Lansing (Great Lakes News) – The Great Lakes are proving to be incredibly dangerous this year. High water levels, cold water, and rip currents have combined to claim 82 lives so far. For the United States Coast Guard – it means constant work to keep as many people alive as possible.
The Coast Guard has seen tangible increase in deaths on the Great Lakes, which is especially large when compared to years previous.
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“We have definitely noticed a large spike in deaths, as of the 4th of August we’ve recorded 82 lives lost in comparison to 73 this time last year,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Brian McCrum.
The actual number of lives lost is higher, as the Coast Guard only tracks those who died in a case that involved them. Other organizations like the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Program place the number of drowning deaths as of July 28th, 2019 at 51, but their numbers only include drowning fatalities.
“Any case that we are involved in we track lives saved and lives lost,” McCrum said. “If there was a random death or a body is discovered without having been previously reported, that doesn’t go towards our numbers.”
Despite the large amount of fatalities this year the Coast Guard has pursued less rescue operations. The number of cases is down from last year. McCrum says that the Coast Guard has had 1,676 cases over the year. At this time last year, the number of cases was 1,830. McCrum says this disparity is hard to explain, but points to the extreme conditions on the Lakes as a possible explanation. He claims that cold water and high levels make for a dangerous combination.
“We had an unseasonably cool beginning of summer which lead to higher water levels than usual,” McCrum said. “A cold June also means more people are taking advantage of the warming weather, and there has been a lot more vessel traffic. Increased water means greater occurrences of rip tides, cold water later in the summer, and greater flow rates in rivers.”
Whenever someone reports a missing person on the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard is swiftly notified before launching into action.
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“A reporting source will call 911 and they will notify us,” McCrum said. “We then launch our nearest assets, usually a small boat or two. After that we usually send a helicopter.”
The Coast Guard is then assisted by local responders who help increase the search range and use the Guard’s resources to their fullest. Working in tandem with local organizations, the Coast Guard has saved 305 lives and assisted 2,209.
“We’re responsible for the whole Great Lakes region, and we have about 6,000 active duty, reserve, civilian and auxiliary men and women working for us,” McCrum said. “We also work with all of the local county sheriffs, Departments of Natural Resources, and Fire departments. We lead on the case, but all of the local resources help us make the actual rescue.”
McCrum also offered safety tips for those looking to enjoy the Great Lakes without putting themselves in danger. First, look out for cold water which can cause hypothermia and makes swimming to safety difficult.
“Anything under 77 degrees is cold and there are dangers associated with that. Under 70 degrees is especially dangerous,” McCrum said. “Whether you are wearing a life jacket is a huge thing, we just rescued a woman who survived for hours in the open water and would have most likely died without her jacket. Know the water conditions before you go out and know air temperature does does not equate to water temperature. Just because it’s 90 degrees outside does not mean the water is safe.”
He also suggests having a game plan for rip currents and always wearing a life jacket while boating.
“When it comes to rip currents, lay on your back and ride it out. You can’t struggle against it,” McCrum said. “Once it’s done try to swim to safety. When you go boating bring life jackets and make sure that they actually fit you. It’s like a seat belt, you can’t reach for it after the accident.”
The Coast Guard will remain prepared for any rescue operations that might arise in the last month of summer.