JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – While the worst of Hurricane Dorian storm is behind Northeast Florida, a potential health threat remains for swimmers at the beach.
The Florida Department of Health in Duval County (DOH-Duval) has issued a county-wide precautionary swim advisory for all public beaches. Not only is there a concern from dangerous surf and rip currents, but officials are warning people about a possible elevation in the ocean's toxicity levels.
Additionally, according to the health department, people should avoid contact with floodwaters which come from an overflow of any water body from rivers, lakes or oceans. Floodwater may contain fecal matter from sewage systems, agricultural and industrial waste, and septic tanks. Floodwaters can also mask debris, downed power lines and other hazards.
Officials from the health department planned to test the ocean's water quality Thursday. In the meantime, swimmers who come in contact with the ocean over the next few days may be at a higher risk of being exposed to diseases or illnesses, the health officials warned.
People are urged to stay out of the water even though things may appear to be back to normal after the storm.
On Wednesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry along with the beach mayors noted their unhappiness with seeing so many people at the beaches and in the water despite the fact that Duval County's beaches were closed at midnight Monday.
Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser said there were not any drownings or injuries leading up to and during Hurricane Dorian, but there certainly could have been and beachgoers need to realize that pre-hurricane warnings are not to be taken lightly.
"That is extremely dangerous and the thing that was the most concerning to me and the other beach mayors, you can get caught up in a rip current when you're in just a couple inches of water," Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser said Wednesday evening. "We want people to know it's very dangerous."
Those dangers remained Thursday as people along Jacksonville's coastline were eager for life to return to normal. Plywood and shutters began coming down early in the morning as some businesses geared up to reopen. Bulldozers were up and down the coast plowing down mounds of sand at beach accesses that were built earlier in the week to reinforce dunes and protect infrastructure during Dorian.
Having been through hurricanes Matthew and Irma, store owner Kim Rogers said the beaches were very fortunate this time around.
"We're back in business now, we're fine," Rogers said about the Bali Cargo Company. "Very little cleanup, people are out again, the surfers are definitely out, and they were out a little bit yesterday, which I thought was very dangerous, but no it's been easy this time."
The issue of the closure of the beaches puts a spotlight on the question of how much power local government has to enforce a closure of public beaches.
"I stayed home like I was supposed to (during the storm)," said Susan Sennett, who lives at the beach and heeded orders to stay off the beaches before and during the storm. "I think it's crazy. I think if you want to go in the water when it's like that like yesterday, don't expect someone to come get you."
Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham said it is not about choosing not to enforce a closure, it's more about manpower and not putting their own people, such as lifeguards, at risk by forcing people out of the water.
"It's a very important issue. We had one group of younger individuals, young adults, that kind of yelled at our lifeguards some expletives and told them it's their right to swim if they want to," Latham said. "They don't understand we're out there trying to help them, save them."
In the future, if another hurricane threatens the area, the city said it will continue to plead with residents to stay home and not test Mother Nature, but in the end, it only has so many people on staff to stop people who want to tempt fate.
When asked if they would go beyond lifeguards and use police officers to order people out of the water, he pointed out that during storm preparation, they are pretty much maxed out trying to handle general public safety that they can't respond to people who want to take a swim.
In the meantime, the department of health recommends the following precautions:
- Follow basic hygiene during this emergency period. Always wash your hands with soap and water which has either been boiled or disinfected before eating and after toilet use.
- Do not allow children to play in floodwater. They can be exposed to water contaminated with fecal matter.
- Do not allow children to play with toys that have been in floodwater until the toys have been disinfected. Use 1/4 cup of bleach in one gallon of water to disinfect toys and other items.
- If you have open cuts or sores exposed to the floodwater, keep them as clean as possible by washing them with soap and disinfected or boiled then cooled water. Apply antibiotic cream to reduce the risk of infection. If a wound or sore develops redness, swelling or drainage, see a physician.
- After helping with cleanup activities and handling items contaminated by floodwater or sewage, wash hands with soap and water.