Storm Season

Wading up to the wooden steps through the muddy water that smelled faintly of sewage, I laid my rescue board on the top of the porch and pounded on the front door. A woman came out and tried to hand me a mid-sized flat screened TV, followed by three kids all carrying pretty random objects and wearing small backpacks. They looked forlornly at the roiling clouds and the Water World landscape. Over the howling wind, we had what would be a pretty funny conversation in retrospect about how I didn’t’ have a truck, boat, or helicopter, as we negotiated what could and could not be carried on a rescue board as we waded the 6 blocks to dry land.

There’s a huge division between who is prepared and who isn’t when our normal society is disrupted. I’m not saying that we should all be preppers or be ready for a zombie apocalypse, but all of us should be ready for the little bumps that come along if possible. Our society is built on a tenuous house of cards. Our food has to be transported from far away daily, our water piped in, and many of us are a paycheck or two away from defaulting on car or house payments. Those of us who choose to live on the Gulf Coast live in a wonderful place but are especially vulnerable. It really only takes about a 5 foot tide to start closing off roads and to back up drainage. A couple more feet mixed with a little rain and many of us are locked into our houses or worse.

When storms come and the surf gets bigger than about 3-4 feet, we’re looking at strong rip currents both near structures and all along the beaches, huge tidal shifts that affect the ends of the island, and dangerous troughs and holes real close to shore. When that’s mixed with high tides, waves can destroy dunes and bulkheads and close off roads. That’s not really a surprise, but what always amazes me is how quickly this stuff affects the land to the point that it keeps people from being able to move around. And once roads start getting sketchy, evacuation becomes very difficult.

As we enter the peak period of storm season, we should all be really aware of how quickly things get out of hand, particularly for the next month. It’s always better to be over-prepared and to leave early when these storms happen. If you have the resources, plan on 3 or 4 trips a year that you take with short notice. Have your plan in place, emergency bags packed with the things you can’t do without, and everything as ready as it can be. That 4-hour trip to safety can be a lot longer and riskier if you wait till the last minute. We have great resources between the National Weather Services and our local, state, and national governmental groups. Follow their advice and prepare now, before the crisis hits.

Staffing Difficulties

Staffing has been a real issue for us on the Beach Patrol for about three years now. At full strength, we run 135 Seasonal Lifeguards, in addition to the 15 full and part time employees we have. Our seasonal numbers have been more along the lines of 100-110.

When we’re short handed we still do our best to cover the beach. Guards pull longer hours, and/or we cancel morning training sessions, and some guards pick up additional shifts. Full time staff are also tasked with working lifeguard towers and we run fewer vehicles. Of course, there is a price for all of this.

I’ve come to think of the Beach Patrol as a living entity. When taxed, it compensates up to a point. When you’re hot, sweating helps maintain healthy temperature for a while. When really cold, your body will naturally shunt all the blood away from the extremities to the important parts (head and core) in order to protect your brain and vital functions. Your body does something similar for extreme injuries or illnesses when it goes into shock. So, the living entity of Beach Patrol has a built-in resiliency for emergencies like staffing shortages or lack of resources. These tricks work for a while but going into these modes of operation is not sustainable.  Eventually you pay the price for these measures in the form of staff burnout, lack of employee satisfaction, reduced staff retention, less reliability in attendance, loss of focus, etc.

This year has been a rough one on a variety of fronts. When Covid hit the hotels suffered tremendously. Since we operate exclusively off of hotel tax money, we took a proportional hit. We’ve already been struggling with meeting our number of guards in a part of the country where we don’t have huge amounts of swimmers to draw from, but we were looking at cutting the number of guards even more. Additionally, we lost our J1 Visa Cultural Exchange Visa foreign lifeguards because the program was suspended. We’ve been using these workers to close the employee deficit gap for a few years now with great success. And the crowds this summer are bigger than ever.

We were saved this year by two factors and have been consistently covering all of our 32 towers on the weekends. Our board wisely allowed us to use some reserve monies to allow us to hire enough guards. Additionally and unexpectedly, a number of older guards, who would have been working part time or not at all, were not able to work other jobs or internships which were cancelled because of Covid. That was a big help. Because many are not going off to school they’re still out on the beach taking care of beachgoers.

As we go through budgeting options for next year it looks like another challenging year is in store. I do, however, feel confident that our board, administrative staff, and we on the front lines will do whatever we can to ensure people are safe when they visit Galveston’s beaches.


Night Rescue

Supervisors Dain Buck and Thomas “TK” Mills made their way carefully through the dark night to the other side of the Ship Channel to the North Jetty. They squinted through the spray kicked up by big, rolling swells as the powerful watercraft motor churned them along. The water was still rough but was a bit calmer near the jetty, although big swells came through and across the rocks. They headed seaward, hugging the rocks and used big, waterproof dive lights to scan for the boat reported to be in distress.

The jetty is two miles long and they located the wrecked boat pretty far offshore. The boat had run up on the rocks and still had three people on board. Another couple of boats had seen them and were nearby, but could not get close enough to help because of the large swells and waves crashing over from the other side. Coast Guard did not have a helicopter available, and were really busy so response by boat was delayed. In this type of situation there are basically only two ways to get people off the rocks. The Coast Guard can lower a rescue swimmer who puts each person in a harness to be air lifted. The other option is for a swimming rescue, meaning Beach Patrol swims from the water, climbs up the rocks and figures out how to get the people off safely.

Dain maneuvered the rescue craft as close as he could to the rocks and they called out to the passengers. They were unharmed, although shaken up, and were all in lifejackets. One of the nearby boats volunteered to transport them to safety if the Beach Patrol rescue crew could get them to the boat.

Dain backed the craft towards the rocks as TK balanced on the rescue sled. The waves rising and falling made it difficult as the boat and sled moved up and down, in danger of being crushed. TK slid off the back and swam to the rocks. He pulled himself up on the rocks and passed a helmet up to the first of three passengers. Once the helmet was secure and they checked to make sure her lifejacket was snug, she leaned over the side of the boat into TK’s outstretched arms. He held onto her as Dain backed up even further, allowing the rescue sled to hover over the rocks right where TK and the victim stood. They had to time it perfectly, with TK laying the victim down on the sled and climbing on top before the trough between waves stranded them high and dry. As soon as they were in position, Dain gunned the craft, pulling them to deeper water- and to safety.

The second and third rescues were just as tough, but at least they had the system down, so went fairly smoothly. Once they were all loaded in the “Good Samaritan’s” boat everyone finally relaxed.

Beach Patrol and our partner agencies make a number of these types of rescues all around the island each year.