Florida tourist hub has most drownings in US (2024)

The white sands and aquamarine waters of Panama City Beach make it a bustling tourist destination in the summer.

It’s also one of the most dangerous places in the nation for beachgoers because of currents that put people at risk of drowning. Local officials have issued countless warnings, but swimmers still venture out. Seven people have died this year from rip currents that pull tourists from the Florida city and the surrounding coastline into the Gulf of Mexico.

Three died at Panama City Beach and four others drowned nearby in unincorporated Bay County. Three men in their mid-20s from Birmingham, Alabama, drowned together at a beach in an unincorporated area on June 21. There were another two deaths on June 23 – a 59-year-old woman from St. Louis and a 29-year-old man whose hometown wasn't identified.

All seven were tourists who entered the Gulf during single red flag warnings. These mean that dangerous rip currents are expected and lifeguards recommend staying out of the water. This week, Panama City Beach police increased coastal patrols to prevent more people from drowning. Officials issued double red flag warnings, which prevent people from entering the water. Anyone who violates the order is subject to arrest and a $500 fine.

Rip currents kill 4 in 48 hours:Panama City Beach on pace to be deadliest in US

Florida tourist hub has most drownings in US (1)

"The double red flag situation is extremely concerning for us," Police Chief J.R. Talamantez said. "I would rather have more officers on the sand as a presence out there to try and prevent people from drowning, than (those) officers looking for traffic infractions.”

Saturday is expected to reach the mid-90s, with heat indices making it feel like it’s well into triple digits. In a morning forecast, the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee said it will be “quite hot and muggy outside.”

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But that doesn’t mean tourists in areas with dangerous currents should plunge into the Gulf just yet. NWS also issued a high rip current risk through Sunday morning for all Bay and Gulf counties beaches. “Rip currents can sweep even the best swimmers away from shore into deeper water,” an NWS coastal hazard message said.

Common flag colors used in beach flag warning systems include a green flag for low-hazard conditions, a yellow flag for medium-hazard conditions, one red flag for high-hazard conditions and two red flags for very dangerous conditions. Panama City Beach and Bay County, however, never fly green flags because officials say beachgoers should always be cautious anytime they enter the Gulf.

Local officials have said beach flags in Bay County do not represent how large waves are at a given time, but indicate how strong the rip currents are.

"Waves aren't killing people here. Waves aren't the hazard," Daryl Paul, fire rescue beach safety director for Panama City Beach, told the Panama City News Herald. "It's rip currents that are the hazard, and that's what we're flying the flags for."

Last year, Panama City Beach’s rip currents drowned more people than anywhere else in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. At least eight people died at the Gulf Coast community, making up nearly a third of Florida’s 30 deaths from rip currents. By comparison, in 2023, five people died after being swept up by currents in New Jersey. California, South Carolina and Louisiana each had three deaths.

During the summer, popular beaches carry hidden dangers: fast-moving channels can drag a swimmer away from shore and exhaust them as they try to fight their way back to safety. The National Ocean Serviceestimatesthousands of people are rescued from rip currents each year in the U.S. About 91 people died in rip currents at U.S. beaches, according to weather service data. That was up from the 10-year average of 74 deaths per year.

The NWS recommends swimming near a lifeguard if you're at the beach. If you're caught in a rip current, it’s best to remain calm. Swim parallel to the shore, not toward it, until you’re free of the current. Then swim back to land. If you're unable to escape, face the shore and call or wave for help.

Jeanine Santucci of USA TODAY and Jim Ross of the Ocala StarBanner contributed to this story.

Florida tourist hub has most drownings in US (2024)


Florida tourist hub has most drownings in US? ›

Last year, Panama City Beach's rip currents drowned more people than anywhere else in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. At least eight people died at the Gulf Coast community, making up nearly a third of Florida's 30 deaths from rip currents.

