Beach safety urged as Michigan drowning numbers climb

News Photo by Julie Riddle Charleigh Haas, 3, of Mt. Pleasant, sports a safety vest while playing in the sand at Starlite Beach on Friday as sister Emily Haas, 6, romps at water’s edge.

ALPENA — With many weeks of summer weather ahead and Lake Huron’s warmest temperatures of the year still to come, dozens of drownings in Michigan this year have served as a grim reminder of the need for safety precautions near water.

At least 57 people have died in the Great Lakes so far this year, including a teenager who was swept into Lake Michigan while visiting the beach with a church youth group last week, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

In the past five weeks, police have reported the inland drownings of three toddlers in Northern Michigan, both in Otsego County. One child drowned in a home swimming pool while his mother was inside the home, and police found two two-year-olds face-down in a pond after someone reported them missing.

Recent tragedies elsewhere in the state should remind people on Alpena’s beaches to take extra precautions, said Bill Forbush, Alpena Fire Department chief.

Small children and those without strong swimming skills should wear personal flotation devices in the water and feel no shame in doing so, Forbush said.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Mt. Pleasant resident Kristin Haas zips a safety vest on daughter Charleigh, 3, at Starlite Beach on Friday.

More children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause except birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Alpena County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, the Alpena Fire Department, and a part-time U.S. Coast Guard presence in Alpena all respond to emergencies in Thunder Bay, Forbush said.

Alpena County Sheriff, DNR and local fire department watercraft handle inland lake emergencies.

The Alpena Fire Department hopes to add new equipment, possibly a jet ski or jet boat, to help rescuers get onto the water faster, Forbush said.

At Starlite Beach on Friday, parent Kristin Haas, of Mt. Pleasant, slipped a safety jacket — her “mermaid vest” — on her three-year-old daughter, Charliegh, as the youngster dug in the sand.

Though the beach is shallow, wind can keep kids from hearing parents call them back or mask cries for help, and parents can only run into the water so quickly in the event of an emergency, said Haas, whose three daughters all wore safety vests on Friday.

Many parents have to watch more than one child at the beach, and, “It’s just hard to be that diligent,” Haas said, keeping her eye on 6-year-old Emily, playing at water’s edge, and 9-year-old Alex, bobbing in the waves with a friend. ” It’s good to have vests as a backup if something does happen.”

About 100 people have died in the Great Lakes in each of the past three years.

This year’s four Lake Huron drowning deaths include two deaths following the capsizing of canoes and the death of a 58-year-old man who jumped off of a pontoon to swim near Bay City.

A woman who jumped in to try to rescue the man also began to struggle and had to be resuscitated by a deputy on marine patrol.

The CDC recommends that residents avoid alcohol use around water, always swim with a partner, learn the basics of swimming and CPR, and closely supervise all children near water, including in bathtubs.

Alpena welcomes residents and visitors to its beaches but wants them to go home safely, Forbush said.

“We are absolutely blessed to have, in our area, so many bodies of water,” Forbush said. ” We want to enjoy them, but to do so safely.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.

Drowning prevention tips

Suggestions for staying safe around water, especially with children.

∫ Never swim alone.

∫ Be aware of weather and water conditions and heed weather-related warnings.

∫ If supervising a child, avoid distractions such as cell phones.

∫ Teach children to always ask permission to go near water.

∫ Designate a “water watcher” when with a group.

∫ Stay within an arm’s reach of any weak or inexperienced swimmer in the water.

∫ Do not rely on water wings, swim rings, inflatable toys, or other items designed for water recreation to protect a child.

∫ If a child is missing, check the water first.

Source: American Red Cross

This story was modified to reflect that the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project gathers and shares data about drownings in the Great Lakes. That information was incorrect in a previous version of the story.


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