Chesterton Tribune

NPS says poor decisions chief factor in Lake Michigan drownings

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

In Northwest Indiana, summer means the beach.

Millions and millions of visitors flock to the shores of Lake Michigan just to feel the sugary sand sift through their toes and find serenity in the water, surrounded by the beauty of one of nature’s greatest creations.

An odd place for tragedy, but it happens all too frequently. Fortunately, there are warning signs that signal peril: strong winds, irregular waves, a flash of lightening.

The odds of dying by accidental drowning in your lifetime are 1 in 1,103 and Lake Michigan is not a place to test those odds.

But for some reason, people do it anyway, daily. Even when they are told a beach is closed, some people will just try the next beach over.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has taken its share of criticism this year for its unguarded, swim-at-your-own-risk beaches and other lack of safety measures that may or may not be responsible for three separate drownings that have occurred in its waters.

In a standout year for drownings, the Porter County Convention and Recreation Visitors Commission board sounded a call to make the beaches safer for residents and visitors.

On Tuesday Mike Bremer, chief of Resource and Visitor Protection for the National Lakeshore, along with Indiana Dunes State Park Manager Brandt Baughman, rolled out hard data for lake tragedies in an attempt to answer the questions of how and why drownings happen.

Bremer, a former lifeguard and First Aid instructor for the Red Cross, said the Lakeshore has seen 18 drowning deaths since 1995 with several years like 2012 seeing multiple incidents. “We’ve had some good years. We’ve had some bad years. They’re just kind of all over the place,” Bremer said.

The victims have been overwhelmingly male – 13 compared to five females – and 14 of them have been under the age of 25.

At least one third of the drowning deaths occurred when there were no adverse water conditions at all.

However, Bremer said many of the incidents can usually be tied to one thing – bad decision making. Those include being in the water when waves reach eight feet or more in height or when adults let children play at the beach unsupervised.

The Lakeshore will close the beaches when rip currents are present (beaches have been closed a total of 21 days this summer, 12 due to rough water) but nonetheless swimmers still show up.

“We do have a problem with people paying attention to authority,” said Bremer.

At every developed entrance of the Lakeshore there are safety signs warning park visitors not to swim if they see the waves in the surf are breaking.

The waves are especially dangerous the first 20 yards off shore, Bremer said, and forceful waves that knock people down over and over again can be more hazardous than rip currents. Couple the presence of breaking waves with a not-so-strong swimmer and the risk of drowning is very high.

“If the waves are breaking, you best find something else to do that day,” said Bremer.

Bremer mentioned the only guarded beach in the Lakeshore is West Beach near Ogden Dunes and despite the number of people looking for work, it is a struggle for the National Park Service and the State Park to find lifeguards. This fact surprised PCCRVC member Judy Chaplin who remembered years back when many students would work as lifeguards on their summer break. She said having the beaches walked by park staff as it had in the past could decrease the number of accidental drownings.

PCCRVC board president Mitch Peters suggested the park staff visit the local schools once a year before summer to give presentations on beach safety.

“It would be nice to have something in Porter County,” he said.

The Lakeshore is currently producing a safety video series that can be viewed in the classroom. Bremer said it is easy to create education for children but ultimately the park needs to reach out to parents, as they are typically the ones who decide on going to the beach.

One safety tip parents should remember is to be in close proximity to their children at all times, preferably no more than an arm length’s away, said Bremer.

Baughman added that missing children are a prevalent problem at the state park, which sees more than 150 such reports per year.

An even bigger challenge is to alert visitors from beyond Northwest Indiana, Bremer said. Forty percent of those who visit the park are from out of state. Bremer said his agency will continue to spread safety information through the media but the effort has remained somewhat futile as news organizations have declined to run the information.

The Lakeshore will continue to brainstorm ways to spread the safety message, which will be implemented based on their effectiveness rather than cost, Bremer said. The most they can do now is try to get the public to cooperate in observing water safety, but there will always be patrons who will ignore warnings.

PCCRVC member Scott Tuft agreed on the difficulty of crowd control. “They are going to do what they want and that’s unfortunate,” said Tuft.

Drownings are not exclusive to the Lakeshore, Bremer said. Drowning is the number one cause of death in the national park system.

Lease agreement in reach

In other business, the PCCRVC’s board attorney David Hollenbeck said more communication has been made with the General Services Administration over the lease agreement the tourism bureau has with National Park Service concerning space in the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center.

The NPS has submitted new language more reflective of the Memorandum of Understanding made earlier between the two entities.

PCCRVC Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said her hope is the final lease can be finalized prior to the Sept. 4 Porter County Commissioners meeting, when they are scheduled to vote on it.

Mitch Nichols of Nichols Tourism Group will be meeting with Indiana Dunes Tourism and NPS officials next week to discuss improvements to the visitor center.

Expo Center now has website

Weimer reported the tourism bureau has finalized its second website for a county venue. The Expo Center’s official site can be accessed at www.indianadunes.com/expo-center. It was created within the same site developed especially for Indiana Dunes Tourism.

The next venue to receive a website upgrade will be the Memorial Opera House, followed by the Porter County Museum of History.

Visitation up in July

Weimer said numbers for the visitor center in July are once again above 2011’s figures. The center saw 17,189 visitors last month.

Also up this month is the Innkeeper’s tax collection from June. The collection check was $143,550, which is nearly 20 percent above June 2011’s collection. Weimer said the increase is a combination of a rise in visitor numbers and one of the inns submitting back taxes.

 

Posted 8/15/2012