What state has the highest drowning rate? ›

The CDC reports rates of unintentional drowning deaths are highest in these five states, regardless of age:
  • Alaska: 4.75 per 100,000 people.
  • Hawaii: 3.09 per 100,000.
  • Louisiana: 2.20 per 100,000.
  • Florida: 2.03 per 100,000.
  • Montana: 1.96 per 100,000.
May 2, 2023

What is the drowning rate in Florida? ›

According to the CDC, Florida ranked 4th in the U.S. for unintentional drowning deaths among all ages in 2021 with an age-adjusted rate of 2.23 per 100,000 population, behind Alaska (4.54), Hawaii (3.37), and Louisiana (2.78) (CDC national injury data).

Why are rip currents dangerous? ›

This makes rip currents especially dangerous to beachgoers as these currents can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Because rip currents move perpendicular to shore and can be very strong, beach swimmers need to be careful. A person caught in a rip can be swept away from shore very quickly.

What is rip current in the beach? ›

Rip currents are strong, narrow, seaward flows of water that extend from close to the shoreline to outside of the surf zone. They are found on almost any beach with breaking waves and act as “rivers of the sea,” moving sand, marine organisms, and other material offshore (see pictures below).

Where do most drownings take place? ›

Eighty-seven percent of drowning fatalities happen in home pools or hot tubs for children younger than 5. Most take place in pools owned by family or friends. Children 5 to 17 years old are more likely to drown in natural water, such as ponds or lakes.

What location had the highest number of drowning deaths? ›

Inland waterways

Since 2002, more drowning deaths have occurred in rivers/creeks than any other body of water. In 2022/23, rivers/creeks were the leading drowning location again with 76 drowning deaths.

Can you swim out of a rip current? ›

The best way to survive a rip current is to stay afloat and yell for help. You can also swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip current.

How many people get caught in rip currents each year? ›

About 100 people drown from rip currents along U.S. beaches each year, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. And more than 80 percent of beach rescues annually involve rip currents.

What's the difference between a riptide and a rip current? ›

Rip tides are like rip currents in that they can take a swimmer hundreds or even thousands of feet away from the beach. The major difference is that a rip tide occurs with an outgoing tide. The outgoing tide pulls fast moving currents of water from an inlet with a barrier beach out to sea.

Do Florida beaches have rip currents? ›

Rip currents are habitual hazards of Florida beaches. Tens of thousands are rescued from rip currents in the U.S, every year and they make up 81.9% of all surf beach rescues, according to a 2018 report from the Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences on lifeguard data.

What do you do if you're caught in a rip current? ›

If you do get caught in a rip current, the best thing you can do is stay calm. It's not going to pull you underwater, it's just going to pull you away from shore. Call and wave for help. You want to float, and you don't want to swim back to shore against the rip current because it will just tire you out.

How to save yourself in a rip current? ›

The first thing is to relax, rip currents won't pull you under, they will just pull you away from shore. If you can, swim out of the current along the beach and then back to shore at an angle following the breaking waves. If you can't escape, float or tread water while you wave and call for help on shore.

Why does Alaska have the highest drowning rate? ›

Alaska leads the nation in drowning deaths. The state's cold water is a factor, but so is human behavior. According to a recent report from the Alaska Division of Epidemiology, nearly nine of 10 Alaskans who drowned in non-occupational settings were not wearing a life jacket.

Where are drowned most common? ›

They spawn at higher rates in rivers and dripstone caves than in ocean biomes. In Java Edition, drowned spawn individually inside flowing water or source water that is 2 blocks or taller (this can include waterlogged blocks).

Who has the highest risk of drowning? ›

Groups already at higher risk saw the greatest increases in drowning deaths: children 1-4 years old and adults 65 years and older of all races and ethnicities, as well as Black people of all ages. Drowning is the number one cause of death for children 1-4 years old in the United States.

Who is at the greatest risk for drowning in the United States? ›

Children 1 to 4 years old have the highest drowning rates and are most at-risk.

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