. 

The red flags will likely stay up through at least Thursday, with the potential for the water being closed altogether in some areas as a severe storm system rolls through, said South Walton Beach Safety Director David Vaughan. 

Multiple warning flags were set up on Okaloosa Island on Tuesday morning to warn swimmers of rip current threats. Tuesday's rough surf kept swimmers close to shore along the beaches on Okaloosa Island and Destin.

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“I’m anticipating that as the storm front rolls in from the west that we’re going to get a really big surf and I might have to go double-red,” Vaughan said. “I know that at some point over the next three days we might have to go double-red and close the water. I’m hoping that I’m wrong.”

Red flags indicate that going into the water is dangerous and could be life-threatening.

“Anytime a beach is flying red flags, knee deep is too deep,” Okaloosa Beach Safety Division Chief Rich Huffnagle said. 

An Okaloosa County Beach Safety lifeguard patrols Okaloosa Island on Tuesday. Rough surf kept swimmers along the beaches on Okaloosa Island and in Destin close to shore.

Okaloosa County Beach Safety lifeguards were keeping busy calling in swimmers that were too far out from the shore on Okaloosa Island on Tuesday. Lifeguards were also planting red warning flags at areas of the beach with rip currents. 

Vaughan said the flag warnings are based on an assumption that every visitor has zero water experience. When double-red flags go up it becomes unreasonable for anyone at any skill level to enter the water. 

“Double-red is when it’s so turbulent and so messy and so violent that anybody who goes out there, the probability of death or serious injury is very high,” Vaughan said. “I don’t even want rescue personnel in the water if at all avoidable.”

Tuesday's rough surf prompted Destin Beach Safety to fly double-red flags along the beach.

Double-red flags were flying at the beach in Destin on Tuesday, but for most people, staying out of the water wasn't a problem. 

Elli Stevenson and her family drove 23.5 hours straight through from Hayti, South Dakota, to spend their vacation in Destin. Tuesday afternoon she was playing spike ball with her brothers on the beach near June White Decker Park. 

Even without being able to swim in the Gulf, Stevenson said a day at the beach in Destin was still better than being back home, where temperatures were in the 20s.

Kale Stevenson, left, dives for a shot while play spike ball on the beach in Destin with siblings (left to right) Kobe, Elli and Teague on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday's rough surf meant swimmers along the beaches on Okaloosa Island and Destin needed to stay close to shore.

“We would like to go in the water, but we’re having fun on the beach instead," Stevenson said. “They just had a snowstorm, so we’re glad we’re here."

People who are most at risk during in current surf conditions are those who have never been to an open body of water, Vaughan said. The Gulf of Mexico isn’t known to be dangerously turbulent like some other areas across the country, but that’s what makes it even more “insidious,” he added. 

The soft sand bar creates terraces along the beach and areas where the waves aren’t crashing, making them appear less menacing. “To the untrained eye it looks like the most inviting place to go,” Vaughan said. 

However, powerful, narrow channels of fast moving water called rip currents can make those areas particularly dangerous. 

“People get sucked out in the rip currents and then figure out that they’re in for the ultimate cardio exercise trying to get back in. They tend to panic and that’s when water rescues happen,” Vaughan said. 

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Shane Sekul navigates his paddleboard over a wave near the beach in Destin Tuesday. Tuesday's rough surf kept swimmers along the beaches on Okaloosa Island and Destin close to shore.

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Anytime winds blow from the south, rip currents become stronger and more dangerous, Vaughan said. The large crowds of spring breakers on the beach combined with those conditions made for many rescues Monday.

“If you’re coming to these beaches and you don’t have much experience in the water, you need to just stay out of the Gulf,” Huffnagle said. “The next few days it’s going to be good, solid rips formed all along the coast, so people should stay out of the Gulf.”

Patrick McCombs of Nashville, Tennessee, was building a sand castle on the beach Tuesday afternoon near June White Decker Park with his two young sons, Caden, 2, and Campbell, 4.

Patrick McCombs works on a sandcastle with his sons, Campbell, left, and Caden Tuesday afternoon on the beach in Destin. Tuesday's rough surf kept swimmers along the beaches on Okaloosa Island and Destin close to shore.

“It’s unfortunate,” McCombs said of the Gulf being closed to swimmers. “We’d rather be out in the water jumping in the waves.”

But he said he understood it’s a safety issue and was happy just to spend some time with his sons on the beach.

The area has a drowning nearly every year when individuals don’t heed warnings, Vaughan said. Last year, two people drowned while trying to help others who had been sucked out from the beach. .

“It’s usually children who are playing at the waters edge,” Vaughan said. “You get a rouge wave that comes in, knocks the kid out, sucks them in and then it’s usually dad or a bystander who goes out to try and help the kid, and it’s usually dad or the bystander who ends up drowning.”

If double-red flags are flying, people can still be on the beach, but Vaughan said beachgoers shouldn’t so much as put their toes in the water. People who enter the water on days when double-red flags are flying can be fined up to $500 for the first offense. 

“When we go double-red and we tell people to stay out of the water, there’s a good reason for it, and I take it very seriously that when I have to close the water I’m basically ruining a lot of vacationers' day,” Vaughan said. “We’re not trying to ruin your fun, we just want people to be able to come and enjoy their time here.”