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Recent Lake Michigan drownings bring safety into question

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MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. - A spike in drownings on Lake Michigan over the past year and a half has experts warning all swimmers to beware of strong wind, waves and rip currents--- especially where lifeguards are not on duty.

During the hot summer months, Lake Michigan is the place to go to cool down. But visitors don’t always know how dangerous the waters can be.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, out of 35 deaths in the Great Lakes since January, 17, have been on Lake Michigan. That number is up from 12 at this point last year.

Dave Benjamin with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said it’s due to a lack of education.

“Drowning continues to be a neglected public health issue because it continues to be neglected,” Benjamin said. “It’s a huge problem that we just don’t address and there’s no windfall of funding for education outreach and research like there are for other public education programs.”

Even with signs advising against swimming, you can often still see swimmers in the lake.

Bob Urban visits the lake all the time and has seen people ignore red flags.

“The other day while I was here, the waters were rough. The lifeguards walked up and down the beach, and they were putting signs in the beach to stay out of the water and people were still going in the water, walking right past the signs,” Urban said.

Allison Thomas is the Head Guard at Washington Park Beach in Michigan City, where the drowning of 17-year-old Rahem Mason of South Bend happened on July 6th. She said that if the water is rough enough, lifeguards will pull swimmers out of the water or keep watch when people ignore the signs, but some beaches don’t even have lifeguards and others are understaffed.

In Mason’s case, it was after hours and there was no lifeguards present.

However, even when lifeguards are actively telling visitors to get out of the water, Urban said he has seen those same people get back into the water after the lifeguards leave.

“Anytime you’re willingly ignoring warnings and advisories, you are actively taking your life in your own hands,” said Lt. Phillip Gurtlur, the public affairs officer for the Coast Guard.

He said to make sure you go out in pairs.

“If you choose to go swimming in that area, always be prepared, make sure someone knows where you are going to be, when you’re going to be there and when you expect to be back,” Gurtlur said. “If you’re not, they can make that call.”

Gurtlur warns everyone to make sure that even if the water looks calm, to be prepared for sudden changes.

Carrie Jacks has personally experienced the lakes rough waters.

“Me and my sons have gotten caught in a rip current before, probably about 15 years ago, and it happened so fast. We were just playing in the waves in knee deep water, and next thing you know, we’re up to our neck,” Jacks said.

She said it is important to educate beachgoers who come from out of town.

“When you see how many people have actually perished in this lake, it might be an eye-opening experience for people who visit the area who don’t know,” she said.

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