Weather Blog: Deadliest weather related hazard in Florida--rip currents

By James Martin , Spectrum News 13 Meteorologist
Last Updated: Saturday, January 27, 2018

Although hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes are often the first that come to mind when thinking of the most dangerous weather problems in Florida, there is another weather related hazard that ranks as the deadliest--and that is rip currents.

  • Rip currents rank as deadliest weather hazard in Florida
  • Rip currents kill more in a year than hurricanes, lighting, etc.
  • If you're caught in a rip current, remember, "Don't fight--swim left or right"

Florida’s beaches attract millions of residents and tourists each year. The big problem is that there are unseen dangers in the waters. Rip currents, sometimes referred to as rip tides or undertows, occur naturally and affect many Florida beaches year round.

Since 1995, rip currents have accounted for more than 300 drownings along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic beaches. In fact, rip currents kill more people in Florida in an average year than hurricanes, tornadoes, and lightning combined.

Rip current injuries and fatalities often are under-reported, but in 2017, at least 13 people lost their lives due to rip currents or high surf. This number keeps Florida near the highest in the nation in reported rip current drownings. Many of these drowning incidents occur on days when the weather is quite pleasant, with a nice breeze blowing onshore. This catches beachgoers by surprise since fair weather is usually associated with pleasant ocean conditions.

A rip current is a strong channel of water moving away from the shore at beaches. Rip currents are part of the natural ocean circulation and are quite common. They occur at many beaches every day on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida.

Rip currents typically form along the beach at breaks in the near shore underwater sandbar, but they also form near structures such as jetties and piers. Rip currents form when water, piled against the shore, begins to return to deeper water. Typically, onshore winds and waves push water over the sandbar, allowing excess water to collect between the bar and the beach. Eventually, this excess water starts to return seaward through low spots in the sandbar.

While rip currents can happen any day of the year, weather or ocean conditions can cause rip currents to be stronger and more frequent on some days than on others.

If you find yourself caught in a rip current, don’t panic and don’t fight the current. Swim in a direction parallel to the shoreline either toward your left or right. Just remembering the simple phrase, “Don’t fight--swim left or right,” could save your life. When free of the current, swim at an angle back toward shore.

Don’t forget, you can always check on the rip current risk with the lifeguards and on Spectrum News 13 at :31 after the hour!