Chesterton Tribune

Lake Michigan drownings reflect badly on our Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

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Lake Michigan drownings reflect badly on our Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Voice of the People

Having lived in Porter Beach in the Indiana Dunes for much of my adult life, I have come to know the sound of lakefront tragedy by the heart stopping wail of sirens followed by the streaming arrival of trained professional rescuers marshalling experience as they maneuver to the beach hoping for a miracle.

Unmistakable sounds of tragedy filled the air Saturday on what began as a crystal clear, sparkling, beautiful day at the beach.

As night fell neighbors gathered on the beach in the tradition of a long observed summer ritual, to salute the sunset over the skyline. Hushed tones replaced the usual celebratory spirit of another day’s end on the beach. The outcome had become clear and the wait would be unbearably excruciating. Together we looked out to the lake at once majestic, mysterious and menacing pleading helplessly to “please, just give him back”. It is all that we could offer and hope for young Rafael Palomar’s family. The lake, like the mountains, gives up its lost only when it is ready.

Sunday we awakened to audio reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now” or the familiar opening sequence of “Mash,” helicopters descending at daybreak. It is the most unsettling sound, one I can never forget.

On Tuesday the lake gave up. Rafael Palomar’s family got closure. And now we hear the myriad of opinion about, blame and prevention for tragedies such as this.

We hear the cries for common sense to heed the posted warnings. We hear the collective “gosh darn, gee whiz” lament of the National Park Service shaking its collective head and absolving itself of responsibility by pointing to posted rip current warning signs. Never mind that those signs are posted in April and exchanged in October for alternate signs warning of the winter hazards of shelf ice. There is no demand for serious notice or attention when the warning signs blend with the hodgepodge of other signage cluttering the beach. The signs seem benign, even, simply illustrated with an unimposing diagram of a rip current.

It is true that government cannot be responsible for protecting the people from every potential hazard. But the clash of people and danger is magnified at Porter Beach. There a small slice of National Lakeshore Park beach remains unguarded just yards from the Indiana Dunes State Park where attentive lifeguards watch and heed the dangerous conditions which combine to spawn deadly rip currents. With more than 400 cars full of visitors to the state park and about 100 cars to the national park there exists a prime formula for deadly consequence.

Some folks migrate the short distance to Porter Beach when the State Park beach is closed for swimming. If they hear the State Park announcements about rip current dangers on a particular day and choose to enter the unguarded waters at Porter Beach, it is a tragic shame. But what of the National Park Service guests who are invited to tragedy by the combination of easy access to parking at a beautiful beach and little to warn of the dangers in the incredible natural beauty of those enticing crashing waves?

Conditions Saturday were predictable, known to be dangerous by those familiar with the beach rhythms, but a complete mystery to the population the NPS targets to visit its Dunes beaches.

Leaving this beach area unsupervised with weak warning systems places the blame for tragic outcome squarely at the feet of the National Park Service and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Park Service gauges its success on a formula which considers in part the number of visitors drawn to each of its venues. Is it still a calculated success when the parking lots are full and drowning occurs on their watch slick with ignorance to accountability? On busy beach days there are rangers posted in the parking lots, keeping the peace, mostly checking coolers for contraband alcohol. But there is no one to warn of the dangers at the beach and in the water.

We must demand better of our National Park. That they continue to wash their hands of responsibility with inaction is criminal.

My heart aches for the loss of a young boy and the grief his family must endure.

Let us memorialize Rafael Palomar with a call for better control and a safer beach now.

Jamie Hogan



Posted 8/8/2008