June 20, 2008

Ocean Safety: A tragedy leads to an effort to educate swimmers about rip currents


The story of how Michelle Koles became a leading local advocate of rip current safety isn’t a happy one.

Michelle lives in Rhode Island and has been visiting the Outer Banks annually for more than 30 years, the last 10 with her husband, Steven.
“Basically, I’ve been going for my whole life,” she says. “We have a large family, and it was a second home to us.” 

On a vacation to Rodanthe in September, 2006, Michelle’s 32-year-old sister-in-law, Kristina, or “Eena” as her young nephew called her, drowned in a rip current. And Michelle’s perception of the Outer Banks had suddenly been changed.

“This was a place that we loved to go,” she says, “and all our good memories were erased -- hopefully temporarily.”

A rip current is a common occurrence on the Outer Banks. Unlike an undertow which pulls a person underwater, a rip current forces a person further out into the ocean, sometimes as fast as 8 feet per second. A person can escape a rip current and ably swim back to shore, but without knowing what a rip current is and how to get out of one, a swimmer can easily become panicked.
“The more people are educated, the more likely they will be able to get out because they’ll be able to stay calm,” Michelle explains.

In the days that followed the tragic incident, Michelle, her husband Steven, and their family started to realize that the lack of information on rip currents available to Hatteras Island visitors was a problem.
“We knew there were no lifeguards, of course,” says Michelle, “but it never dawned on me that there were no red flags [to indicate high risk of rip current] either. The day she (Kristina) drowned was a high-risk day, but there was no way to know.

“Then we learned that there were seven drownings (at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore) and wondered why this information wasn’t out there in public.”

The information on rip current safety is out there, but sometimes it seems like it’s buried in the colorful brochures and visitors’ guides. In response to the tragedy, and as an initial first step towards public education about rip currents, Michelle and Steven Koles founded The Eena Project. Starting in  October,  2006, the couple began to approach rental management companies to ask if they could offer materials to visitors.  The information would share Kristina’s story and focus on the dangers of rip currents and how to prevent drownings.

“At first, we called a few businesses, and a handful of people thought it was interesting,” Michelle says, “but they were concerned it might be too morbid.”
Unfazed, Michelle and her husband continued their efforts. They built a Web site that offers information on how to spot rip currents, how to get out of them, how to get weather forecasts on them, and where to find lifeguarded beaches. The background of the Web site features beautiful shots of the Hatteras Island beach taken by Kristina Koles on the day before she drowned.

In March of 2007, Michelle and her husband made a bittersweet return to the Outer Banks to recruit property management companies to help get the word out. It was a difficult trip to make.

“It was hard to go down in March,” she says. “I’m sure there will never be a time when we will go and won’t think about it.”

Michelle attended a monthly meeting for property managers, showing them the packet of information she wanted to include in check-in packets for guests. In addition, she worked with North Carolina Sea Grant to provide magnets with the Web site address and the actual physical address of the rental house.

“Someone may call 911, but may not know their home address,” she says, “and this is crucial information to have in case of an emergency.”

In order to reach the companies that couldn’t make the meeting, Michelle and Steven Koles went door to door.

“It all came together so fast,” she says. “My husband and I flew down and went around to the companies that couldn’t come to a property manager’s meeting. We got commitments from everybody, and even received e-mails from private owners. We had nearly 100 percent participation. Nobody had questions or concerns.  They just said, “Yes, we want to join.”
As the momentum of the Eena Project grew, so did Michelle’s materials on rip currents. A video was made about rip currents that features Kristina’s story, as well as the story of another girl, also named Christina, who was able to survive.
 “I heard the story of this girl from the director of Ocean Rescue and asked if she was interested in helping with a five-minute long video,” says Michelle. “She received good information on rip currents just hours before she went swimming, and it saved her life. The story of the two girls can be related to by lots of people. They love the ocean, and they go swimming often.  It wasn’t an unusual story.”
The response to the Eena Project has been phenomenal.
Because rental companies, motels, and hotels are at the frontlines of the tourism industry and are best able to reach visitors, their cooperation in distributing rip current information is crucial.

Bruce Matthews is the vice president of Surf or Sound Realty, one of the many local companies that agree that having rip current information available is essential for their guests.
“Last summer I got caught in a rip current just north of Oregon Inlet,” Matthews said last year.  “Fortunately, I knew what to do. You’re not in danger unless you’re uneducated.

 “Currently we have information on rip currents in handouts, in check-in packets, and in our newspaper,” he continues. “We want our visitors to have a wonderful vacation, and guests appreciate knowing about the island, particularly when it comes to safety issues. I want the guests to have a good experience and love Hatteras Island as much as I do.”

The Eena Project is just one of the organizations out there that are trying to make sure that rip current education is available to the public. The National Park Service and Dare County’s Emergency Management Department are working to make sure the 2008 season will be a safe one.

Dorothy Toolan is the public relations manager for Dare County and remembers her first meeting with Michelle in 2007.
“I had heard about the work that the family was doing and didn’t connect it with her until a couple of months ago, and at that point they were pretty well into their planning efforts,” she says. “They came in and talked to me about it, and it was a compelling story.”

During the meeting, Dorothy watched the Eena Project video. “We decided to add it to government access channel, Channel 20,” she says. “We’ve run information on rip currents on the channel for the past couple of years, but their video is very powerful since they did lose a family member.

“I’m really supportive of their efforts,” she adds. “I think any time you can increase information about rip currents, it’s a wonderful thing. They’ve done a terrific job, and I feel like the community is really receptive about what they’ve been doing.”

Adding the video to the government channel is just one part of the effort Dare County makes to ensure that visitors are aware of rip current safety.

