The thrill of watching a storm at the edge of the Pacific Ocean lures visitors every year. But it can be dangerous and even deadly.
On Saturday, a family was pulled out to sea during a fierce storm near Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast. In 2017, a man and his 3-year-old son died after being caught in a sneaker wave on the southern coast.
This weekend’s storm was made even more dangerous because of an unusually high tide, called a king tide, that added 11 feet to the tops of already huge waves, said Rick Hudson, emergency manager for Cannon Beach.
“People come out here because they want to be weather-watching, but they don’t realize how dangerous the weather can be and how fast it can change,” Hudson told the Associated Press. “You can be in raincoat, watching the beautiful storm happen, and all of a sudden you have a 30-foot wave, and it swells up and goes all the way up to the maximum part of the beach — and you have nowhere to go.”
Those who flock to the coast for storm-watching should keep some precautions in mind. Chief among them is that salty old adage: Never turn your back on the ocean.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department offers more practical advice as well. In charge of managing much of the Oregon coast, the agency is well aware of the many dangers involved in visiting the ocean during stormy weather.
“We don’t want to scare people away from the coast, but we want them to be as careful as they would be crossing the street or walking around a new town,” parks spokesman Chris Havel said.
Stretches of coastline are constantly changing, shaped by wind, waves and erosion. Even if you know a beach well, Havel said, you should always treat it like a brand-new place.
That’s especially true during big winter storms, when it’s essential to check in with your surroundings before getting too close to the waves.
“I understand the allure,” Havel said. “There’s a thrill of discovery that comes with being surrounded by forces that are completely beyond our control that are completely unpredictable.”
Those forces may only be growing more chaotic and unpredictable. Climate researchers believe that extreme high tide events in Oregon will only get worse as our planet warms and oceans continue to rise.
Drawing on the parks department’s safety tips and our own experience on the coast, here are 10 ways to stay safe while storm watching on the Oregon coast:
1. Consider not going at all
Weather words like “king tide” and “storm surge” can translate into a big show at the coast. But consider whether going out there during extreme weather events is really worth the risk. After all, small storms hit the coast with some regularity.
2. Pick a safe spot
Not every spot on the coast is safe for storm watching. What you’re looking for are places that are high up, with some kind of barricades to keep you safe. The parks department recommends the Devils Punchbowl viewpoint, the South Jetty observation tower at Fort Stevens State Park, the Cape Ferrelo viewpoint found within the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, as well as viewing platforms at Seal Rock and Yachats state parks.
3. Stay high up and far back
No matter where you decide to go, make sure you stay high up and far back from the waves. Find an established cliffside viewpoint, if possible, and avoid rocks and trails that lead down to the beach. Just because a piece of land is dry when you get there doesn’t mean it will stay dry for long. The ocean is volatile in a storm, so give it plenty of room to crash and churn.
4. Mind the fences
Always mind the fences, cones, caution tape and signs that tell you to stay back. These are in place for a very good reason: to keep you alive. These barricades usually keep people from the edges of cliffs, which are always eroding and are especially vulnerable on stormy days.
All this said, some people will still want to venture closer to the ocean. It’s in our human nature to walk right up to the edge of danger. If you want to get closer – and again, really consider your safety before doing so – here are some additional tips for staying safe near the edge of the surf.
5. Watch the waves from a safe distance first
The first place you watch a storm should always be from a safe distance away. Stand there for a few minutes and just watch. Get a feel for the waves. How far are they coming in? How volatile is the ocean in this moment? Bear in mind that everything can change in a split second.
6. Stay off jetties, rocks and logs
There are certain places on the beach that you should absolutely avoid in a storm. Jetties are a no-brainer, though rocky spots of any kind can be dangerous, especially if you fall or find yourself scrambling to higher ground. Big driftwood logs can seem stable, but waves can move them easily, throwing you off or pinning you underneath. It’s also good to watch out for all slippery surfaces, like trails or muddy hills.
7. Be near a quick escape route
As you approach the ocean, stay close to a route that will be easy to retrace should you need to run. Established trails or access points are the best. Avoid clambering down any rocks that will be hard to get back up.
8. Stay on your toes
Be ready to act at a moment’s notice. Waves can come in fast, so you need to maintain a quick reaction time. If you can’t react quickly, you shouldn’t be venturing close to the waves in the first place.
9. Always keep your eye on the ocean
This is true year-round at the coast, but it’s especially true when the surf is rough: always keep an eye on the ocean. This remains true if you’re taking photos, picking up rocks or talking with other people. When you walk back along the beach, move diagonally so you can watch out for waves behind you.
10. Be careful exploring post-storm
Danger doesn’t vanish when a storm is done. The ocean can still be chaotic and unpredictable, so stick to safe storm watching locations. Remember that surrounding rocks, trails and cliffs will still be slippery, and driftwood piles will be unstable.
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