Water caution urged on Northeast Michigan beaches

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena resident Brooklyn Bilicki stands in Thunder Bay waves at Mich-e-ke-wis Park in Alpena on Wednesday.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan beachgoers and pool-dippers should pack an extra helping of caution alongside their water gear after a report that more people are drowning in the Great Lakes this year than last year.

Fatal and non-fatal drownings in the Great Lakes in the first half of the year increased by nearly 30% between 2020 and 2021, according to data collated by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit that tracks drowning statistics and advocates for water safety.

“You never want to underestimate the power of water,” said Krista Morrow, who teaches water safety as director of the Alpena County Plaza Pool.

Drowning — the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion in liquid — is not always fatal. Every year, however, an average of 11 adults, teenagers, and children die from drowning each day in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Warm summer days, combined with a post-pandemic itch to get outside, may be driving up this year’s drowning numbers, Morrow surmised.

Busy Northeast Michigan beaches mean happy summer days for residents and visitors, but anyone in the water should be cautious, especially those with children, she cautioned.

More children aged 1 to 4 die from drowning than from any other cause except birth defects, and most of those drowning deaths happen in swimming pools. Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death among children aged 1 to 14, after motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC.

Water toys, such as giant, inflatable flamingos popular in recent years, encourage parents to think their little ones are safe. In only a matter of seconds, such inflatables can be pulled beyond a parent’s reach, especially when the wind shifts without warning, Morrow said.

Safety devices such as inflatable arm bands — which can deflate or fall off — can give a false sense of security, making parents of small children feel safe looking away or sending a text.

“Don’t turn your back,” Morrow said. “Put the cell phones down.”

Parents sometimes assume they’ll hear a child yelling for help and have time to react, Morrow said.

“Actually, it’s silent,” she said. “They just get consumed by water and go under.”

Downstate parent Dawn Lieffers, shopping for water shoes with her 5- and 7-year-old children on Wednesday during a visit to play in the water in Alpena, said water play always includes life jackets unless she’s right next to her kids.

“I don’t want to be that parent that wishes I’d been more careful,” Lieffers said.

Eleven people drowned in Lake Huron in 2020, including multiple people swimming with others, two people attempting to rescue someone in trouble, and a 5-year-old boy being pulled on a tube by a boat, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Last year’s first drowning in the lake occurred on July 8.

The six Lake Huron deaths from drowning so far in 2021 include a man who fell out of a boat while trying to restrain a dog and another man pushed far offshore on a flotation toy.


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