Brown: Long Beach backed off policy

Family photo of Nicole Suriel from 2009. Suriel

Family photo of Nicole Suriel from 2009. Suriel drowned in the surf at Long Beach on June 22, 2010. (Credit: WCBS)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Two years ago, after a spate of drownings during a season of strong rip currents, the city of Long Beach drew a line in the sand.

Officials moved to a zero-tolerance policy midseason and aggressively moved people out of the water when lifeguards went off duty.

What happened to that policy? What happened to the police and code enforcement officers whose job it was to keep people out of the water?

That's a fair - and key - question following the drowning of a 12-year-old girl, who, with her classmates, filed from a school bus to storm the beach on a magnificent summer day.

Wednesday, Charles Theofan, the city manager, answered that question.

He said that when the currents died down, so did the policy, which the city now uses only when the weather dictates.

"There are residents who commute to work in the city and get back home and they want to take a walk on the beach and take a quick dip in the water," Theofan explained. "We want them to be able to do that."

But on Tuesday, it wasn't a Long Beach commuter looking to cool off. It was Nicole Suriel, a sixth-grader on a class trip from a school in Harlem, who with her friends rushed to the water on an unguarded beach.

There was no zero tolerance enforced that day because the water was calm and the season was not in full swing, Theofan said. Those that entered the water did so at their own risk, he said.

But the bus full of children, he said, came as a surprise.

"We were not aware," he said. "We don't get school groups of children when the beach isn't open on weekdays. We get them and we get day camps and other large groups but we get them when the season is in full swing."

Yes, but shouldn't the city have anticipated a crowd on so warm and so perfect a day?

Theofan said that police routinely check the beachfront for problems. But, he added, even on beautiful weekdays attendance is sparse. There were lifeguards on the beach on Tuesday but they were a city block away handling painting and other preseason maintenance chores.

"What happened, I am told, is that the kids came off the bus and that very quickly almost all of them were in the water," he said. "Some were near the jetty, which is a dangerous place to be. It all happened fast, very fast."

He faulted a lack of supervision. "There seems to have been a breakdown," he said, adding, "It's a tragedy, but I don't see where the city has the blame or reason for guilt."

But there is something else to consider: Long Beach, which is so tantalizingly close to New York City, markets itself as a destination to city residents.

The community, now more than two decades past the days of tumbledown apartments and weedy, vacant lots, attracts city dwellers young and old, too many of whom, even Theofan has acknowledged, know too little about safety and the sea.

In 2008, Long Beach began handing out pamphlets and posting signs warning about rip currents. Last year, there were no drownings in Long Beach, Theofan said.

Wednesday, the city drew a new line in the sand.

Code enforcement and police officials will keep people out of the surf and continue to do so until Saturday when the city lifeguards return to full-time beach patrol.

That's good.

But it comes too late for a city kid - who could not swim. One who, with her classmates, rushed to embrace a wide blue ocean under a perfect blue sky.