EMERALD ISLE — A town resident has started an effort to get people and businesses to donate new and gently used life jackets that can be loaned out to beachgoers. The move comes in in the wake of four drownings off the town’s strand earlier this year.
Susie Van Guilder, who in June organized, raised money for and put on an event to thank surfers and town lifeguards for their efforts to save struggling swimmers, met Thursday to discuss the idea with Capt. Bill Mathias of the town’s fire department, which runs the lifeguard program. She got the go-ahead.
The town has for the past year or so had some life jackets – kept at the lifeguard stands – available for use by swimmers. But Ms. Van Guilder said the idea is to eventually have many more of them available.
A mother and teacher who also runs the Emerald Isle Community Site Facebook page, Ms. Van Guilder got the idea from Town Commissioner Jim Normile, who about a month ago, along with his wife, Elaine, purchased life jackets, lumber and hardware to provide free, loaner youth life jackets.
He installed a “tree” to hold the jackets at the 6th Street beach access near his home to test the concept. One month after starting, Mr. Normile said Thursday the test has been a success, as parents have been picking up the jackets for their children and returning them.
“The ones for the very young children, maybe ages 5-9, up to about 100 pounds, are being used a lot, and the ones for teenagers are being used some,” he said. “The adult one hasn’t been used I don’t think.”
He said he’s encouraged and is supportive of Ms. Van Guilder’s new effort.
“At the end of the (tourism) season, we (town officials) always get together with our first responders and our department heads, such as Artie (Dunn, public works) and Alesia (Sanderson, parks and recreation) and talk about what worked, what didn’t, what we might need to buy to make things better,” Mr. Normile said, and life jacket lending is likely to be a topic of conversation.
There are a number of issues, however, such as where the “trees” could be located; there are state Coastal Area Management Act rules that come into play when you put anything on the beach, and the smaller beach accesses are in many cases private property on which the town has easements. Then there are turtle and bird nests to avoid.
If the town were to get involved in the life jacket lending program in a big way, Mr. Normile said, “there are a lot of things to think about, and of course we’d want to follow all the regulations and do things right and make them attractive.”
There’s also the issue of who would manage such a program. But, he added, the town wants to do all it can to increase safety for residents and visitors who swim in the ocean.
“Like many residents, second homeowners and visitors, we have pulled in children … who were quickly overpowered by the surf,” Mr. Normile said. “Maybe this ‘tree’ has some future merit.”
Initially, Ms. Van Guilder said Thursday, she wanted to do something similar to what Mr. Normile did at 6th Street and started soliciting donations of materials, but after talking to Mr. Normile and Capt. Mathias, she decided just to collect life jackets and give them to the town to make them available for loan at the lifeguard stands, which are at the Eastern and Western Ocean Regional Access facilities.
“Capt. Mathias said the department would accept new or used life jackets that are in good shape, so that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re just at the very beginning of this, but I’ve already gotten a lot of emails from people who want to donate jackets or money to buy them.”
The department, she said, will make sure the jackets are safe and effective to use. Should the town decide to get involved in the program on a large scale, the donated life jackets will save the town money.
Life jackets should be taken to Shorewood Realty, Chapel by the Sea and Century 21 Realty in Emerald Isle and to Jessica’s Dance studio in Swansboro. More locations might be added.
Meanwhile, another town resident, Danny Shell, has been working on a beach and water safety public education program he calls the “Know Before You Go” initiative. He and another man, Bill Foster, met Wednesday with Emerald Isle Town Manager Matt Zapp and Mayor Pro Tem Floyd Messer to discuss it.
“The meeting lasted over two hours, with great discussion about a variety of beach safety possibilities,” Mr. Shell wrote in an email to the News-Times Thursday. “I’m confident our initiative fits quite nicely into Town beach safety considerations going forward. While we’ve had much business and other support and traction, my (hometown) behind this can drastically boost our beach safety public awareness & education efforts.”
The initiative, according to Mr. Shell, will include T-shirts and bracelets for sale with the “Know Before You Go” slogan. He plans to begin making public presentations on the effort Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Holiday Trav-L Park, owned by Emerald Isle businessman and former Mayor Ronnie Watson.
He’s also working with the American Red Cross and hopes to elicit broader support for the effort.
Mr. Zapp called the initiative “interesting” and said it has merit.
In addition, John Merical, father of one of the drowning victims, 17-year-old Wake Forest High School student Paige Merical, continues to work on his “Don’t Fight the Rip” educational campaign. He has been traveling in North Carolina and elsewhere to teach people the best way to survive a rip current is not to fight it, but to float, preferably with a flotation device, until the rip releases is grip.
He and his wife, Suzie, are also promoting flotation devices, including one that a swimmer wears on a wrist that inflates when needed.
Paige Merical was one of two friends who drowned off the town’s beach April 19; the other was 18-year-old Ian Lewis.
Mr. Merical said Thursday he hopes to appear before the board of commissioners in the near future to encourage members to increase the fine for ignoring double-red flags flying on the beach, which warn potential swimmers without flotation devices to stay out of the water or risk arrest and fines.
The current fine is $100. Mr. Merical said he thinks it should be more, as high as $500.
“People are paying $1,000 to $2,000 to spend a week at the beach in Emerald Isle,” he said. “$100 isn’t much to most of them. More than that is needed to get their attention.”
Two others drowned this spring off Emerald Isle. Robert Patterson, 48, of Jacksonville, drowned May 21 and Justin Hinds, a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, drowned May 4.
All of the drownings occurred before the town lifeguards started working this season and all of the initiatives have come in the wake of those incidents. The town has also changed its flag system that warns potential swimmers of ocean hazards.
In an email Thursday, Mr. Zapp said, “Communication and education are two key factors in every aspect of public service. The Town of Emerald Isle remains focused on the safety of all beach goers. Going forward, Emerald Isle continuously reviews options to improve communication efforts and inform residents, businesses and guests of the changing conditions along the Emerald Isle beach strand.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.