The "World's Most Beautiful Beaches" are usually just that... beautiful. But sometimes, the emerald green water of the Gulf of Mexico turn deadly. That was the case over the weekend, when three people died in water-related emergencies in Panama City Beach.
On Saturday, the gulf was closed to swimming due to dangerous undertow and rip currents. Double red flags were posted at all 53 locations included in the flag warning system: 26 in the city, 22 in unincorporated Bay County, and five on private property.
Overhead, a plane towed a warning banner and the Bay County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) helicopter flew along the beach. U. S. Coast Guard boats patrolled the water, while law enforcement officers drove up and down the beach warning people that the gulf was closed.
Despite those efforts, city and county rescue teams were stretched to their limits responding to water emergency calls. The Panama City Beach Police Department responded to 42 calls and rescued nearly three dozen swimmers over the weekend. BCSO responded to ten calls and pulled two dozen people from the gulf on Saturday.
Two people drowned and a third died of a heart attack after being pulled from the water. Even that wasn't enough to persuade some people of the risk. "While we were pulling people out of the water, people would come up and ask if it was safe to go in the water," said PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman. "Some people just don't use their common sense."
Whitman said his department has responded to 210 water emergency calls, including seven drownings, so far this year.
Hotels and condos distribute information about the flag warning system and signs are posted at every public beach access. But some signs aren't very visible and beachgoers aren't necessarily up to speed.
When asked what a the red flag flying over the beach Monday afternoon signified, Will Traverse of Nashville, Tennessee drew a blank. "To be honest, I don't know," he said.
How far should government go to protect people from themselves?
Bay County has an ordinance prohibiting swimming during double red flag conditions. Violators can be arrested but the BCSO has not made any arrests in 2012. According to Major Tommy Ford, violators are given a warning and the threat of arrest is sufficient to ensure compliance with the law.
The city of Panama City Beach has no ordinance in place, but Councilman John Reichard said it's an issue the board will likely discuss. "What the sheriff's office is doing might be something that we should look at more seriously and consider those warnings versus actual arrests," he said.
The councilman and police chief are reluctant to spend time and resources issuing citations and making arrests. "In the long term you're losing your resources on the beach that can actually help people," said Whitman. "I would rather be out there educating the people about the conditions."
"To transport someone to jail for going into the water and not having that policeman on the beach if there's someone in trouble, you might be trading a life for taking someone to jail," said Reichard.
For now, police will continue to respond to calls and warn swimmers when conditions warrant. "We're not doing it to be mean or trying to harass them," said Whitman. "If you go in that water you're jeopardizing yourself or someone else's life... it's not worth it."