Predicting dangerous waves

By Tom Avril / The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published Jun 22, 2014 at 12:01AM

PHILADELPHIA — David Taylor was eager to go bodysurfing with his son, Jonathan, but thought the waves at Cape May would be too tame for a good ride.

Instead, he ended up getting a ride to the emergency room.

Caught off-guard by a wave that hit him from behind that day in August 2007, the Lansdale, Pa., resident suffered a broken neck — a type of injury that is all too familiar for physicians near New Jersey and Delaware beaches.

In a single week in July 2012, for example, the AtlantiCare Regional Trauma Center in Atlantic City saw eight patients with spinal cord injuries sustained on the beach or in the water.

And at Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, Del., researchers have counted 1,239 emergency department visits for beach-related injuries from 2010 to 2013 — ranging in severity from ankle sprains to broken necks. There were just a handful of the latter, but in three cases the patients died.

Yet as with Taylor’s accident, these injuries did not necessarily occur on days with rip currents or rough surf.

Beebe physicians and University of Delaware researchers have been working for several years to find out why. The latest phase of the research began this month, with engineers taking daily measurements of sand and surf to determine the environmental conditions that increase risk of injury.

The ultimate goal: to give lifeguards a tool so they can warn beachgoers which days they should exercise more care, said Beebe emergency department chief Paul Cowan, who initially proposed the study.

“The vast majority of these injuries occur in just 1 or 2 feet of water,” Cowan said. “These people are getting slammed to the sand by the power of the waves.”

In Delaware, a key factor seems to be that beaches are fairly steep, which causes waves to break once, near the water’s edge in wading depth, said Jack Puleo, an associate professor of coastal engineering at the University of Delaware. Many New Jersey beaches also meet this description, he said.

On more gently sloping beaches, such as those in Oregon, waves tend to break multiple times before reaching shore, dissipating their energy along the way, Puleo said.

So among the data that engineers are gathering every day this summer is a detailed profile of the slope at five Delaware beaches, using a high-precision GPS antenna mounted on a three-wheeled cart.

Veronica Citerone, who earned her civil engineering degree from Delaware this spring and is headed to Cornell University for graduate school, said the contraption has gotten stares.

“We’ve gotten more questions,” said Citerone, of Ridley Park, Pa. “I heard a lady say to her husband, ‘Oh, it’s definitely a metal detector.’ “

She is joined by Katie Hutschenreuter, a civil engineering student from Baltimore who will be a senior at Delaware this fall.

Each day since June 2, they have rolled the GPS device from the dunes down to the waterline at Cape Henlopen, Rehoboth, Dewey, Delaware Seashore State Park and Bethany beaches. They try to hit each spot close to low tide, to get as complete a profile as possible.

“The beach is constantly changing,” said Puleo, who is overseeing their work. “Even over a tidal cycle it can vary significantly.”

Also each day, they count the number of people in the water in a fixed, 100-meter section at each beach. That will allow Beebe researchers, who are tallying the number of injuries at the five beaches, to calculate an injury rate.

In addition, researchers have anchored sophisticated sensors to the sea floor at each of the five locations, 200 to 300 feet offshore. The sensors measure the height, frequency, and direction of waves, along with the speed and direction of the current.

Taylor, 67, the Lansdale man who broke his neck in Cape May, still suffers from his injury. He initially could not move his arms or legs, though now he can walk short distances with a walker.

He said he got hurt when he was trying to stand up from riding one wave, and was hit by a second, bigger wave that came unusually close behind the first.

“I hit my face on the sand,” said Taylor. “It was like hitting a brick wall.”

He has since spoken to the Cape May mayor and council to educate them about the need for good warning signs, and he has also spoken to other beach-injury patients at Moss Rehab in Elkins Park, where he spent 11 weeks relearning to walk.