As temperatures climb, throngs of people flock to Lake Lanier, 38,000 acres of refreshing blue waters and picturesque scenery.
While a day on the water can be a fun way for many to celebrate summer, swimming and boating come with dangers, too.
The risk of drowning rises with the warmer weather.
Less than two weeks ago, Corey Brown, 28, jumped off a pontoon boat on the lake to save a friend struggling in the water. Instead, currents swept Brown under the water, prompting a days-long search that ended tragically.
Authorities recovered Brown’s body a few days later near Vann’s Tavern Park in Forsyth County.
Brown’s fiancée, Jasmine Smith, said Brown was a good swimmer, and they had hoped to find him on the shore.
“If I was there to know that he had been outside all day, swimming all day, I knew he would automatically be tired,” Smith told Channel 2 Action News. “I would have told him before you do anything — try to save anybody — just make sure you have a life jacket.”
Brown was the ninth water-related death at Lake Lanier this year, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The deaths include seven drownings and two boating fatalities, which can also be a drowning but are counted separately when a person enters from the water from a vessel in motion.
Other recent drownings at Lake Lanier include two over Memorial Day weekend: One man drowned after his personal watercraft overturned on Lake Lanier, and another man drowned near a boat dock. Last year, Lake Lanier saw 11 water-related deaths including eight drownings and three boating-related fatalities. And the first half of this year has already surpassed the deadly toll of 2017 when there were seven water-related deaths including five drownings.
Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with about 4,000 incidents annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2018 report by Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide's Make Safe Happen program estimates 1,000 children drown every year, with 70 percent of the drownings taking place from May through August.
At a time when many head to the region’s lakes, streams, pools and waterfalls to cool off and enjoy summer, the message from water safety experts is not to stay out of water, but to understand the risks and take precautions.
Swimming in an open body of water - such as a river, lake or ocean - poses even more risks than a pool. Along with decreased visibility, open bodies of water can have unpredictable and strong currents, and sudden drop-offs, and even experienced swimmers may struggle in the colder water of lakes and rivers.
Experts say wearing a life jacket should be routine, especially in deep waters, just like putting on a seat belt. But persuading people to change habits, and a mindset, can be difficult.
“At Lanier, they are in a recreational environment, not in a car going to work,” said Lt. Col. Johnny Johnson of the Law Enforcement Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “People at the lake, they like to kick back and they are in that mind set of having a good time. They just see the good time, and they don’t see the dangers of water. And water is an unforgiving thing. That’s why we educate, educate, educate.”
Johnson points out that many of the people who drown or are rescued in open waters are strong swimmers. But distances between shorelines can be very deceiving. The weather can change quickly. A swimmer can jump off a boat and get a leg cramp, hit their head or experience what’s known as a “cold water gasp,” when the immediate shock of the cold water can cause involuntary inhalation, and that first gasping breath can fill one’s lungs with water. Even the strongest swimmers can be overcome by these conditions.
Another dangerous factor in the mix can be alcohol, which can dull senses and impair judgment.
“We believe all of the drownings could have been prevented with a life jacket,” Johnson said.
Georgia law requires all boats must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard–approved and properly fitting personal flotation device, also referred to as a life jacket, for each person on board. Georgia law also requires all children younger than 13 wear a life jacket while on board a boat. Even though adults and people 13 and over are not required to wear a life jacket, experts recommend everyone wear a life jacket at all times because there’s little to no time to put one on in an emergency situation.
Every year, tens of millions of people visit lakes, rivers, ponds and streams throughout the state and the number is on the rise thanks to a strong economy and low gas prices, according to Johnson. He said when people have money to buy gas for their boat – and gas prices are relatively low – more people head to open waters. The number of annual visitors to Lake Lanier is nearly 12 million visitors, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Johnson said it was about 9.5 million just two years ago.
Joseph Hughes, a 22-year-old student at Kennesaw State University, visits Mary Alice Park at Lake Lanier as many as two times a week during the summer months. On a recent morning, the Cumming resident rested on a towel and listened to country music on a portable radio, the songs mixed with the sound of soft waves hitting shore. He also loves the water, and often goes on out a Jet Ski and sometimes explores the water by boat with his father, Bill Hughes. He said his father always insisted he wear a life jacket any time he is on a boat, a habit he said he continues when going out on a boat with friends his age.
Meanwhile, also at the park, Daphne Bond-Godfrey of Decatur played in the sand with her 3-year-old son, Winston. Not even in the water, he was still wearing his life jacket. She said she’s already enrolled her son in swim lessons, and he’s about to complete a second session.
“The drowning statistics are scary,” said Bond-Godfrey. “You have to be extra vigilant.”
This article was written by Helena Oliviero, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Staying safe around water
— Designate a “water watcher.” This person should not be reading or texting. They should never take their eyes off the children. Adults should take turns and have a designated person watching at all times.
— Make sure children learn to swim. Go to usaswimmingfoundation.org and type in your ZIP code to find free and low-cost swim lessons close to you. If you are an adult and don't know how to swim, remember it's never too late to learn this lifesaving skill.
— Even if your child can swim, vigilance is needed. A child can slip and fall, get tired or play a dangerous water game such as “hold your breath.”
— Teach your child that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool. Make sure they are aware of challenges such as limited visibility, currents and undertow.
— Air-filled or foam toys are not safety devices. Don’t use water wings, noodles or inner tubes instead of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
— Drowning can happen quickly and quietly. You might expect a drowning person to splash or yell for help. Sometimes, people quietly slip beneath the water.
— Use designated swimming and recreational areas whenever possible. Professionals have assessed the area, and there are usually signs posted regarding hazards and lifeguard schedules.
— Use a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket in and around open water. Get a life jacket (also called a personal floatation device or PFD) that is appropriate for a child’s weight and the water activity.
— Learn CPR. In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills can save a life.
— Avoid the “everyone is watching, no one is watching” scenario. Family and friends gather at a backyard barbecue and pool party. Adults assume everyone is watching the kids, but no one is watching.
Sources: Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide’s Make Safe Happen, USA Swimming Foundation, American Red Cross
Why it matters
There have been nine water-related deaths at Lake Lanier already this year. There were 11 in 2018, and seven in 2017.
The message from water safety experts is not to stay out of water, but to understand risks associated with swimming in pools and open water, learn the lifesaving skill of swimming, and take steps for vigilant supervision.
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