Environment & Science

LA County lifeguards to develop beach-clearing protocol for lightning storms following death

A Los Angeles County lifeguard patrols Venice beach a day after a rare lightning storm struck multiple people and killed on swimmer.
A Los Angeles County lifeguard patrols Venice beach a day after a rare lightning storm struck multiple people and killed on swimmer.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Los Angeles County lifeguard officials are meeting with other emergency responders and weather experts to develop a plan for when to clear the beach during severe thunderstorms like the deadly lightning at Venice Beach that killed one swimmer and injured more than a dozen others.

There were no warnings to swimmers at Venice Beach to get out of the water or seek shelter because a thunderstorm was approaching. Witnesses said it started to rain and thunder, and though some people got out of the ocean at that time, many continued to swim.

Lifeguard section chief Chris Linkletter said they are meeting with L.A. County’s emergency management department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to come up with a plan on how to protect beachgoers during severe thunderstorms.

Sometimes lifeguards will clear the water of swimmers wherever there is a rip current in the ocean or if there is a sewage spill, but Linkletter said clearing the entire beach is difficult because of how crowded they can get.

“We have lots of people in the water and on the beach at any given time in the summer,” she said. “So we’re going to have to develop something based on our activity and our population.”

L.A. County lifeguards don’t have the final authority to clear the water or beaches. That sometimes comes from the public health department, said lifeguard Capt. Kyle Daniels. If beach patrons refuse orders to evacuate the water or beaches, lifeguards will call local police for enforcement.

Daniels said lifeguards had some success in clearing Redondo Beach Sunday afternoon when lightning struck a power line pole causing electrical damage to a couple of homes.

“Clearing that beach compared to clearing Venice Beach is a totally different story,” Daniels said.

Midwestern states and areas bordering the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have the highest number of reported lightning fatalities, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA).

The USLA along with NOAA and the National Weather Service offer beach operators guidelines to developing a lightning safety plan that include identifying safe shelter for patrons, when to warn them and assigning someone to watch the weather.

Linkletter said lifeguard supervisors watch the wind and surf reports daily, but no one is specifically assigned to watch weather reports.

The rare lighting storm that hit Venice Beach, Redondo Beach and Catalina Island on Sunday was a product of warm monsoon moisture coming up from the Gulf of California in Mexico. Usually that humid air hovers east in the mountains and deserts to produce thunderstorms there. But there’s been enough humidity in the Southern California area this summer to create the same kind of the thunderstorms along the coast.

“I was amazed that it happened,” Linkletter said. “We’ve never had that happen before and I’ve been working for 30 years.”

Lifeguard officials with the San Diego and Santa Barbara County lifeguard divisions said the storm made news in their areas, too. Neither division has a beach-clearing protocol for lighting storms but is now considering one because of the deadly storm at Venice Beach.

“If we see hazardous lightning in our area we would close the [lifeguard] tower and announce over loudspeakers that lightning is in the area and the lifeguard will be out of service until 30 minutes after lightning is last seen or thunder is last heard,” said Jon Menzies, aquatics coordinator for Santa Barbara County.

The private lifeguarding group OC Lifeguards services five beaches in Orange County: Aliso Beach, Camel Point & West Street, Tablerock, Thousand Steps Beach and Salt Creek Beach.

OC Lifeguards Chief Jason Young said swimmers are warned to immediately exit the water and vacate the beach and seek shelter in a vehicle or building when a storm producing thunder and lighting is within 10 miles of the beach. Lifeguards will also shelter in patrol vehicles and continue to advise the public.

“The all clear will be given 30 minutes after the last observable lighting and thunder,” he said.