CHICAGO — Local officials are reminding Chicagoans to stay safe in the water this summer after 2020 saw one of the deadliest summers on record for drownings in Lake Michigan.
Last year, 56 people drowned in Lake Michigan, said Dave Benjamin, co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which tracks drownings and advocates for water safety.
On average, almost half all Great Lakes drownings happen on Lake Michigan, and half those happen at the lake’s south end, Benjamin said in a news conference Thursday morning at 31st Street Beach.
“So the south end of Lake Michigan is the most deadliest spot on the Great Lakes,” he said.
So far in 2021, 24 people have drowned in the Great Lakes, nine of them in Lake Michigan, Benjamin said.
“The Great Lakes have a lot more hazards than your backyard pool or your public pool,” Benjamin said. “There’s always hazards around water, and it’s exponentially increased in the Great Lakes.”
Each beach in Chicago has unique qualities — like how close to shore the water becomes deep — that add to that danger, said Melaney Baird, a Chicago Park District beach manager. She suggested people talk to the lifeguard on duty and learn those qualities when visiting a beach.
Dr. Michelle Macy, an emergency physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said people should know where their resources are when they’re on the beach and if their children are not confident swimmers they should be wearing a life jacket.
She said her worst days on the job are when she has to tell a parent their child didn’t make it or has been affected by a lifelong injury.
“Drowning is one of those circumstances where we know that we can prevent that type of injury,” Macy said.
Benjamin said people should always swim near a lifeguard and only during lifeguard hours.
In 2009, the Chicago Park District cut lifeguard hours by 30%. Lifeguard hours are now 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Before the change, lifeguards were on duty from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Several people were already on 31st Street Beach before 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Michele Lemons, a spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, said there are no plans to restore lifeguard hours on Chicago beaches or to expand the season beyond its regular schedule, which runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.
“People come out here to sunbathe, to walk, jog, but the lifeguards are (only) on duty during that time period and so no one enters the water,” Lemons said of beach activity outside of the season. The Park District works closely with the Chicago Police Department to make sure people aren’t in the water, she added.
When reporting a drowning or a body found in the lake, people should try to provide the most accurate location where the person was last seen, said Officer Dave Salzman of the Chicago police marine unit. The person reporting should also stay in place while calling 911 so that they don’t lose track of where they last saw the person they’re calling about.
Benjamin said drownings don’t happen the way they’re portrayed in the movies.
“Drowning is silent, and swift,” he said. “It happens very quickly.”
It takes less than a minute for a person who is drowning to go underwater, Benjamin said. After about four minutes, a person is more likely to suffer irreparable brain damage, and after 10 minutes underwater, there’s only a 14% chance of survival, he said.
Benjamin said the Cook County medical examiner’s office is investigating whether the body found miles offshore from the East Side neighborhood Tuesday is that of 20-year-old Kelvin Soto, who disappeared in Lake Michigan on May 2.