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Weather alert: Stormy weather and rip currents in South Florida

A high rip current risk remains in effect Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters say the conditions, from strong winds and rough surf, “will make swimming at the Atlantic beaches extremely dangerous.”

South Florida also is getting a soaking Wednesday, with heavy morning rains making for slick roads and a difficult commute. Forecasters set a 70 percent chance of rain, with gusts as high as 30 mph.

“It's raining, it's pouring ,” CBS4 meteorologist Lissette Gonzalez said on Facebook. “Some neighborhoods already picking up more than an inch of rain. Roads are slick, drive cautiously and keep the umbrella close by today.” The riptide risk is predicted through the week, and already it has been deadly.

The beach where a 15-year-old lost his life after being pulled underwater by the force of a rip current on Memorial Day did not have a lifeguard on duty, said Patrick Gillespie, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman.

John U. Lloyd State Park in Hollywood, where the teen drowned Monday afternoon, hasn’t had lifeguards since 1995. Signs posted on the beach advise swimmers to exercise caution when swimming, Gillespie said. Red flags flew, warning beachgoers of the high hazard conditions.

Lloyd and Sylvia Long, two frequent beach-goers at the state park, say they frequently hear about incidents such as the one that took the life of 15-year-old James Clark.

“Rip currents are in certain areas that are unnoticeable until it pulls you,” said Lloyd Long, a former member of Coral Gables Fire-Rescue. “Awareness would have been helpful in this situation.”

With 100 miles of beach in the Florida State Park system, it wouldn’t be financially feasible to employ lifeguards to cover the total area, Gillespie said.

But in this case, it could have saved a life.

Clark, of Hollywood, was enjoying the beach with his family when a large wave rolled over him around noon, the Associated Press reported.

He never resurfaced.

Beachgoers found him a short distance away. They pulled him onto the beach, but he was not responsive.

A crowd of strangers prayed, hands raised to the sky, as paramedics pumped the boy’s chest, attempting to revive him.

“We don’t know everybody here, but everybody’s united in prayer right now,” witness Fernando Vega told Miami Herald news partner CBS4.

Clark was pronounced dead at the hospital.

This was the only reported fatality in a weekend riddled with rescues for swimmers caught in the wake of the swirling waters.

“More people die in rip currents in Florida than in hurricanes, tornados or lightning,” said Bob Ebaugh, a National Weather Service specialist.

Hollywood Beach lifeguards were busy rescuing swimmers from the water all weekend. From Saturday to Monday, about 40 people were rescued from the throes of a rip current, said Capt. Bruce Wilkie of Hollywood Beach Safety.

The most important thing, Wilkie advised, is to swim near a lifeguard.

As strong winds cause rip currents throughout the Florida beaches, beachgoers are advised to heed the warnings on the beach and proceed with caution. Red flags, warning of the danger, will continue until at least Friday, Ebaugh said.

Fort Lauderdale saw more than a dozen recues over the Memorial Day weekend, said Capt. Breck Ballou of the Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue. The combination of rough waters and more people than usual on the beach led to heightened rescues in comparison to non-holiday weekends.

A range of children to adults were saved from rip currents, but Ballou said parents should take extra care of kids, especially those who don’t know how to swim.

“It’s a good idea to keep kids very close or if possible completely out of the water,” he said.

With school soon out, Ballou advises parents to put their kids in swimming lessons.

Rip currents are caused when winds create a break in the sand bar, Ebaugh explained. As waves crash into the shore, they need a place to wash back, and do so at those breaks in the sand bar, causing an area of strong current that pushes swimmers away from shore.

This is where swimmers make the mistake of trying to swim against the current.

“It can be like getting on a treadmill,” Ebaugh said. “You’re going to swim and swim and swim, and you’re not going to get anywhere and you’ll tire out.”

The best advice, he said, is to swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the rip current. Alternatively, you can let the rip current carry you a few yards back until you’re out of its pressure and can swim away from it.

The important thing: Don’t panic.

If you aren’t a strong swimmer, relax first, and then yell for a lifeguard. If you see someone caught in a rip current, don’t swim out to try to help.

“Too many times, someone who tries to help someone gets caught in a fatality themselves,” Ebaugh said.

Throw a floatation device, which can be a cooler or a thermos, to help the person until a lifeguard can get there.

In conditions such as these, Ebaugh said, the safest policy is to only go into water up to the knees.

Miami Beach also saw a high number or rescues.

“This is a normal occurrence that happens on any holiday when it’s rough or any weekend when it’s rough,” said Scott Reynolds, operations supervisor of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue. “We are going to have rescues; it’s a common occurrence.”

In the unexpected changes of ocean topography on South Beach, swimmers need to keep to guarded areas.

“I can’t stress it enough that you need to swim next to a lifeguard,” Reynolds said.

Miami Herald writer Gina Cherelus contributed to this report.

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