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Chicago's Hot Summer Leads To Surge In Lake Michigan Drownings, Experts Say

By Mina Bloom | August 18, 2016 6:06am | Updated on August 26, 2016 11:27am
 Fire crews rescuing Alex Fortis from Diversey Harbor late Tuesday afternoon.
Fire crews rescuing Alex Fortis from Diversey Harbor late Tuesday afternoon.
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Courtesy/Bryan Young

CHICAGO — Late Tuesday afternoon, 27-year-old Alex Fortis died from drowning in Diversey Harbor — a fate that is becoming far too common in Lake Michigan, experts say. 

So far this year, Lake Michigan has seen 29 recorded drownings, four more than in all of 2015, according to Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit that collects drowning statistics and promotes water safety awareness. Of the 29 drownings, at least 13 happened in Chicago, according to the data.

This year's tally is the highest number of drownings in Lake Michigan since 2012, which saw a total of 50. The lake saw 24 drownings in both 2013 and 2014, 44 in 2011 and 38 in 2010, according to the nonprofit.

Experts point to this summer's dry, hot weather, the formation of the lake and its waves, hazardous beach conditions like rip tides and a lack of water safety education as reasons for the surge in drownings.

"The weather this year has made for particularly hazardous beach conditions," said Zach Hall, U.S. Coast Guard Ensign with Sector Lake Michigan.

"People, as they are enjoying Lake Michigan, aren't being super cognizant of what is going on in the lake. It's that lack of awareness that is getting some people into trouble."

There have been an "alarmingly high" number of paddle-related deaths on Lake Michigan this summer, Hall said. He said that's because paddling, which includes kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding, is the fastest-growing form of recreational boating, which has led to an influx of inexperienced boaters on the water.

Of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is by far the deadliest. It has seen 223 drowning deaths since 2010, which is nearly as many drowning deaths as Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined, according to the nonprofit.

Winds "fly down" Lake Michigan, which measures 307 miles long and 118 miles wide at its widest point, with no obstructions, according to Dave Benjamin, executive director for Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Plus, the time between waves is about three to six seconds on Lake Michigan, which is much less than oceans, which see waves about every 15 seconds, he said.

"Imagine you're in the ocean and you get hit in the face with a big wave and you panic, you've got about 15 seconds to recover until the next wave hits you," Benjamin said. "Whereas you choke on some water and you're going to get another wave in three seconds on the Great Lakes."

There are also more sandy beaches off Lake Michigan, which means more swimmers.

Experts agree there needs to be more water safety education. Benjamin said children should learn how to stay safe in the water at a young age, just like they learn how to stay safe in a fire.

"What we advocate is that if you're struggling you should flip, float and follow. It's the stop, drop and roll of water safety," Benjamin said. The method involves flipping onto your back, floating to keep your heard above water and conserve energy and then following the safest path out of the water.

While Hall recommends wearing a life jacket and staying away from hazardous conditions, he said the best defense against loss of life is simply being aware of your surroundings.

"People aren't giving the lake the respect it deserves. Lake Michigan isn't a pond in your backyard," Hall said. "It has large, powerful waves just like the ocean. We're seeing a high number of people who have been getting out of their experience level in the water and not taking necessary precautions."

For more information on water safety, visit the U.S. Coast Guard's website and Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project's website.

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