Lee County might adopt beach flags

Purple, green, yellow and red.

Bonita Beach could become a rainbow of danger alerts if Lee County Parks & Recreation decides in the next few weeks to take part in a state program to get flags informing beach-goers of weather, tide and animal conditions.

"The flags would only be for a good purpose if people could rely on them," said Sweden native Ann Wallblow, who has owned a home in Bonita Springs for eight years and who was on Bonita Beach on Wednesday. "If people knew what they mean and they were kept current, that would be a good system."

German tourists Ulrich and Beate Reinertz prepare their spot on the beach at Lovers Key/Carl E. Johnson State Park in Bonita Springs on Thursday. Lee County Parks & Recreation decides in the next few weeks to take part in a state program to get flags informing beach-goers of weather, tide and animal conditions.

Photo by Jeremy Lyverse, Daily News

German tourists Ulrich and Beate Reinertz prepare their spot on the beach at Lovers Key/Carl E. Johnson State Park in Bonita Springs on Thursday. Lee County Parks & Recreation decides in the next few weeks to take part in a state program to get flags informing beach-goers of weather, tide and animal conditions.

Officials from the Florida Coastal Management Program first approached city officials last week, as Tuesday was the first day local government could apply to be part of the voluntary beach warning flag system. The program was created by the state Legislature in 2002, but local government can only get the flags between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1 of any given year.

City Manager Gary Price deferred to Lee County Parks & Recreation because that department maintains all beaches in the county.

The Bonita Springs City Council could decide on its own to join the program, but that would require additional city staff.

"I don't have anybody to change the flags," Price said. "If (council) wants me to do it, they have to provide more manpower."

Three flags of different colors warn swimmers of weather and tide conditions: green, yellow and red, ascending as the hazard increases. A purple flag indicates dangerous marine life like a shark. Another no-swimming flag would be added to the red weather/tide hazard flag if the water was off limits to the public.

"They would have to be meaningful," said Bonita Springs resident Larry Olds, who was at Bonita Beach Wednesday. "It is useless if it is not kept current."

Olds rarely goes in the water, so the color of flag wouldn't change his beach plans. The flags would be good for people with children, as long as the warnings are reliable, he said.

Lee County Parks & Recreation will decide in the next two or three weeks if it wants to get the warning flags, Director John Yarbrough said. The flags and signs telling the public what the different color flags mean are free from the Coastal Management Program, but the county would still need enough staff to make sure the flags were current with weather conditions.

"We have miles and miles of beach to take care of," Yarbrough said. "In the morning everything can be fine, and that can all change by the afternoon. The flags need to be updated to reflect that."

Liability is the largest issue with the system, he said. If the county puts up green flags when the water is actually dangerous, that's big trouble.

"The warning system is good as long as it is up to speed," Yarbrough said

Sixty flags would be needed if the county puts flags at beach accesses, including 10 at Bonita Beach.

More than 70 local governments in Florida participate in the warning flag system. Many governments have lifeguards to change the flags according to weather conditions. Others use the fire department or citizen action committees, said Marlane Castellanos, environmental specialist with the Coastal Management Program.

Flags are vulnerable to theft and bad weather, so beach-goers have to be warned that the absence of the flags does not mean the water is safe, Castellanos said.

There are no lifeguards at many Florida public beaches, making the flag warning system even more important, she said.

"In that case, the flag would be the only protection you would have," Castellanos said.

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