Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

October 11, 2012

Area beach safety gets closer look

TRAVERSE CITY — Summer tragedies at two popular northern Michigan beaches prompted a closer look at beach safety across the region.

Ohio resident Kevin Patrick Schlake, 40, drowned Aug. 5 in a rip current at Peterson Beach in Benzie County. The beach is part of the U.S. Park Service's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Three hours before Schlake died, a rip current trapped an Illinois woman and her granddaughter at the same beach. They survived.

Also in August, Brian Paul Rolston, 16, drowned at Van's Beach in Leland amid reports of dangerous lake conditions and rip currents.

The U.S. Park Service reviewed safety at its beaches after Schlake's death and determined more signs warning of rip currents are needed at some of the main entry points to beaches in the park.

"We did have (rip current) signage at that beach, but we also found we have some beaches that do not have the warnings, and at a couple of them, we want to post them more prominently," said Tom Ulrich, Sleeping Bear Dunes' deputy superintendent.

Ulrich said the park officials will take other steps to promote beach safety: the park will disseminate rip current warnings at its visitor's center and will publish information about Lake Michigan rip currents in the Park Service newsletter.

Ulrich said park officials could have closed the beach prior to Schlake's death considering the earlier event involving the woman and her grandchild. But rangers at the scene that day could not visually observe the rip current, and the weather seemed to calm for a period of time.

"The winds were strong in the morning, they died down, and then they got stronger," Ulrich said.

Ulrich said it's not feasible to have lifeguards on all park beaches. The park has more than 35 miles of shoreline. Ulrich does not believe a flag warning system for rip currents will be effective, given the commonness of rough lake conditions.

"It didn't merit the likelihood of success at our beaches," Ulrich said.

In Leland Township, there's been a community-wide discussion about safety at Van's Beach. Leland Township Trustee Susan Och said the township is considering a call system that would dispatch firefighters to the beach to warn beachgoers about rip currents when dangerous conditions exist.

There are now some basic rip current warning signs at the beach, but the township wants to make them more prevalent and permanent by next spring.

The township also is considering placing flotation rings with ropes on the beach.

"We can't make people make good decisions, but we can get good information to people "¦ so they think about it before they go swimming," Och said. "There's a lot of volunteer enthusiasm for this."

There were a record 93 drownings on the Great Lakes this year, said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. His organization is working with the Leland community to develop the best rip current warning signage available.

Lessons can also be learned from other communities with extensive shorelines and significant summer tourism populations. In Palm Beach, Fla., Anna Stewart heads the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County. The coalition is government-funded and brings together businesses, government agencies and volunteers to implement beach safety measures. She stressed the importance of community and region-wide coalitions to tackle the issue.

One safety measure that may be relevant to tourism-dependent northern Michigan is a fax alert system issued to a network of hotels.

"We contacted our tourism board and we got a list of hotels and motels along the shoreline, got their faxes, and anytime there is a notification that there is a high chance of rip currents, we send a blast fax," Stewart said. "We ask them to post the information, particularly in those areas where there's no lifeguard present."

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