Wind, Risky Behavior Lead to More Lake Drownings

High winds over Lake Michigan have caused the most drownings in the lake since 2012, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP).

The project, designed to educate people on water safety, recorded 32 total deaths this year in Lake Michigan, with 14 in Chicago. Last year, the GLSRP recorded 25 deaths in Lake Michigan; in 2012, 50 people died.

The most recent drowning in Chicago occurred on Aug. 16. Alexander Fortis, 27, died after jumping into Diversey Harbor, ABC 7 reported.

Closer to Lake Shore Campus, 49-year-old Stephen Taylor was found dead near Loyola Beach on June 19. His body was pulled from Lake Michigan near the 1000 block of West Pratt Boulevard.

Chicago Police Department (CPD) News affairs officer Kevin Quaid said Area North detectives are investigating but could not provide further details of Taylor’s death.

Sophomore journalism student Hannah Chin said she witnessed CPD officers gathered on the beach the day the body was found.

“It’s scary to think about people being killed near the beach,” said Chin, 19. “It’s supposed to be a happy place where kids and families go to enjoy the nature of Chicago and the lake.”

Severe wind and weather causes the Great Lakes to be especially dangerous for swimmers, according to Brian Ohsowski, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability. While the lakes are not affected by the moon’s gravitational pull like the oceans are, Ohsowski explained, wind creates wave action when it pushes east.

As a result of weather-made currents, one of the largest danger zones, is the water surrounding “steel piles,” meaning piers or docks, according to Ohsowski. These popular beach attractions block off the water’s flow, so with no good exit route, the water piles at the corner of the shore and the pier and then flows rapidly next to the pier, threatening to pull nearby swimmers into open water, Ohsowski said.

Additionally, the rip currents that are formed between sandbars because of a blockade problem similar to that caused by piers can be a huge danger to swimmers. The clear water between areas of foamy waves, not far from the shoreline, is a sign of a rip current.

“The issue that we really have is that rip currents are super dangerous [because] it looks like it’s the best place to swim,” Ohsowski said. “All of a sudden … there’s this alley of a calm spot.”

Ohsowski advises people who end up caught in a rip current to try to swim downstream and parallel to the shore to avoid getting swept back into the current.”

Lake Michigan’s beaches also proved dangerous for other reasons this summer. The large storms that dominated July caused a swim ban to be enacted throughout Chicago on July 24 due to high amounts of bacteria in the water. Lifeguards told beachgoers they were not allowed to enter the water because of heavy rains.

The Chicago Beach District lifted the ban later that evening, according to its Twitter page.

Loyola student Yuliya Pomeranets said her experience at the nearby Pratt Beach was mostly pleasant this summer, which she attributes to the lifeguards present at the beach and her own past training as a lifeguard at a pool.

“The lifeguards don’t let us go very far,” said Pomeranets, a junior biology major. “They kept us [in] very shallow [water].”

While lifeguards are typically present during the day at the beach, they are not always there to keep people safe. The rules for Loyola Beach include “swim only when lifeguards are on duty,” a rule that some people, including college students, do not always heed.

“I was always there during the day … but if it’s early in the morning or at night, there might not be lifeguards,” Pomeranets said. “People probably go and then you can swim as far [as you want].”

With no lifeguards present, beachgoers are free to swim further out, a risky decision often fueled by alcohol. Alcohol use is involved in as many as 70 percent of teen and adult recreational water deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senior Conor Moran said he witnessed people drinking on the beaches near Loyola at night on a few occasions. The environmental policy major said he doesn’t see a problem with it if people are under control.

“As long as people are generally respectful and pick up their trash … it’s never really an issue,” said Moran, 21. “You never really see a lot of [drunk people] running around, it’s usually more [like they have] … one drink or two.”

Chin said she is more concerned with the possibility of encountering dangerous people than she is with dangerous waters.

“I would say the people aspect is more important to me,” Chin said. “There’s obviously some sketchy people in Rogers Park … The beach isn’t always as full as it should be, so you need to look out … for yourself.”

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