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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Rip currents are the leading cause of weather-related deaths in coastal NC

A map of the hometowns of those who died from rip currents off the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina.
NWS Wilmington
A map of the hometowns of those who died from rip currents off the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

The National Weather Service Wilmington (NWS) said rip currents are the main cause of weather deaths in the coastal Carolinas. Nationally, the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), estimates they cause 100 drownings a year.

Rip currents are strong, narrow flows of water that act almost as aquatic treadmills, taking a swimmer outside the surf zone. And while they don’t pull a swimmer under — they will tire them if they can’t swim parallel to shore to escape the current’s grip.

While rip currents will continue to pose a significant risk, Victoria Oliva, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Wilmington, said 2021 saw a decline in these drownings.

“Rip current fatalities in the Carolinas was the lowest since 2013, and so one year doesn’t make a trend, but we’re hopeful,” said Oliva.

Rip current deaths off the coast declined last year.
NWS Wilmington
Rip current deaths off the coast declined last year.

But Oliva said the risk remains for increased rip current activity when there are impending tropical storms or hurricanes — even ones that are far offshore.

For example, Oliva said despite 2019's Hurricane Lorenzo being 2,000 miles off the coast, there were eight drownings as a result of the storm.

Furthermore, since 2000, about 10% of rip current drownings have been a result of these tropical storms or hurricanes. Strong rip currents tend to show up in the month of September, correlating with the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.

According to Oliva, changing public opinion on rip currents is one of the National Weather Service’s main goals. She said they should be viewed as major weather hazards and — for beachgoers to take their presence seriously.

Bystander deaths

Since 2000, there have been 175 rip-current drownings — about 8 deaths per year — in the coastal Carolinas. And 27% of those are from bystanders, people trying to help a swimmer in distress, often without a floatation device, which can have deadly results.

“If you see someone in trouble, call 911, get the attention of a lifeguard, but never enter the water without a flotation device. Keep yourself safe while you're helping somebody else,” said Oliva.

Examples of flotation devices on the beach are lifejackets, boogie boards, or surfboards, and if ocean lifeguards are called for a rescue, they’ll use a buoy or a paddleboard to assist the person who’s not making progress to shore.

In April 2021, there wasa case of a bystander death in Wrightsville Beach. Ashley High school teacher Jessica Embry died while trying to save two children caught in a rip current. Another bystander, Antonio Burns, almost drowned trying to help, too.

Rip current deaths in August 2021 in Oak Island also illustrate this danger.

Peter Grendze is the Oak Island water rescue chief. At the 2022 Eastern Carolinas Beach Hazards and Rip Currents Integrated Warning Team (IWT) meeting, hosted by the National Weather Service Morehead City, Wilmington, Louisville, and Binghamton Offices, Grendze talked about the circumstances of the two rip current drownings.

Grendze said despite it being a moderate risk for rip currents on August 18, 2021, unfortunately, a father and son, Christopher and Michael Hawkins from Shelby, North Carolina died in one, and another family member nearly drowned attempting their rescue.

Their deaths, unfortunately, he said, are symbolic of the trends reported by the National Weather Service. About 80% of those who die in rip currents live outside the coastal area — and males are five times as likely than females to drown in a rip current in the Carolinas.

Another reason those who swim at Brunswick County beaches are at higher risk of drowning, he said, there are no lifeguards on duty.

However, Grendze said Oak Island has invested in drones (mainly to monitor the beach so that people don’t walk on the dunes) that can view the presence of rip currents along their shores. The town has also developed its own rip current warning system for beachgoers.

A person can scan a QR code to bring them to the Oak Island Water Rescue page which details the rip current risk level. Grendze said they’ve produced 2,000 refrigerator magnets with the QR code to engage the public in checking ocean conditions before going out to the beach.

Beachgoers can scan this QR to receive updates on rip currents in Oak Island.
Oak Island Water Rescue
Beachgoers can scan this QR to receive updates on rip currents in Oak Island.

Another way to stay informed on whether rip currents are present at the beach, visit the National Weather Service Wilmington page.


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR