Drowning is the leading cause of death for tourists in Hawaii, and new survey results show that about two-thirds of visitors say it’s important to have lifeguards at any beach they visit.

So it’s great that the state Department of Health and its tourism and ocean-safety partners are putting up large signs at airport baggage carousels to warn visitors of the danger.

But why don’t the new signs make any sense?

“Know Before You Go. Don’t Be Disappointed.”

Disappointed? Gosh, Martha, Hawaii was so disappointing. George drowned.

New signs for Hawaii airports designed to encourage visitors to visit a website where they can find real-time information on beach conditions around the state.
New signs for Hawaii airports encourage people to visit a website where they can find real-time information on beach conditions around the state. Hawaii Department of Health

Disappointed is appropriate when the bar is out of Curacao, so you can’t order the mai tais you were hankering for. Or when you wanted to hang out at the pool, but it’s raining.

But unless your brand of disappointment is accompanied by a coffin or a lengthy hospital stay, it seems a poor choice of words to characterize what’s at stake at many Hawaii beaches, where the punishment for inexperience or recklessness can be painful and permanent.

As Civil Beat reported in January in our “Dying For Vacation” series, 147 Hawaii visitors — nearly one a week — died from July 2012 through 2015 while doing typical touristy things: swimming, snorkeling, surfing. Many others sustained serious injuries, such as spinal cord damage that resulted in permanent paralysis.

Ocean-safety experts, emergency room personnel and others who deal with the trauma and tragedy of drowning have long criticized the state and counties for failing to warn visitors of the real dangers our ocean waters pose. Telling people of the real consequences undermines Hawaii’s image as an idyllic tourist destination.

The Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee was formed last fall in an effort to do a better job of drowning prevention. The airport signs unveiled to the media with much fanfare Monday are the product of that advisory committee, health director Dr. Virginia Pressler said in a press release that drove home the deep concerns over visitor drowning shared by the organizations that deal with them.

In fact, the dozen or so members of the advisory committee pulled together to produce a cost-effective public information campaign. Health department spokeswoman Janice Okubo says the cost of 13 posters was about $3,400 and Hawaiian Airlines absorbed some of the cost of shipping them to airports around the state.

They were produced in-house and mounted on racks generously built free of charge by Jim Howe and Ralph Goto of the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association. The state Department of Transportation, which controls the baggage area space, waived fees to display them.

Despite the missed messaging opportunity, hawaibeachsafety.com — the website prominently displayed on the posters — has information that could actually save your life.

The new site features real-time information from beaches on Kauai, Maui, Hawaii Island and Oahu. Site navigation divides the beaches first by island, then by Recommended, Lifeguarded and Closed beaches, as well as islands where Active Alerts are in effect.

Each beach page displays information on beach and nearshore conditions, offshore conditions, weather, surf, recommended activities and amenities, as well as information on getting there and history and fun facts about each beach. Beach conditions include warnings like “High Hazard” and “Extreme Hazard.”

On Monday afternoon, for instance, beach and nearshore conditions at Oahu’s notoriously dangerous Sandy Beach were designated Extreme Hazard: “Conditions are extremely hazardous. People are advised to stay out of the ocean.” Good advice.

Just as important, the website can be instantly translated into 104 languages, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese (simplified or traditional) and Spanish.

But with a visitor drowning rate 13 times that of the national average and 10 times the rate of Hawaii residents, what’s disappointing is state officials’ reluctance to address one of Hawaii’s most serious problems head on.

Know Before You Go. Don’t Drown.

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