UPDATE: As of 4:32 p.m., the National Weather Service in Wilmington has extended the rip current alert through Wednesday evening.
SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA — A rip current alert is in effect for all beaches in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties today, according to the National Weather Service office in Wilmington. Meteorologist Michael Ross said the alert is currently set to expire at 8 p.m. Tuesday but could likely continue overnight.
“Hurricane Gaston, which is hanging out way out there in the Atlantic, is kicking up swells that are affecting us here,” said Ross, noting that the Category 2 storm is over 1,000 miles east of North Carolina. “That’s enhancing the rip current risk.”
According to Ross, the highest risk times are “a couple of hours on either side of low tide.” On Tuesday, low tide at area beaches will occur between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.
In Wrightsville Beach, red flags were up Tuesday morning to indicate high hazard, meaning rough conditions and strong surf and currents. According to the town’s fire chief, Glen Rogers, the red flags have been up since Saturday, when 25 ocean rescues were made by lifeguards.
“People get upset when they see red flags, or they don’t understand it because when you’re looking at the water from the beach, it looks beautiful out there,” Rogers said. “But you can’t tell what’s going on under the water, where everything is happening. It could be dangerous.”
“People get upset when they see red flags, or they don’t understand it because when you’re looking at the water from the beach, it looks beautiful out there. But you can’t tell what’s going on under the water, where everything is happening. It could be dangerous.” — Fire Chief Glen Rogers
Rogers said many beach goers are unaware of the risks of high surf and dangerous currents, making them more susceptible to getting into trouble.
“A lot of visitors aren’t strong swimmers, and sometimes, when the water gets over their heads, they panic,” Rogers said. “That’s why the lifeguards are sitting up there and watching not just the way the waves break, but also the looks on people’s faces to see whether they’re in distress or not.”
Though red flags mean people are discouraged from going into the water, Wrightsville Beach Lifeguard Ian Keillor said they can’t keep people from swimming. Due to the heightened risks, they use the help of other locals to keep watch over the water.
“When red flags are out, we take down the surf zones and let the surfers get out there,” Keillor said, pointing out the number of surfers catching waves near Johnny Mercers Pier on Tuesday morning. “They give us extra eyes out in the water in case anything happens.”
Both Keillor and Rogers said the best way for people who want to get in the water to stay safe is to educate themselves about how to deal with rip currents. Tips from the National Weather Service include swimming parallel to shore instead of against the current to save energy as well as staying close to lifeguard stands and away from piers and jetties.
Rough conditions are expected to last throughout the week, as another tropical depression is currently forming in the Caribbean and could turn into a tropical storm by the weekend as it moves into the Atlantic. Ross said the storm is expected to come onshore in northern Florida and go offshore near Charleston, South Carolina, missing Wilmington by a couple hundred miles.
“We won’t get hit, but we could see some rain and strong wind by the weekend,” Ross said. “We will probably also have an enhanced rip current risk again.”
The National Weather Service is continuing to monitor the storms and will update the public as soon as they have more information. Information on current rip current risks, including a map on the beaches currently under alert, can be found on the National Weather Service’s new experimental beach forecast page.