OAK ISLAND — Independence Day celebrations on Oak Island were bittersweet last weekend, tainted with news that a beachgoer had drowned in the ocean Sunday. It is the fourth drowning death on the island this year, raising questions and concerns about what safety measures are in place and if they are enough.
Sydney Napier, resident of the west end of the island, doesn’t think the city has taken ample precautions to prevent tragedies like this from recurring. Ultimately, Napier maintains there should be lifeguards on the beaches.
“I honestly don’t believe everything that can be done is done,” Napier said. “The public, especially tourists that don’t know better, can’t possibly be held responsible for knowing the risk. Four deaths this year is so devastating.”
According to the United States Lifesaving Association — and based on 10 years of reports from USLA-affiliated lifeguard agencies — the chance of someone drowning with a USLA lifeguard nearby is 1 in 18 million. While there are other important safety tactics in open-water drowning prevention, trained lifeguards are the gold standard.
It wasn’t always lifeguard-less along this area of the Brunswick County shoreline. Prior to merging with Yaupon Beach in 1999 to form Oak Island, a section of the island, then known as Long Beach, did have lifeguards.
A land use plan update from 1988 showed that lifeguards had been funded on Long Beach out of the recreation budget since at least 1974. A classified ad for seasonal lifeguards appeared in The Brunswick Beacon in 1991, indicating the program was still operating at that time.
Oak Island public information officer Michael Emory said comparing the former municipalities to modern day would be “somewhat skewed.”
“The overall size and dynamics of population, beach length, as well as level of other required municipal services, are now completely different,” he said.
US Census data for the area over the last decade reflected an increase of approximately 30% in residents, now topping out at almost 9,000. Emory said Oak Island beaches have anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 daily visitors during peak summer months.
Though Emory was unaware of any recent considerations by the town council to add lifeguards back to the budget, a 2020-2025 “Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan” from 2019 shows a recommendation to implement a flag warning system between the Oak Island Fishing Pier and the Ocean Crest Fishing Pier. It also suggested hiring 20 or 25 part-time seasonal lifeguard positions before the end of 2023.
Emory said the town often reviews its policies and looks to see what other beaches with similar sized populations are doing.
Nearby in New Hanover County — wherein all of its beaches are outfitted with lifeguards — Carolina Beach has 6,000 residents with an influx of 30,000 visitors daily during the summer. In its 2022-2023 budget, it will pay over $600,000 to lifeguard needs to cover around 3 miles of beach.
“Currently, there would be steep, if not prohibitive challenges for staffing, equipping, and in some cases housing lifeguards to cover all 65 of our public beach accesses across the nearly 10 miles of public beach area,” Emory said of Oak Island. “In addition to recruiting employees, the support structure of vehicles, radios, towers, and other equipment must be factored in as well.”
The financial cost of prevention and response is the recurring challenge when it comes to the discussion of water safety in the area. Oak Island isn’t alone; currently, none of the six beach towns in Brunswick County have lifeguards.
For now the town is focusing on education campaigns and ways to create increased public awareness. The newly launched “OKInformation” includes a text-messaging service that will alert mobile subscribers when surf conditions are “red flag” or high risk.
Oak Island also installed new signage prior to the July 4th holiday weekend, warning visitors to refrain from blocking beach accesses; 22 of the 65 are designated for emergency use.
One of the four deaths this year occurred at the beach access on Napier’s street. She said the path is so narrow even a golf cart can’t pass through on a busy day.
Oak Island Water Rescue posted on its social media Memorial Day weekend that the W. 23rd Street beach access was full as they tried to respond to a call in regards to a swimmer in distress. While no vehicles were illegally parked, larger trucks and SUVs extended into access points and prevented the fire department’s wide, paramedic-equipped engine from getting through.
“Fortunately we were able to use a different beach access, without a delay in response, to make our way into the beach. That beach access was almost blocked with parked vehicles as well,” OIWR noted in its post.
The town is in the process of changing the layout of several parking lots in order to ensure there is room for rescue vehicles to pass.
Town council will make a consideration at its Tuesday meeting to also install white signs with red letters at every access point forewarning against dangerous rip currents. According to the agenda packet, Mayor Pro Tempore Bach is bringing the matter to council due to “the recent tragic incidents,” referring to the four deaths already this season. The agenda also states the town should “redouble efforts to inform visitors of the inherent danger of ocean swimming.”
