As Arthur moves up the East Coast this week, lifeguards and weather experts warn visitors to be aware of rip currents and dangerous surf.
Rip currents are narrow, powerful channels of water that move away from the shore, Brad Reinhart, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., told USA TODAY Network. They occur when there are a lot of waves crashing directly on the shore, he said.
There will be a high risk of rip currents in Wilmington on Thursday when the storm is closest to the beaches, Reinhart said, and an increased risk for several days after it passes.
"Basically, you get a lot of wave energy that piles up water along the shoreline, and that water has to go somewhere," he said. The water that has "piled up" then rushes back out into the ocean through breaks in between sandbars, creating rip currents. People who are caught in them are pulled away from the shore along with the water.
More than 100 people die each year from drowning because of rip currents, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. That number may be even higher, according to Reinhart.
If a swimmer is caught in a rip current, experts offer this advice:
•Stay calm. A swimmer's first instinct is to try to swim back to the beach, but in doing so, you run the risk of just making yourself more tired.
•Swim parallel to the beach. Rip currents are generally pretty narrow. If you're able to get out of the current, you'll have no resistance to swim back to the beach.
Rip currents vary in strength, and weak ones occur every day at the beach, Reinhart said. "Most days they don't pose a great danger to your average, capable swimmer," he said, adding that swimmers should always be cautious, regardless.
Lifeguards are trained to identify rip currents from their stands, according to Tom Gill, a spokesperson for the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
"They can get people out of them before they're even pulled backwards, and if they are pulled backwards, they can respond quickly," he said.
It doesn't take a tropical storm to cause an increased risk of rip currents, Reinhart said. Dangerous rip currents can happen even when it's sunny out and appears to be an otherwise beautiful day.
Contrary to popular belief, rip currents do not pull swimmers under the water, Gill said, only away from shore. Swimmers exhaust themselves from fighting the current, then go under.
"The No. 1 thing is to not panic. If you can stay on top of the water, you can survive a rip current," Gill said.