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Despite City’s Water Safety Adjustments, Activists Say Changes Are ‘Never Fast Enough’

courtesy of the 49th WardMaria Hadden, alderwoman of the 49th ward, teamed up with first responders and water safety organizations to teach Rogers Park residents about the dangers of Lake Michigan.

Multiple drownings in Lake Michigan across the city in the past year have led to a water safety movement calling for better water safety signs, more community education and an increased lifeguard presence. 

Rogers Park and the city as a whole have made changes to waterfront safety since last summer, including introducing new educational programs and putting up a red flag when lifeguards aren’t on duty, according to Halle Quezada, a Chicago Public Schools teacher and founder of the organization Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety (CAWS).

Last summer, 13-year-old Darihanne Torres died after being caught in a rip current at Loyola Beach. The incident sparked a larger conversation about waterfront safety in Rogers Park, The Phoenix reported

Quezada said she was on the beach the night Torres drowned and started CAWS to increase public knowledge about dangerous water conditions and how people can help in drowning situations.  

“Looking in hindsight, there was so much we could have done before that moment if we just knew,” Quezada said. “We just didn’t know. I’m not comfortable being in that position again. I’m not comfortable with losing another life. … Since I’m not comfortable with that, I have to make sure I’m working to change it.”

Joe Moore, alderman of the 49th Ward when Torres died, created the Lakefront Safety Task Force after her death  — which included CAWS and other water safety organizations — in order to generate ideas on how to make the water safer.

At the beginning of this summer, Moore’s task force presented 13 recommendations to the city of Chicago to make Lake Michigan safer.

Maria Hadden, the current alderwoman of the 49th ward — which covers Rogers Park — said her office is working to implement these recommendations. She said they’re starting by equipping beaches with rescue devices, which weren’t previously present on any Rogers Park beaches.  

Two bodies were pulled from Lake Michigan this summer, including a 56-year-old man at East Lake Terrace Beach July 2 and a 64-year-old man named Croslene Kettle at West Pratt Boulevard June 25, The Phoenix reported. It’s unclear if they drowned, as the causes of death are still pending, according to Natalie Derevyanny, a spokesperson for the Medical Examiner. 

So far this year, 28 people have drowned in Lake Michigan, which is 87 percent more than last year, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project

Rogers Park has the highest drowning rate in Chicago, according to studies the taskforce examined. Quezada said this is partly because people live directly on the waterfront and have easier access to the lake compared to other Chicago neighborhoods.

One of the recommendations the taskforce made was to have lifeguards present on beaches during daylight hours, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Right now, lifeguards only work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to the Chicago Park District.  

Another recommendation was improving signs surrounding the beaches, including repainting fading signs and adding new ones with information about dangerous currents and how to contact first responders.

Other suggestions include better training for first responders, increased water safety education in schools and making flotation devices available at the beach. 

The city has made changes to waterfront safety since last summer, such as introducing new educational programs and adjusting the current beach flag system by putting up a red flag when lifeguards aren’t on duty, Quezada said. 

Quezada said her organization doesn’t necessarily agree with the flag change because internationally, the red flag means dangerous conditions, so using a red flag to indicate something else might confuse people.

In addition to city-wide changes, CAWS partnered with Hadden and other groups involved in water safety — such as the fire and police departments — to host educational events in Rogers Park where residents can learn different skills.

About 30 Rogers Park residents met July 29 to learn about different water safety tips at an event on the beach organized by Hadden, first responders and multiple water safety non-profit organizations. They learned about what to do if they feel unsafe in the water or see someone else in distress. 

They also learned how to best watch children in the water and where to find inexpensive swim lessons, according to Hadden. Attendees were able to practice using life rings and perform CPR. 

“Not everything is common sense,” Hadden said. “A lot of people enjoy the lake and we’re in such close proximity to it, we can become really comfortable with it and sometimes forget about some of the dangers.” 

Although some changes have been made, Quezada said she still feels that more could be done.

“As long as people are dying, it’s never enough and it’s never fast enough,” Quezada said. “I’m glad that there are changes but our work isn’t done yet.”

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