Jerry Davich: Drowning latest reminder of lake’s deceptive ferocity
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org July 10, 2012 10:22PM
Police patrol the water's edge during the South Shore Air Show at Marquette Park and Beach in Gary, Ind. Saturday July 7, 2012. The air show continues Sunday. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Beach and water safety tips:
Swim at guarded beaches.
Obey posted warning flags.
Keep children within arm’s reach — aka hands-on touch supervision
When in doubt, don’t go out. Know your limits and the limits of your friends and family at the beach.
Designate “Water Watchers” (The Water Watcher Card) by Safe Kids USA
Know the signs
Know the dangers of offshore winds. Follow the “Flip, Float, Follow” rip current survival strategy
1. Flip over onto your back.
2. Float to keep your head above water, calm yourself and conserve energy.
3. Follow the current until it weakens. Most currents dissipate quickly as they move away from the shore into deeper water. Ride it out, figure out which direction the water is flowing, and swim perpendicular to the current and then toward shore.
As long as you are floating, you are alive. When you are fighting the current, you are drowning.
Source: Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
Updated: August 12, 2012 6:29AM
Lake Michigan’s waves appeared angry on late Sunday afternoon near Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park.
I just happened to be walking along the beach near that popular public-access site after watching the tail end of the Gary South Shore Air Show. As the F-16 fighter jets exited the friendly skies, I was surprised to see swimmers bobbing in the unfriendly waters, well off the shore.
Further down the shoreline, near West Beach, two lifeguards told swimmers to get out of the water after rip current warnings were put into effect. But there are no lifeguards at the Riverwalk and most other beaches.
For 15 years, I’ve written too many columns on Lake Michigan drownings, most caused by rip currents, the vacuum-like force in the surf zone of our deceiving Great Lake.
These deceptive currents are formed when winds from the north cause waves to break on sandbars near the beach. Excess water then flows back into the lake through low areas in the sandbars, causing a “rip” in the sandbar. The effect is similar to pulling the plug in a bathtub.
“Why is anyone swimming in these choppy waters?” I asked my sister, shaking my head.
Minutes later, 15-year-old Corey McFry, of Portage, was reported missing in the water. After an extensive two-day search, his body was located on Tuesday morning along the shore of Ogden Dunes, exactly where I had been walking that day.
Although I knew his body would most likely wash up on shore — most drowning victims do — Corey’s friends and loved ones remained buoyed by hope.
“There’s a chance, a little glimmer of hope that he’s still out there struggling to get home,” one of his Facebook friends wrote on a new page created after he disappeared. “Don’t give up hope!”
I knew better. Another summer in Northwest Indiana, another drowning in Lake Michigan.
“Lake Michigan should be viewed as an ocean in terms of its power,” said Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris, whose office was notified of Corey’s recovery at 5:12 a.m. Tuesday.
Lake Michigan isn’t a water park or a public swimming pool — all safe, regulated and supervised. It’s the real deal — beautiful yet dangerous, calming yet misleading, incredibly enticing yet potentially deadly.
During the rescue and recovery attempt, the fiancé of Corey’s mother, Mark McGregor, told reporters that Corey was an “all-right swimmer.”
I immediately thought, “He didn’t stand a chance.”
Rip currents forecast
“It’s sad because the wave conditions and rip current situation were really weak from my point of view, but for a novice swimmer it was deadly,” said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. “Most drownings occur during moderate wave action because they look fun and safe.”
Benjamin also just happened to be at that beach on Sunday afternoon, and he chronicled the rescue effort knowing full well that Corey’s death would most likely become the 41st Great Lakes drowning death this year alone. As well as the 202nd drowning death in the Great Lakes since 2010, with Lake Michigan accounting for nearly 80 percent of them.
Benjamin, from Matteson, Ill., has been swimming in Lake Michigan for 42 years, and he co-founded the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project after surviving a near drowning accident the day after Christmas 2010.
On Sunday, he knew the conditions were dangerous, and deadly, even predicting it with a press release a few days before Corey went under.
“As the warm air temperatures subside this weekend, north winds are forecasted for Saturday morning through Sunday night/Monday morning. These winds will cause waves and dangerous rip currents especially for children and novice swimmers.”
Benjamin has been emailing me such news releases for a couple of years now, and I’ve been saving them for a summertime column. I should have figured it would take another drowning before I would note his organization and its mostly unheralded efforts.
Both of us, however, noticed the same irony as we drove separately to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. As you pass the U.S. Steel plant to the beach, there is a digital sign proudly stating, “No workplace accidents in [#] days.”
Such signs are common in potentially dangerous industrial sites, and such signs could also be used to raise awareness to Lake Michigan drownings, we both believe.
More education needed
In spring 2011, Benjamin attended several town hall meetings in Northwest Indiana (and Michigan) to address the drowning danger.
“I stood up and suggested a memorial sign that has the day, date, name, age and maybe a picture of the drowning victim, to create awareness,” Benjamin told me.
“The consensus among the attendees of civil servants, business leaders and residents was, ‘No way. We don’t want to advertise drowning.’” he said. “It’s not advertising drowning. It’s advocating safety.”
I agree completely.
Something more needs to be done to prevent more truly senseless drowning deaths. Education, of course, is key, and that’s exactly what Benjamin’s not-for-profit organization is all about.
“The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is about saving lives,” he said, noting that it’s a chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. “This issue has many facets and a huge education effort must take place on many levels.”
His organization has been selected to present at the 2nd International Rip Current Symposium this November in Sydney, Australia, and it was the 2012 winner of the Outstanding Service to the Great Lakes Community award by the Dairyland Surf Classic. In other words, it has its credentials in order.
It is working with the Michigan Sea Grant’s “Flip, Float, Follow” rip current survival strategy, to develop a national curriculum similar to the Fire Prevention Services’ “Stop, Drop and Roll” program.
“Ask anyone anywhere in the United States and they probably know ‘Stop, Drop and Roll,’” he aptly noted, hoping “Flip, Float, Follow” can catch on as well.
That’s a start, and hopefully more local officials will consider working with his group. Or erecting memorial signs to warn oblivious or overly daring swimmers.
In the meantime, both he and I are wondering the cost to pay for lifeguards at our beaches versus the cost for just one more rescue and recovery effort.
“How much money does it cost to fuel two helicopters, three rescue boats, four jet-skis, and all of the man hours of first responders over the last 24 hours?” he asked Monday, referring to the recent recovery effort. “Is it enough money to fund at least two lifeguards’ salaries for the summer?”
I think we all know the answer, and Benjamin will offer more answers on my Casual Fridays radio show this Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM. Call in at 769-9577.