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With Lake Michigan's record-high deaths, activists call for more safety measures
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With Lake Michigan's record-high deaths, activists call for more safety measures

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One day in May 2019, 23-year-old Jacob Sandy, of South Bend, set out kayaking at Porter Beach.

Although Sandy was unfamiliar with Northwest Indiana beaches, he was an experienced kayaker. No one who knew him had any reason to expect he would be in danger.

Two weeks after the start of Sandy's kayaking trip, his body washed up on the shore of Indiana Dunes State Park.

“Imagine the agony of having your child floating in Lake Michigan,” his mother, Carol Smith Sandy, said.

Lake Michigan broke a grim record in September — a new high in reported drowning deaths.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, an Illinois-based nonprofit that records drowning statistics, reports 53 confirmed drownings since the beginning of the year, breaking its previous record of 49, set in 2012.

The nonprofit’s executive director, Dave Benjamin, calls 2020 Lake Michigan’s “deadliest” year on record.

Seven of those drownings occurred in Northwest Indiana, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources reported.

Benjamin said many of those deaths could have been preventable.

'A neglected public health issue'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a total of 3,709 people were victims of drownings in 2019. Men made up more than 75% of drowning deaths, at 2,802. 

Drowning is also a leading cause of death for children ages 1-4, and the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1-14, right behind car accidents, the CDC and World Health Organization report.

For the United States, drowning is the fifth-leading cause of accidental deaths, the CDC reports.

“It is a huge problem. It's a public health issue, and it's a neglected public health issue,” Benjamin said.

He said two factors holding back drowning prevention are a lack of a public awareness and a social stigma around drowning.

“People look at it as a recreational issue, so when a drowning happens, they put the blame and focus on the drowning victim or the parents of the drowning victim, or they just write it off as Darwinism, (or) survival of the fittest,” Benjamin said.

He added that, in order to avoid preventable drownings, sufficient knowledge and resources are needed. Benjamin's approach toward beach safety is comprehensive, with special attention toward several key areas.

It includes spreading public awareness about drowning as a public health issue, Benjamin said. “(It means) knowing how to swim, yes, but (also) understanding that knowing how to swim doesn’t mean you can’t drown,” he added. “There is a difference between knowing how to swim and knowing how to survive.”

Often, casual beachgoers with swimming know-how aren’t trained to swim great lengths, Benjamin said.

Additionally, many trained swimmers give into the panic when faced with an active drowning, Benjamin said.

“People often think, ‘Hey, I can’t believe this person drowned because they knew how to swim.’ Swimming is an endurance sport,” he said. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Just because you know how to run doesn’t mean you could run a marathon.’”

Lifeguards make a difference

Benjamin also has pushed strongly for more lifeguards and safety equipment at beaches.

To better understand lifeguards’ role in water safety, Benjamin said, one must be familiar with the stages of drowning.

Submerged swimmers have just under one minute until they stop breathing, Benjamin said. If someone can retrieve them from the water and get them breathing again in under two minutes, that person has about a 94% chance of surviving, he added.

Around three minutes of submersion, that person’s heart would stop.

At roughly four minutes, they would start to experience irreversible brain damage.

If someone is recovered up to 10 minutes after submersion, that person has only a 14% chance of survival, Benjamin said.

In short, Benjamin said, if a submerged swimmer is recovered within two minutes it is likely a full recovery if rescue breaths and CPR is performed properly. If a submerged swimmer is recovered after 10 minutes, it is likely a body recovery.

When mere moments can determine the difference between life and death, it’s critical for help to be seconds away, Benjamin said.

Additionally, an attempted rescue by a good Samaritan can quickly develop into a dangerous situation if the submerged swimmer gives into panic. Lifeguards, on the other hand, are trained to protect swimmers in trouble, as well as themselves.

That's why, he said, it is crucial for lifeguards to be present while swimmers are in the water.

He added that beaches’ flags system, which indicate the severity of beach hazards each day, are “a failure” without lifeguards on duty.

Benjamin added that he’d like to see lifeguards posted in the Indiana Dunes National Park, Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk and finally, Porter Beach — where Sandy drowned last year.

