By this time last year, five people had perished or gone missing in the waters off Myrtle Beach.
But this year, only one man has died along Myrtle Beach’s coast—a marked decrease after stronger currents, blistering heat and an increase in overall visitors contributed to an unusually large number of deaths in 2016.
“The ocean was angry last year. It was a lot of undertow, rip currents,” Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said.
There were no deaths attributed to rip currents last year, according to the National Weather Service. But Duke Brown, beach safety director for Horry County Beach Patrol, said that he’s seen a decrease in some dangerous currents this year and other issues like jellyfish, which are rarely deadly but sometimes an irritant to beach-goers.
“A lot of the usual activity that we’ve seen that could cause some issues, we haven’t seen as much,” Brown said.
Some of the deaths last year also happened after guards were off duty or in areas without heavy lifeguard presence, said Sgt. Philip Cain of Myrtle Beach Beach Patrol.
“People are being more cautious of swimming where there are guards,” Cain said.
Myrtle Beach also beefed up its beach safety measures at the end of last summer, adding more personnel to patrols. It also increased the number of “life-guard-only” stands where guards do not have additional jobs, like renting chairs and umbrellas. Lifeguard franchise companies in Myrtle Beach are not paid by the city, but make money through side services like the rentals.
Temperatures in the Myrtle Beach area this year have also averaged lower than last summer.
While June and July last year had high temperatures three degrees above average, June 2017 temperatures averaged half of a degree below normal, and July temperatures this year hovered around historical averages, according to the NWS.
Hot temperatures were one of the reasons officials gave last year for the drownings—people were in the water more and became exhausted more quickly.
“When you have this many visitors coming to Myrtle Beach, sometimes they don’t realize the dangers of the ocean, they don’t realize the undercurrents, they don’t realize the waves coming over,” Rhodes said. “They think it’s like a big lake, and it’s not.”
One deadly incident
Raymundo Garcia, 35, of Gainesville, Georgia was knee deep in the ocean with a young family member on July 23 when a wave crashed over him. A lifeguard from John’s Beach Service and a family member rescued Garcia from the ocean, and he died at Grand Strand Medical Center later that day.
The Garcia’s cause of death has not been confirmed because an autopsy is pending. But it’s possible that a natural event like a heart attack led him to perish, said Tamara Willard, chief deputy coroner for Horry County.
Rhodes also said he had heard information that suggests Garcia’s situation is different from a typical distressed swimmer.
“I believe you’ll find out that it was not a drowning,” Rhodes said.
Steve Pfaff of the NWS in Wilmington, N.C. said that men aged 31-50 are most at risk to drown in situations like rip currents. Researchers’ guess, he said, is that men of that age often think that they’re able to swim farther than they can physically or that they try to rescue other distressed swimmers and are unable to do so.
Twenty percent of drownings in rip currents, Pfaff said, are due to swimmers trying to rescue other people.