Seven people died over nine days this month at Panama City Beach along the Gulf Coast of Florida, the National Weather Service said. Rip currents were the primary hazard listed alongside the agency's records of their deaths, with Panama City Beach seeing the highest concentration of "surf zone" fatalities throughout the month of June.
A rip current is essentially a channel of moving water, somewhat like a river, that forms in the ocean and flows away from the shoreline and out to sea, according to the weather service, which updates an interactive map and accompanying database with surf zone fatalities across the United States, including those linked to rip currents. Deadly incidents were reported at Panama City Beach between June 15 and June 24. Officials last updated the national database the following day, on June 25.
Officials identified the people who died at the Florida beach this month as: a 52-year-old man, who died on June 15; a 47-year-old man from Alabama, who died on June 18; a 53-year-old man from South Carolina, who died on June 21; a 47-year-old man from Tennessee, who died on June 22 at a stretch of beach near the Flamingo Hotel and Tower; a 68-year-old man from Michigan, who died on June 24; a 63-year-old man from Georgia, who died on June 24; and a 39-year-old man from Georgia, who died on June 24.
Authorities in Bay County, which encompasses Panama City Beach, lamented the spike in "tragic and unnecessary" fatal incidents and urged beachgoers to heed public safety warnings.
"I'm beyond frustrated at the situation that we have with tragic and unnecessary deaths in the Gulf. I have watched while deputies, firefighters and lifeguards have risked their lives to save strangers. I have seen strangers die trying to save their children and loved ones, including two fathers on fathers day," Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said in a statement shared to Facebook on Sunday.
"These same heroes, who have risked it all to save others, have been cursed and given the finger, while trying to warn visitors of the life-threatening dangers," the statement continued, noting that $500 fines are in place for violators who venture into the water despite double red flag warnings, which are used to notify people that a beach is closed to the public. Ford said that this system is meant to act as a deterrent, but Bay County authorities "don't have the resources or time to cite every single person that enters the water" and arrests can only be made for a second offense unless the violator resists law enforcement the first time.
"Government and law enforcement can only do so much in these situations," the sheriff said. "Personal responsibility is the only way to ensure that no one else dies. Please make the effort to know the flag status and stay completely out of the water."
The Bay County Sheriff's Office shared aerial photographs of Panama City Beach in what it called "the aftermath of a deadly weekend," in another post shared to Facebook on Monday, which showed deep crevices caused by rip currents that had been carved into the ocean floor along the coastline.
"You say you are a 'good' swimmer, an experienced swimmer, a competitive swimmer. But you are no match for a rip current," the sheriff's office wrote alongside "pictures of the trenches dredged in the sand under the water as a result of the powerful rip currents this past weekend."
"They say a picture is worth a thousand words. We hope so," the post said.