Region cities that have lifeguards posted include Chesterton, Michigan City, Hammond, Whiting and Gary. In Gary, lifeguards patrol Marquette Park, Lake Street Beach and West Beach, but Wells Street Beach is patrolled by Gary police and Lake County Sheriff beach units.

"If (they are) going to provide parking and bathrooms, they should also provide safety," he said.

To this day, Sandy's mother believes he may have survived, had there been lifeguards at the beach that day.

So, too, does Sandy's brother, Paul Sandy. He described Jacob as a man of strong faith who had dreams of being a teacher and starting a family.

"I would hope that Indiana state officials would take it seriously and provide research-based solutions and make sure other families don’t go through what we have gone through," Paul Sandy said.

Sandy added that any states benefiting from beach tourism should ensure that proper safety protocols are in place to prevent similar tragedies from unfolding.

That’s why Smith Sandy is now advocating for legislation in her home state of Michigan that would increase the presence of lifeguards at beaches there. She is working with State Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-40th) on a bill that, if passed, would green-light a study on lifeguard effectiveness.

“I think if the state or national parks are going to make these places desirable for people, they need to make it as safe as they can,” Smith Sandy said, echoing Benjamin's thought that the flag system does not do enough to prevent drownings.

“Drownings can be preventable to an extent,” she said. “Lifeguards reduce the gap.”

A grassroots safety approach

Benjamin said there are certain basic steps the public can take to protect themselves, regardless of whether lifeguards are on duty.

He recommends bringing any kind of floating device and designating someone to watch the water if visiting the beach in a group — especially if you are with children.

He also teaches a three-step drowning survival strategy: "flip, float and follow." It proceeds as follows: flip onto your back, float to keep your head above water and conserve your energy, and follow the safest path to safety and out of the water.

Arguably the most important step would-be beachgoers can take to stay safe is checking the weather conditions before even setting foot on a beach.

Whenever forecasters identify potential weather-related risks at area beaches, the National Weather Service issues what are called beach hazards statements.

The NWS typically issues beach hazards statements when forecasters predict waves to be about 3 to 5 feet high or more. Onshore winds are a major contributing factor that drive hazards statements, as there is a direct correlation between the winds’ strength and shoreline wave heights, said Kevin Donofrio, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Romeoville office.

Although waves only a few feet high may not sound dangerous to the average beachgoer, Donofrio said there are other factors to consider.

For one, poor weather tends to lead to waves that batter the shore in quick succession. Meteorologists refer to the distance between two waves making contact with the shore as the “wave period.” Wave periods tend to be shorter at the Great Lakes, especially when exacerbated by beach hazards, Donofrio said.

“The big thing that catches people off guard is (that) they hear 3 to 5 feet and think, ‘Oh, that’s not a big deal.’ It is a big deal,” Donofrio said, because short wave periods can cause a bystander to lose their footing and be swept into the water.

Additionally, waves 4 to 6 feet high pose the risk of sweeping people off piers, jetties, breakwalls and other shoreline structures and into the water. NWS advises the public to stay away from any shoreline structures when waves reach such heights.

Donofrio added that, compared to other weather-related deaths that the public tends to think of as killers — including tornadoes and winter storms — lake drownings are a far more common occurrence.

“The most important thing is just to be aware of what conditions are going to be like before you get to the beach,” Donofrio said. “If these statements are in effect, pay attention to any beach closures and just take the lake seriously.”

Despite higher swimming activity during the summer months, Benjamin notes that drownings happen year-round, and at various bodies of water — so the public can never let their guard down.

Anyone with internet access can view the National Weather Service’s daily forecast, which indicates whether beach hazards statements or other advisories have been activated at local beaches. The agency’s Romeoville office covers Lake and Porter Counties, as well as parts of Wisconsin and Illinois, while its Syracuse, Indiana, office covers LaPorte County.

Those offices' forecasts are available online at www.weather.gov/lot and www.weather.gov/iwx.

For a broader picture of beach conditions at the Great Lakes, one can visit NWS’ Great Lakes Beach Hazards map. The interactive atlas indicates whether beach hazards conditions are in effect and provides a description of conditions, both on a county basis. It also can be accessed by visiting www.weather.gov/greatlakes/beachhazards.

More information on beach safety is available through the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project’s website at www.glsrp.org.

Gallery: Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project lifeguard training

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