While intended to protect beachgoers, these efforts are not adequate to residents like Napier, particularly since they rely on people noticing, reading, and following visual guides without a lifeguard enforcing them.
Not to mention, the critical response time is incredibly brief when a person is at risk of drowning.
Brunswick County resident Kelly Helbig knows this firsthand.
She started the Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation (JHMF) after her son drowned in a lake in Brunswick County at only 4 years old. She has made it her mission ever since to educate the public on water safety and drowning prevention.
“In the case of a drowning, every second counts; we don’t have minutes for Ocean Rescue or EMS to respond,” Helbig said.
The JHMF — in collaboration with Southport Rotary and Oak Island Water Rescue — funded $1,800 in signs they installed at public beach accesses on Oak Island. Each displays a QR code leading to a virtual risk flag and a corresponding guide explaining what each flag color means:
- Purple means marine pests
- Geen means low risk with calm conditions
- Yellow means medium risk with moderate surf
- Red means high risk with strong currents
- Two red flags indicate that the water is closed to the public
The JHMF also worked with Eagle Scout candidate Jackson Enis to install brightly colored rescue cans and life rings on Caswell, a 4-mile stretch at the eastern end of Oak Island. The cans are buoyant, torpedo-shaped rescue devices usually used by lifeguards. They aren’t a perfect solution, but they serve as an aid for bystanders who may act as first responders.
“We don’t want to encourage bystanders to run into the water, but 25% of drowning victims were attempting to save someone else,” Helbig said. “If we can have a flotation device available there, then maybe they both have a chance to survive.”
Emory said the city is open to rescue cans.
“If they or any other private organization would like to enhance [current safety measures] with flotation devices, I’m sure that is something the Town Council would consider,” he said.
It would come down to the logistics of purchasing, maintaining, and replacing them in the event of weather damage, theft, or vandalism.
The JHMF placed 14 total rescue cans at Caswell Beach this spring. Each can costs $69 and is mounted on a stand displaying a risk flag color guide and virtual QR code. The stands cost about $150 each. So far, only one rescue aid has needed replacement this year, though Helbig estimates all aids will need replacement every two years.
Equipping all public 65 accesses on Oak Island would be no small undertaking but one with major life-saving potential.
This year all four swimmers that passed away on Oak Island were helped first by bystanders. An ER physician from Kentucky led resuscitation efforts after an off-duty law enforcement officer pulled 52-year-old drowning victim Kevin Whitley of Hickory, N.C., out of the water last Sunday.
Oak Island Water Rescue (OIWR) training coordinator Carl Mauney said he has never responded to a drowning incident where no one attempted to swim out and help.
A nonprofit and volunteer-based organization, OIWR has provided water rescue and education on the island for 25 years. Mauney has been the training coordinator for the last year.
The organization operates on a $70,000-a-year budget, recently having received $21,500 from the town and $9,000 from the county. OIWR also relies on donations from the public to maintain its enterprise and fund capital expenses, such as replacing rescue vehicles and radios as needed.
If OIWR arrives prior to EMS and fire crews during a rescue, they are technically in charge of the initial emergency responses, via incident command system protocols, Mauney said. To prepare for rescues, they regularly drill and work with the National Weather Service to corroborate readings on the area’s water conditions by providing daily surf reports.
As part of its public information strategy, OIWR had approximately 2,000 magnets printed with QR codes, like those on the signs funded by JHMF. They lead to the virtual flag posted on OIWR’s website, based on a live surf report and weather models from the National Weather Service.
“The goal was to put a QR code magnet on the refrigerator of every rental home,” Mauney said.
But the reach has gone well beyond rentals.
On July 5th, the police department announced its beach services unit began outfitting some of their patrol UTVs with physical warning flags indicating the rip current levels, complete with the magnetic QR codes.
Mauney said the response to the QR code has been overwhelming. Restaurants and other businesses also have printed and displayed copies. Since May 30, the code has been scanned about 16,000 times.
“Education is more important than ever before,” Mauney said. “Anytime you can prevent a 911 call, that’s better than responding to one.”
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