Don’t ignore the warnings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2003

Tragedy struck in Florida Sunday as five people drowned off Panhandle beaches.

Nearly 40 other people were rescued along a 30-mile stretch of beach in two counties Sunday. A sixth man drowned Monday.

Witnesses had described weather conditions there Sunday as the &uot;Perfect Storm.&uot; Waves reached four to five feet earlier in the week, but thunderstorms kept most people out of the water until Sunday when the sun came out. The waves sent walls of water over sandbars toward shore. It had nowhere to go but back into the gulf through channels between the sand bars, creating rapid-flowing underwater rivers known as rip currents. The currents pull swimmers out to sea. Trying to swim to shore against the current usually is futile, resulting in exhaustion and panic.

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While the deaths were tragic, they did not have to happen.

Red flags warning people to stay out of the water were flying at the beaches where the drownings happened. Some people ignored them and others got into trouble when they went to the aid of swimmers caught in the currents.

After the first drowning, a sheriff’s helicopter flew over the beach with a loudspeaker warning people to get out of the water. Between rescues, firefighters on the beach urged people to stay out of the water. Most got out but many later returned.

What happened in Florida Sunday can and does happen everywhere, even in Suffolk. It’s not at all uncommon to see drivers on North Main or South Saratoga streets to disregard railroad-crossing barriers and weave their way through. This is sheer idiocy.

We ride motorcycles without helmets and drive cars without seatbelts, despite being full aware of the dangers of such reckless behavior.

&uot;Big deal,&uot; many say, &uot;it only affects me.&uot;

But that’s not the case. Rescuers in Florida Sunday were called out to risk their lives to try to save those who fool-heartedly ignored the warnings. All taxpayers pay when rescue, fire and police units are called to accidents caused by carelessness. We all pay higher medical and insurance premiums, too.

Summer’s upon us and many of us will be traveling to the beach. Don’t ignore warnings of strong waves or sharks. They are made for a reason. And fasten your seatbelt on the way there.