The Hancock County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved an emergency flag warning system for the county beach.
Last week, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality closed all beach areas in Hancock County and Pass Christian and most of Harrison County due to the effects of a Harmful Algal Bloom.
"MDEQ advises people, and their pets, to avoid water contact such as swimming or wading because exposure to the blue-green HAB can be harmful," an MDEQ release states. "The closures refer to water contact and do not prohibit use of the sand portion of a beach. The algae can cause rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. MDEQ advises that those exposed wash with soap and water and to not eat fish or any other seafood take from affected areas."
Board President Blaine LaFontaine said that in "light of the new norm for our water," as a result of the Bonnet Carre Spillway opening, "I believe that we are going to have a frequency of these events."
"We've got to be proactive," LaFontaine said.
He added that county road manager Vic Johnson placed flags and signage stating "no swimming" on the beaches last week.
"We still have people that are swimming in the beaches," he said. "We don't have the resources, in my opinion, to go out and mandate. It's a public beach and they're entering at their own risk. But we've got to be able to communicate better, have a system in place, and proper signage."
LaFontaine added that the county doesn't have anything formal on the books about a warning system for the beach.
According to the proposal, "warning flags are important and will allow locals and tourists to avoid hazards and have a safe and enjoyable beach experience."
The flag system LaFontaine proposed would use green, yellow, and red flags. A green flag would indicate that the water is safe. Yellow flags would indicate moderate hazards and would be "deployed when MDEQ issues notices regarding water quality." The red flags would indicate that "high hazards exist and the public is advised to stay out of the water." The double red flags "indicate that the water is closed and not available for public use."
LaFontaine said that MDEQ has four areas in Hancock County that officials sample.
"However, looking at our beachfront, looking at the high density areas where people go and visit, but we talked about adopting 11 locations in the county, all the way from the Silver Slipper to the Cedar Point boat launch."
The MDEQ stations are located at Lakeshore/Lower Bay Road; Buccaneer State Park Beach; Washington Street/St. Charles; and St. Clare/Vacation Lane.
Other proposed locations include: Nicholson Avenue, Coleman Avenue, Bay Oaks, St. Stanislaus Beach, Chapel Hill/Bay Bridge; and Bay-Waveland Yacht Club.
The proposal also states that flags will be mounted along with flag system signage. It also includes the addition of "methods of communication for public health and safety awareness such as social media, media press release, and changing flags."
Supervisor David Yarborough said that he wouldn't put a set number on the locations that the county would place flags.
The board unanimously approved a motion to adopt the policy.
Last week, MDEQ officials said they have not yet found any specific data linking the HAB to the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway. However, MDEQ officials also stated the blue-green algae in the Mississippi Sound is usually only found in freshwater areas.
Since the Spillway's opening to alleviate Mississippi River flooding, on May 10, freshwater has continuously entered the Mississippi Sound. It has been tied to the deaths of about 130 dolphins and 156 sea turtles.
The next meeting is scheduled for July 15 at 9 a.m.