A study by researchers in Delaware on beach injuries is finding human behavior is a key factor, but they also are looking into environmental conditions, including beach replenishment, to see if they can find any important links.
The study is generating interesting in New Jersey, where some have blamed spikes in injuries on beach replenishment projects. Currents often erode the new sand, causing a quicker dropoff to deeper water and waves breaking closer to shore.
Cape May saw an increase in neck and back injuries — 165 EMT calls for these types of injuries between 2001 and 2011 — after the town got replenishment sand. What had been a gentle slope far out into the water became a steep dropoff to deep water.
While the study is still underway, preliminary work has found that males get hurt twice as often as females, and the average age of the men getting hurt is 33.
“The older men think they can relive their youth. That’s the human behavior factor,” said Wendy Carey, an expert in coastal processes and hazards with Delaware Sea Grant program at the University of Delaware.
Carey said the study will attempt to identify environmental factors by correlating spikes in emergency room visits with beach conditions on those days. The study was triggered by emergency room doctor Paul Cowan at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Del., when he noticed some days there were no beach injuries and other days as many as 25 people arrived at the emergency room seeking medical attention.
Chad deSatnick, who broke his neck surfing in Cape May when a wave dumped him on the sand, welcomed any study looking into beach injuries.
“Have the numbers spiked because more people are in the water or because of beach replenishment and more people in the water? You don’t see the same number of injuries in towns without beach-fill,” deSatnick said.
There never has been a study on whether beach replenishment causes injuries, said Stephen Rochette, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but he said they are following the Delaware research. Rochette said there is often a “period of adjustment” for several months after replenishment for the natural slope of the beach to return.
“We try to mimic existing conditions and use the existing slope, to a point. The ocean will do what it will,” Rochette said.
Carey said surveys of the slopes at five Delaware beaches are being done. She said it is easy to blame beach replenishment, but she hopes to find some trends among more than 20 “environmental variables” being studied. Human behavior will be considered with the end result an educational outreach program with Delaware beach patrols. Carey has observed, and taken pictures, of human behavior on the strand.
“I’ve seen folks quite a number of times not understanding that swimming in the ocean is different from a pool or a pond. Waves come in sets, and suddenly the water gets deeper,” Carey said.
Her advice to the public is to swim only at a beach protected by lifeguards and check with those lifeguards about surf conditions before going in the water.
The study will attempt to find the reasons behind Cowan’s observation.
“Do they come in clusters? Are they related to surf zone conditions? Is it possible to predict when a large number of injuries might occur?” are some questions Carey is asking.
Carey said Beebe Medical Center is providing key data, such as the type of injury, the beach activity that led to it, age, gender, day of week and time of day. Different types of beachgoers are being identified, such as those surfing, body boarding, swimming or just wading in shallow water.
The National Weather Service is providing data on beach conditions, including air temperature, ocean water temperature, tidal data, wind speed and direction, solar radiation and the heat index. Wave characteristics from a wave gauge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains off Bethany Beach will be used.
“Initially, we thought it was wave height and wave period, but I think it comes down to human behavior,” Carey said.
More than 1,000 injuries during a three-year period on five Delaware beaches are being correlated to beach conditions that day. The injuries ranged from minor, such as dislocated shoulders, to serious, including spinal cord injuries and fatalities. Carey said a preliminary report will be completed this year, but the study continues next year because the longer the time period, the more statistics gathered and the better the information.
“We’re trying to find out what stands out as statistically significant in correlating environmental conditions with injuries,” Carey said.
Carey said they have uncovered no correlation between injuries and beach replenishment other than the possibility that replenishment greatly increases human use of a beach. She said beach usage will be part of the study.
“Replenished beaches are the ones with the most people in the water. We will have a water-use population study,” Carry said.
Cape May Fire Chief Jerry Inderwies said water use appears to be a big factor. The department responded to a range of 13 to 27 neck and back injuries per year from 2008 through 2012, but there have been only three calls this year. Inderwies would like to believe deSatnick’s public education campaign led to the drop, but he thinks it’s because an unusually cold ocean most of the summer has kept people out of the water.
There’s no consensus on whether new beaches can lead to more dangerous surf.
Rod Aluise, the chief of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, said he is aware of Cape May’s problems but said even after replenishment his city’s beaches have a gradual slope, although he noted replenishment has led to more rescues.
“Cape May has problems because of the drop there and more wave energy,” Aluise said.
Tom Mullineaux, who directs beach operations in Ocean City, said the city had seven spinal injury calls in 2012 and six so far this year.
“We had some (sand) pumping, and we do have some cliffs where the water comes up, but after that it’s pretty level,” Mullineaux said.
DeSatnick is following the study and was interested to learn that, in Delaware, most getting hurt are bathers and not surfers. Most are getting hurt in pretty calm conditions, with wave heights of 1.5 to 2.5 feet. Some are getting hurt while exiting the water and getting hit from behind by a wave, which deSatnick noted has been the case in several high-profile spinal injury cases in Cape May.
“A lot of injuries are during summer, when wave energy is not that strong. People in the water in hurricanes and northeasters are generally more experienced. They’re more ocean-conscious. A lot of injuries are people not familiar with the beach,” he said.
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