Beach safety spared cuts in Myrtle Beach

The ocean draws tourists like few other attractions, but that magnet can also be deadly.

That's why, despite substantial budget cuts this year, money for lifeguard service contracts remained largely intact, officials said last week.

Last year, at least 10 people drowned off Myrtle Beach area beaches, with three of the deaths occurring before the Fourth of July holiday, traditionally the busiest weekend of the season.

Officials on local beaches say lifeguards are operating this year much the same as they did last year, providing public safety education, water surveillance and ocean condition monitoring and helping find lost children.

As many as 80 lifeguards are stationed on the beach in Myrtle Beach and 67 are in North Myrtle Beach, according to beach services officials in those cities. Lifeguards also monitor the beach in unincorporated Horry County.

Myrtle Beach and Horry County have franchise agreements with separate area beach services that provide lifeguard and concession sales on their beaches. The city of North Myrtle Beach took control of its beach and lifeguard services in 2007.

"Some budgets have been tightened but not at the expense of beachgoer safety," said North Myrtle Beach spokeswoman Nicole Aiello. "The city has learned how to operate their beach endeavors more efficiently, but beach safety continues to be the most important element to the city and to city council members."

"Last year was an extremely dangerous summer - very active (for ocean rescues)," said Tom Gill, president of the South Atlantic region of the United States Lifesaving Association. "It hasn't been as busy as last summer. This summer has been a little bit calmer."

Fewer ocean-related deaths have occurred on the Grand Strand so far this year compared with last year.

An 87-year-old Maiden man died after being rescued from the waters off North Myrtle Beach on June 14 after lifeguards had gone off-duty for the day. The autopsy didn't determine whether he died from drowning or another medical condition, said Tamara Willard, Horry County deputy coroner.

A visiting pastor from Mississippi also died after being pulled from the ocean in Myrtle Beach June 10, but authorities later said his death was caused by a heart attack.

Area police and beach service officials don't attribute the change to an increased lifeguard presence or additional lifeguard training, but say factors such as calmer weather and public awareness might had the greatest influence on the decrease.