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Oregon Coast Rescues Up This Year, Due to Rip Currents, Cliffs


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Secrets of the Season

Oregon Coast Rescues Up This Year, Due to Rip Currents, Cliffs

Pristine places like Arch Cape can be deadly if you turn your back, or you start goofing around a cliff in the wrong way

(Oregon Coast) – They are often mistakenly called “rip tides” and they have been the scourge of rescuers and bereaved families all summer long.

In many places along the Oregon coast, it’s been apparently a record year for rescues and problems, with a variety of high-profile deaths caused by rip currents that have made the news all over the northwest. It usually starts with an innocent swim or someone wading in the water. It ends with a big news story on TV about someone missing for days until their body washes up, or they are thankfully rescued by a someone standing nearby or by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

The weekend of July 27 saw what was called a record number of rescues on the north Oregon coast, according to Coast Guard authorities in Astoria. The reports of these calls and of drownings are higher than usual around the coast, with the north coast seeing a larger spike this summer.

Several high-profile incidents happened in Cannon Beach recently, mostly involving rip currents

U.S Coast Guard authorities in Astoria told The Daily Astorian newspaper they were stretched thin that weekend with so many calls. Helicopters could not respond to everyone, and approximately ten incidents ended with passersby doing the rescuing.

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On the central coast, the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at North Bend reported that weekend and this past weekend as being unusually high in rescue calls as well, with July being twice than some previous years.

One expert in Newport, however, believed things were improving in that area.

Lt. Joshua Steffen is the public information officer for the U.S. Coast Guard in North Bend, Oregon, which oversees operations from the California border to Cape Lookout, almost 300 miles of coastline. He hesitated to call these weekends “record-breakers,” as he didn’t have the exact numbers for comparison, but the rescue calls are exceptionally high.

“In July, it was about twice as July of last year,” Steffen said. “And it’s triple than what it was this May and June. We just had two beach cases this past weekend, and something like 14 for July.”

Steffen said there a lot of incidents on the Siuslaw River at Florence

One of the biggest culprits is rip currents, which happen when all the water trying to get through the sandbars just offshore and beneath the waves finds a gap, and then rushes out back to sea with a lot of pent up energy.

Another huge problem is people falling off cliffs, said Steffen. That has been a large helping of the calls his office has had to respond to. “We’re getting that more than ever,” he said. “They’re crossing the vegetation to get a better look and falling off.”

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For much of the summer, the water has been exceptionally warm, clocking in at around 66 degrees in the latter half of July - although it has lately cooled off considerably by about ten degrees. It’s made for inviting wading and swimming in an ocean that is normally quite chilly. This has brought more people in, and they’ve become the victim of rip currents.

OSU scientists say a rip current is formed by a complex set of dynamics near the shore. Waves coming in break over a sandbar, exhausting their energy on the land, and sliding back towards the ocean. The sandbar traps large amounts of water that can’t slide back over it, so it swirls around with a great amount of energy, forming strong currents on the landward side of the sandbar.

Portlander Pilar French plays in the surf on the north coast - but keeps her eye on the tide

Every once in a while, a break or low point in that sandbar allows those strong currents through to the sea, thus creating the rip current. These suck water and debris back in at around three feet per second.

“Water follows the path of least resistance,” said Keith Chandler, manager of Seaside Aquarium.

Chandler has seen quite a few rescues this summer, and some really stupid behavior.

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“I’ve watched a bunch of rescues lately,” Chandler said. “I saw two or three recently in Seaside, and in Fort Stevens and Cannon Beach. They don’t seem to be thinking all the time.”

He was shocked and dismayed to see one group of kids actually playing in the wake made by a Coast Guard helicopter rescuing someone in the water. “There they were, just riding the wake made by the helicopter. I couldn’t believe it.”

The problem this summer, Steffen believes - along with many other experts – is that there are sizably more tourists on the coast. Some are saying they’re just doing dumber things out there as well.

Boiler Bay, near Depoe Bay: a pair of teens disappeared here during a winter storm a few years ago

“I’d say there’s definitely more people on the beaches, so you’re getting more smarter people and more of the dumber ones too,” Steffen said. “One of those dumb ones happened on the south coast this past weekend where some guy fell off a cliff. He climbed over a fence that was supposed to keep him away.”

In Newport, Guy DiTorrice believed his organization was responding to fewer calls. DiTorrice is part of the Newport Volunteer Fire & Rescue, and he’s seen a decrease there.

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“There were two problems on the Saturday of the previous weekend, but they were self-rescued,” he said. “There’s not fewer people out here, by any means. But they may just be better at the beach these days.”

DiTorrice said they’ve mostly been called to help surfers or deal with brush fires.

Newport: officials there are reporting less incidents

“There’s still the potential for big problems, though,” he said. “August is the busiest month on the coast.”

Another problem with the rip currents is the nicer weather and warmer waters, said Steffen. Good weather brings out more people, but warmer water coaxes them in. “There has been more of that this year,” he said. “This year’s warmer temperatures are tempting people to get in without a wet suit. It seems as if it’s a lot of out of town guys – surfers who don’t know the rip currents or the waters.”

Steffen guessed that was probably the case with those who get sucked out by simply wading in the water. They’re probably not used to the Oregon coast, nor do they understand what waves here can do at any given moment.

Seaside: where no one has drowned in years

“The wave are not all the same size,” Steffen said. “They come in sets. You get one set that’s kind of small, and another that’s much bigger. If they’ve got their back to the surf, all of a sudden they can be in over their waist before they know it, and they’re getting pulled out. They didn’t see it coming.”

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Steffen said the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t have data on where these victims are from – whether they’re a family from the Midwest or if they’re actually from the coast - so he couldn’t say with exact statistics how aware of coastal conditions these people should be. But he said news reports generally indicated tourists from the valley or beyond.

He also said he’s not sure why these situations happen. “We don’t have any geographic studies that say where they’re from,” he said. “And we don’t really talk to them about how it happened or what exactly happened. We just pick them up and drop them off at a hospital. We’re kind of in a little bubble up there in the helicopter.”

oregon coast lighthouses on dvdChandler said these rip currents can grab you even if you’re just wading in the ocean. There are occasionally sudden drops in the terrain of the tide line that plunge you into deeper water, and put you at the mercy of one of these currents.

“Look where you’re going and always be aware of your surroundings,” said Chandler. He suggested even staying close to where lifeguards are if you’re wading in the water or surfing.

Chandler noted that no one has drowned in Seaside in recent years, saying that town is careful about watching what goes on around that beach.

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