CHICAGO (CBS) — The numbers are alarming – there have been far more drownings so far this year than at the same point in 2018, and the numbers keep creeping up.
As CBS 2’s Jim Williams reported Monday, even good swimmers can be victims.
The lake appeared calm on Monday. But its dangers can catch swimmers off guard – and then they panic.
At the beach Monday, Cyndi Dillon and husband Ricardo Ibaria kept a close watch on their daughter Isabella when she was little.
“When she was maybe 5, 6, we come with her – either me or her,” Ibaria said. “We never let her be by herself.”
Caution is key for everyone here.
A year ago at this time, there were 15 Lake Michigan drownings.
Data compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project indicate that so far this year, Lake Michigan has had 27 drownings – an increase of 80 percent, and more than all the other Great Lakes combined.
Experts point to higher lake levels and the relatively mild winter, making the summer’s water temperature warmer and attracting more beach goers. Lake Michigan’s beaches are also popular with tourists.
“We’re destination beaches, right?” said Halle Quezada of the Chicago Alliance for Water Safety. “So we have people coming with the intention of getting in the water.”
But the nature of Lake Michigan makes it particularly perilous.
The lake is 307 miles long, and 118 miles at its widest point. Winds create frequent waves – sometimes every 2 seconds, Quezada explained.
“So imagine you’re struggling and you can’t touch and you get knocked down by a wave. By the time you orient yourself to get your head up again, you can’t see the shore – and another wave is coming in and knocking you down again,” Quezada said. “That causes panic, and panic kills.”
Panic kills even among good swimmers.
Most of the deaths have been along the Michigan shoreline of the lake because of strong winds from west to east. Often, the result is rip tides – waves, pushed by strong winds, come to the shore, and the excess water rushes back to the lake – sweeping swimmers away.
When CBS 2’s Williams asked Ibaria if he knew what do in the event of getting caught in a rip current, Ibaria replied, “Not really.”
Quezada’s advice was: “We like to say flip, float, and follow. You flip on your back, you control your panic; you float to conserve your energy; and you follower the current out and take the least path of resistance back to shore.”
At Loyola Beach in Rogers Park, Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) was joined by Chicago Police and Fire Department representatives and other officials, offering a number of tips to stay safe in the lake.