Johnston County man, boy become latest to drown off NC coast
Police in Atlantic Beach said a man and a boy died Tuesday after getting caught in rough surf. The two were pulled from the water just before 2 p.m. near the Oceanana Pier.
Relatives identified the man as Austin “Catfish” Potter, 24, of Kenly. He had attended North Johnston High School and worked at LongHorn Steakhouse, according to one of his social media profiles.
His father, Donald Potter, said he moved to the beach with his family from Johnston County because “they love the water.”
On Wednesday, he was coming to grips with the heroic last moments of his son’s life.
Donald Potter said his son was spending the afternoon at the beach with his girlfriend and her two young sons.
“He loved to fish. He loved those two kids he was with. He was just an all-round good guy who loved the beach,” he said, remembering Austin.
He says his son was in shallow water with one of the boys when the child was swept away in a rip current. Austin Potter went in after the boy, but both were overcome.
Firefighters said red flags – indicating a heightened risk of rip currents – were posted at the stretch of the beach where the two drowned, but yellow flags were posted along most of the beach.
Atlantic Beach police say, with five deaths before the middle of May, they plan to ramp up patrols and public awareness about rip currents.
“We’re trying to step up our game and try to have two officers out here throughout the summer,” said Atlantic Beach Police Chief Jeff Harvey.
But lifeguards and first responders can only do so much.
“The bottom line is, it’s on the individual,” Harvey said. “The person who goes into the water has to be mindful that something can happen.”
A pair of Wake Forest High School students – Paige Merical and Ian Lewis – got caught in a high surf while on a spring break trip to Emerald Isle. Lewis was swept out to sea and his body recovered days later. Merical was rescued after 14 minutes underwater, but she died later in a hospital.
A Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, Justin Hinds, drowned on May 4 off Emerald Isle. Authorities have not said whether his death could be attributed to a rip current.
The composition of the Carolina coast, which juts into the Atlantic, coming roughly 30 miles from the continental shelf, makes the waters favorable to tricky currents, marine geologist Orrin Pilkey said.
Rip currents are a killer in the Carolinas. Between 2000 and 2017, they killed more people than flooding, tornadoes and lightning combined. The National Weather Service says 16 people died in the North Carolina surf in 2018. Nine of them were caught in rip currents, and four were would-be rescuers.
“I think we’re a bit more prone because we, on average, have higher waves,” Pilkey told WRAL News. “There’s more water there pushing up against the shoreline, and it has to get out somehow.”
Rip currents are typically caused by a gap in an offshore sandbar.
“If there are two currents butting up against each other, even if the currents are pretty slight, that can still form a significant rip current,” Pilkey said.
Fatigue is fatal for swimmers caught in a rip current. The best advice is to float and to swim parallel to the shore, and eventually you’ll get out.