There's a limit to what signs or warnings can do to prevent swimmers from falling prey to rip currents on the Great Lakes. Last summer was the most lethal in recent memory, with a record 93 drownings on the lakes, many on Lake Michigan.
But since no one really knows how much signs help, communities along the lake must continue efforts to not only post warnings about rip currents at local beaches but do whatever else they can reasonably do to prevent future tragedies.
There is no way local governments — relatively small townships — can post lifeguards or emergency or rescue personnel at all their beaches. And for every established beach there are numerous hidden swimming spots, some at road-ends, that are popular with locals and a few well-connected visitors.
Not even the National Park Service has the funds or people-power to patrol every beach. Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches from Leelanau to Benzie counties, said it's not feasible to have lifeguards along all 35 miles of beach within the park.
But the Park Service and some local governments are working to make warnings more visible and effective.
Ulrich said the Park Service found it didn't have warning signs at some beaches and will make the signs more prominent at others. The Service also determined more signs warning of rip currents are needed at some of the main entry points to beaches. Rip current information will be available at the visitor center and in a park newsletter.
Leland Township is considering a call system to dispatch firefighters to the beach to warn beachgoers about rip currents when dangerous conditions exist. It also wants to increase the number of rip current warning signs at the beach and make them more permanent. There is also discussion of placing flotation rings with ropes on the beach.
Leland is working with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project on developing the best rip current warning signage available.
In Palm Beach, Fla., the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County sends out warning faxes to area hotels when conditions are favorable for dangerous rip tides. Other communities post red flags right on the beach if conditions turn dangerous.
Sleeping Bear is wrapping up its biggest year ever, one that brought a record numbers of visitors — and lots of tourism cash — to the region. Stemming the tide of drownings and close calls, then, is a must from every perspective.
Ultimately, the best defense is to teach swimmers to understand and respect not only the beauty but the power of our big lake and to enjoy it on its terms.