“We work to get the information out on Channel 20 as much as we can. We also add a message on the crawl that runs along the bottom of the screen on high risk days,” says Toolan. “It’s great to be able to get that message out, but it is a challenge to reach people on a day when the risk is high. We’re trying to find ways to work with the community on days when there is a higher risk for rip currents. That’s hard to do when you don’t have a red flag system, like on Hatteras Island, but I know on the island there are a lot of homes that have Internet.  And we’re trying to direct people to these sites and get them this information.”
Dorothy and Sandy Sanderson, Dare County’s emergency manager, are overseeing the county’s efforts to get the information out.

“Basically, we’re always looking at areas where we may have problems, and we address things we can improve -- resources, educational programs, things of that nature,” says Sandy. “Rip currents are one of those areas we always try to improve on. It is an area that we feel like we need to put attention on.

“The educational part of it is working in conjunction with the National Weather Service and the National Park Service and focusing on getting the information on how to deal with rip currents into the hands of the beachgoers,” he continues. “There will be brochures that will be available at all the municipalities and visitors’ bureaus and an ambassador’s program with people on the beach.  It’s a problem that all of us see, and we’re just trying to coordinate the activities so that everyone is putting out the same information.”

Why is the county so involved in rip currents when other threats, such as hurricanes or storms, also deserve attention?  Because rip currents are common – far more common than storms -- and with the correct response, the outcome can be fine.

“To a certain degree all the problems people encounter are preventable, but we want people to use good judgment when they’re swimming in the ocean,” says Sandy.
“It’s a priority, and we want to let folks know when they come to our area about any type of danger.”

“We all have to work together to get this information out,” says Dorothy. “That’s what I like about the work that Michelle and her family are doing. They’re pulling people together and doing a terrific job. Every risk is equally important, and we’re going to do the best job we can to educate people about beach safety.”

Working alongside the county departments is the National Park Service, which has spearheaded numerous campaigns to educate park visitors about rip current safety.

“We start every park service program with a water safety message,” says Marcia Lyons, the Hatteras Island district interpreter for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore who has been with the park for 30 years and just recently retired.
“Every park bulletin board has the message in it. Our park newsletter has messages in it -- all with the graphics describing the rip current and how to get out of it.

“We want the public, both visitors and locals, to have a safe time in the ocean. There’s nothing worse than coming down for a vacation and having a disastrous end to it. And, for the most part, there are some very simple things you can do to protect yourself. It’s worth the effort,” she says. “It’s a shame when something as simple as not knowing to swim parallel to the shoreline can end in disaster.”

Brad Griest has been working at Cape Hatteras for more than 10 years and has worked on the issue of getting lifesaving information out to the public.

Like many locals, Brad knows firsthand the dangers of rip currents.

“A rip current could occur any day,” he said in an interview last year. “I was surfing this morning, and there was a rip current. If the wind changes direction or if the tides are right -- there are a lot of different factors that could cause a rip current and any day there could be one.”

One of the programs Griest has worked with is the Park Service’s beach ambassador program, which was started last year.  In this program, community volunteers attend a one-day training session on beach safety, general park information, and rip currents. Then they’ll receive a T-Shirt and patrol the beach, talking to visitors one on one.

So, in a nutshell, what are the most important things to know about keeping yourself safe from rip currents?

“There are so many different parts of protecting yourself. There’s no one way,” says Michelle Koles.

But it begins before you step outside your door.

“Check a Web site, check the NOAA Web site, or the local surf shops and find out the forecast,” advises Michelle. 

There is a link to NOAA on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Web site, and there is rip current information on the Cape Hatteras Web site as well. Simply click on the “ocean safety” icon on the park site, www.nps.gov/caha.

“The NOAA link will tell you what the rip current probability is for that day,” says Brad Griest, “and the Weather Channel usually has rip current information on its local forecasts.”

“The National Weather Service is certainly a good resource,” adds Sandy Sanderson. “Their Web site has a graphic that predicts the rip current dangers.”

And when you walk out the door, make sure you have your cell phone and address. Never swim by yourself or when someone’s not watching.

“You need to know how to identify rip currents and know how to get out of one,” says Michelle. “Just remember -- stay calm, swim parallel.”

If you try to swim towards the shore, you will be fighting with the current that’s pulling you out, essentially using up all your strength and not going anywhere. By swimming parallel to the shoreline, you can swim out of the current first, and then you can head towards the shore.

“Rip currents don’t kill people, but lack of information can,” says Michelle.

Detailed and complete information is offered at welcome centers, visitor centers, rental management companies, motels, campgrounds, and on the Internet.

And remember that all this information is also easily available on the Eena Project Web site.

For Michelle, the enthusiastic response to her family’s efforts has been worth the money, time, and travel that they have spent on educating Hatteras Island about rip currents, even if it will never erase the devastating tragedy which started the Eena Project in the first place.

“It hasn’t helped us stop thinking about her. Grief is a strange thing,” says Michelle. “But Kristina would help anyone or anything. She was an animal lover, she worked for Easter Seals, and she would have been proud of this project. She would have loved to help.”

For more information on rip currents
You can get the surf zone forecast, which includes the rip current risk, daily on the NOAA Weather Service radio.

Other information is available:

NOAA rip current forecast:
www.weather.gov/newport.  Click on surf zone forecast on the left side of the screen.

Eena Project:

Weather Channel:

National Park Service – Cape Hatteras Seashore

Hatteras Island Visitor Center – 252-995-4474
Hatteras Island Ranger Station – 252-995-5044
Ocracoke Island ranger station – 252-928-5111
Ocracoke Visitor Center -- 252-928-4531

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