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Potentially Life-Threatening Waves, Currents Persist On Lake Michigan

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Warnings about the waters of Lake Michigan continued Sunday night across Chicago and beyond.

The National Weather Service has issued a Beach Hazards Statement that is in effect through Monday evening. The forecast wave heights are 3 to 6 feet and strong rip currents and structural currents are also expected.

Rip currents are powerful channels of water that quickly flow away from shore – often at low spots or breaks in sandbars. They can sweep people into deep water, the NWS explained.

Structural currents form along piers where longshore currents and waves hit them, the NWS said. They can sweep people into deeper water along the pier structure.

And any of the above can be life-threatening.

"I wouldn't get in that water for anything, I'm sorry – and the red flags are up. Definitely not getting into the water," said Kimberly Price.

Price saw and avoided the active waters on Sunday, as well as the equally active sky – which had a helicopter in it, as fire crews responded to a call for help in the late Sunday evening south of the 31st Street Beach.

"I was wondering what was going on, but I kind of figured that was probably the issue," Price said.

The strong currents might have played a role in the sight of emergency crews and dive teams – a sight that is becoming all too familiar this season.

"It's so dangerous that it will take you away; sweep you off your feet," Price said.

On Sunday morning, two people were pulled from Lake Michigan near Fullerton Drive and one later died.

A 26-year-old man was taken to AMITA Health St. Joseph Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was identified as William Garcia-Ruiz of the Edgewater neighborhood, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office.

The other person, a 35-year-old man, refused medical attention.

This past Thursday, Rene Padilla, 35, of Blue Island, died after being swept into the water at the 31st Street Beach. Police said Padilla went into the water after an 11-year-old girl who was swept off a pier by a large wave.

A lifeguard was able to get the girl out of the water in about 30 seconds, but Padilla was under water for about two minutes.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project reports that Lake Michigan has hosted 36 drownings so far in 2019 – a figure that is on pace for a tragic record year. Over the same timeframe last year, there were 27 drownings in Lake Michigan.

The lake rescue and recovery efforts are proving costly – not only in lives lost, but in taxpayer money spent.

A report given to aldermen in April estimated, "A single drowning event on the Great Lakes necessitating Coast Guard deployment can cost $27,000 (per) hour."

That's not including ground resources and ambulance costs.

"And I would advise anybody – do not get in that water," Price said.

The Chicago Triathlon also took that advice Sunday, canceling its swimming portion. All participants instead competed in the Duathlon "run-bike-run" option.

Rough conditions on Lake Michigan forced the Chicago Park District to put a swim ban in place at several beaches Sunday. The beach at 57th Street was closed along with most of the beaches in Rogers Park – North Shore Avenue, Helen Doria at Columbia Avenue, Tobey Prinz at Pratt Boulevard, Hartigan at Farwell Avenue, Loyola at Greenleaf Avenue, Marion Mahony Griffin at Jarvis Avenue, Howard Street, and Rogers Avenue.

In Rogers Park, Leone Beach at Touhy Avenue remained open with a swim advisory in place. Swim advisories were also issued for 12th Street, Calumet, Lane at Thorndale Avenue, Margaret T. Burroughs 31st Street, North Avenue, Oakwood, Foster Avenue, Ohio Street, Oak Street, and Osterman at Ardmore-Hollywood.

But some people came to the beach specifically for the waves – if only the visual experience of them.

Monica Hagerty and her daughters stayed close to the shore as they were watched by lifeguards. While some saw the conditions as potentially deadly, others found the right conditions to enjoy the view.

"It all looks safe and beautiful to us," Hagerty said.

So far, there have been 76 reported drownings in the five Great Lakes, with Lake Michigan accounting for the largest portion of the total.

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