Covering 180 miles of Oregon coast travel: Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Manzanita, Nehalem, Wheeler, Rockaway, Garibaldi, Tillamook, Oceanside, Pacific City, Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Wadport, Yachats & Florence.
Oregon Coast Beach Deaths May Be Declining, But Problems Loom
(Oregon Coast) – Recently released statistics on beach safety and deaths on Oregon coast beaches have surprised some experts on the subject, but it’s brought up a number of other related issues as well, showing the need for improvement in some areas and the successes in others. The numbers have caused parts of the tourism industry to reevaluate how it’s approaching beach safety as well as tout what many are doing right - while it brings to light how Seaside may be the perfect model for beach safety.
A newspaper article about deaths related to beach activity brought out the fact that 46 people died on Oregon’s coast since 2000, in the midst of playing on the beach or while standing or hiking on high vantage points. The statistics noted the numbers seemed to rise sharply in 2004 and 2005, but then dropped again in 2006.
The deaths occurred because of drowning, often the result of rip currents, getting caught on rocks and hits by sneaker waves, but there those who fell off cliffs, had sand tunnels collapsed on them and one child in 2000 was killed by someone who rolled a log off a cliff.
The statistics from the state:
It shows that rescues fluctuated wildly from year to year, while deaths increased steadily throughout the decade until sliding down again in 2006.
Robert Smith is in charge of beach safety education and outreach for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees Oregon’s coastline. He admitted the jury may be still out on whether the mortality rates for beachgoers is going down.
“We’ve seen a definite decrease in deaths due to logs rolling over, while we’ve seen more problems with people stranded on rocks or caught in rip currents,” Smith said.
Smith also admitted some of the increases in recorded deaths could be due to his department’s improved ability to collect data. “Before, I would collect reports from newspapers, the Coast Guard, etc. Now, we’re better at collecting the data.”
While not every incident may be reported, the state simply has better ways of gathering the numbers, so more could be showing up.
Two of Oregon’s high-profile beach experts were surprised by the 45-plus deaths reported since 2000. Seaside Aquarium manager Keith Chandler and Newport beach expert Guy DiTorrice (former head of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association) both said they were shocked by the numbers.
“There’s none that I could remember in Clatsop County,” Chandler said. There was, in fact, one in Fort Stevens in 2005.
While Chandler said he likes to claim his own Seaside beach is “the safest in the world,” he admits he still sees people do a lot of unwise things on the beach. Chandler, Smith and DiTorrice noted seeing the same three problems rising up.
“A couple of things are popping up,” Smith said. “People are ignoring closures. Especially this time of year, people underestimate the power of the ocean. And they’re not paying attention to incoming tides, and a lot are still getting pulled off rocks.”
The state’s statistics seem to show a higher rate of incidents on the central Oregon coast – both rescues and deaths – counting the area from Florence to Pacific City (which encompasses upper Lane County, all of Lincoln County and southern tip of Tillamook County). That area is generally regarded as the central coast, and had about 62 of the incidents listed since 2000. 31 of them came from what is generally regarded as the north coast, which runs from about Oceanside (west of Tillamook) to the end of the state, at Astoria.
Smith said the central coast may have more trouble spots because of more broad, easily accessible beaches and because of increased tourist population. “If you have more visitors, you have more of opportunity for problems,” he said.
DiTorrice said education on the subject of beach safety has greatly increased, especially when it comes to rolling logs, but some seem to still ignore it. “I’ll see people sitting on logs when they shouldn’t be,” DiTorrice said. “Either they’re ignoring the messages, or they have a ‘it can’t happen to me’ kind of attitude.”
Chandler had little patience for some of the dingy moves on the beach, referring to one notorious incident in 2002 when a group of people ignored the closure of a wayside near Garibaldi, and a storm surge picked up a car, caused two to be rescued and one to be injured. “If the state has roped something off and you go beyond there, they shouldn’t even have to go looking for your body,” Chandler said.
Cars can drive on a fifteen-mile stretch of Clatsop County from Gearhart up to Fort Stevens State Park, and Chandler said he hears about or sees someone get in trouble in those spots fairly often. “They drive there, unaware of conditions, and they lose their car when a big wave comes in kills the engine,” he said. “It’s gone. It’s dead.”
Smith said he’s pleased to see his public education program having made a difference when it comes to rolling logs, as most of those deaths or injuries have almost been eliminated in the last six years. Smith’s position was partially created by two women whose children were killed by rolling logs on the central Oregon coast, after they went to the legislature and convinced the state to mandate the program. Since then, he’s talked about beach safety to as many as 40 schools and a total of 100,000 people.
The state hired three new rangers in recent years to cover three different areas of the coast, and their warnings have paid off. During the recent spate of storms where homes in Gleneden Beach were threatened by collapsing cliffs, one ranger shooed about eight people off the beach.
That was the same day in November that two women from Beaverton were killed by that raging surf, and authorities report having told them to get off the beach as well.
Still, with these successes comes further concern regarding the ignoring of closures, ignoring sneaker waves or incoming tides, and a rise in drownings because of rip currents. “I don’t know if that’s because there’s an increase in rip currents or because there’s more people in the water,” he said.
While Smith’s program can claim some serious successes, there may be something to Chandler’s claim about Seaside being the “safest in the world.” Both Cannon Beach and Seaside have those broad, sandy beaches with an easy access that are often the recipe for trouble in stormy times. But Seaside and Cannon Beach’s main beach area (not Ecola State Park) are noticeably missing from the state’s rescue and death numbers. Both have lifeguards on duty during the summer months, when the beach population swells enormously. Chandler said the city of Seaside comes and removes logs from the tide line, helping to keep people safe.
“All the motels on the beachfront keep a watch on folks, especially the kids,” Chandler said. “You’ve got dozens of rooms looking out there. If somebody is doing something stupid, someone usually calls the police.”
Warnings of Beach Safety
The state publishes a sizable list of things to beware of when it comes to beach safety, but Chandler offered his own warnings. He said if you have any doubts or questions, ask a local resident and they will know the tides, moods and habits of the sea. He said this should apply to the entire coastline.
“Each beach is different,” Chandler said. “Ask someone who lives there.”
When it comes to storm watching, it’s a good idea to stay off all the beaches, even if the wave action is a ways away on one of the bigger, sandy beach spots. Some beaches may be traversable, but that may be an illusion with many. Often, the waves will be making a scene at what seems a safe distance, but big surges or sneaker waves can come driving in abruptly and perhaps suck you into a rip tide or roll a nearby log onto you.
Chandler said you should either watch the tide for a while and see what the big surges do before descending onto the beach, or pay close attention to where the big waves have been. You can tell by looking at the beach where the highest waves have just been.
“If you can’t see the horizon past the waves, don’t go onto the beach,” Chandler said. “A good rule of thumb is if you can count more than five or seven waves at a time, don’t go there.”
Chandler does a fair amount of outreach to local businesses when it comes to beach safety, and he likes to use some rather dark humor to illustrate his points. “I like to tell them that statistics show that 100 percent of those who drown don’t come back to shop,” Chandler said. “We like to talk about Seaside being more than a day at the beach, but we don’t want it to be your last day.” See http://www.respectthebeach.org for more beach safety.
For weekly updated info on lodgings and accomodation reviews, see the Travel News section
For weekly Oregon travel picks and lodging secrets, see the Travel News section