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Lake Michigan Drownings Up 64% This Year, Water Safety Group Says

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A water safety advocacy organization reported Thursday that drownings in Lake Michigan are up 64% over the same period of time last year.

The figure rose within hours from 57 percent as more drowning deaths were recorded Thursday.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said in 2019 as of Thursday night, it is tracking 46 drownings in the Great Lakes in aggregate – with 23 -- 50 percent of the total -- being in Lake Michigan.

There were also some recent Lake Michigan near-drowning incidents in which the victims were last listed in critical condition, the organization said.

One man died Thursday morning after being pulled from Rainbow Beach on the city's South Side the night before.

In that incident, friends said they lost sight of a man who had gone swimming, the fire department said. The man was rushed to Advocate Trinity Hospital, and his condition was described as very critical.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project also noted that a boat operator was rushed to University of Chicago Medicine in critical condition, after two vessels collided northwest of the Hammond Marina on Friday of last week.

A man is also missing after going swimming in Lake Michigan near Ludington, Michigan on Thursday. Divers were looking Thursday afternoon for a swimmer who was reportedly struggling near the Big Sable River outlet at Ludington State Park.

Just this past weekend, dangerous conditions on the Great Lakes also left three swimmers missing and claimed the lives of two others.

On Saturday, 31-year-old Jose Rubio's body was pulled from Lake Michigan about two miles east of the Diversey Harbor at 2600 N. Lake Shore Dr.

Two others were pulled from Lake Michigan in Hammond and Michigan City, Indiana, and survived.

Drowning incidents in Lake Michigan area regular occurrence, especially during summer months. Almost 200 people have drowned over the last five years, according to data compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

But despite efforts to prevent deaths in the lake, tragedies like the one over the weekend continue to occur.

In June 2018, after the drowning death of 13-year-old Darihanne Torres in the Rogers Park neighborhood, then-49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore organized a task force to ensure such a tragedy never happened again.

In its report presented to the Chicago City Council on April 10, the task force acknowledged the city is trying to reduce the deaths by posting new signs and flags, especially around more dangerous areas like piers and jetties. It also said the city doesn't have enough qualified lifeguards to sufficiently staff all its beaches and is working to recruit more by providing training, including partnering with Chicago Public Schools.

But the report also said the city has no data on drownings, leaving officials without an accurate accounting of the problem. Without good official numbers, the report said, researchers have no choice but to rely on statistics gathered by Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

That organization emphasized Thursday that there might be more dangers on the lake this weekend. Dave Benjamin, the organization's executive director, warned that the "4 W's" – warm, wind, waves, and weekend – could come into play at area beaches.

"Southerly winds blowing this weekend can cause offshore wind conditions for Indiana, side-offshore winds for northern Illinois, southwest Wisconsin, and southeast Michigan," Benjamin said in a news release. "As the winds travel farther north, the winds will also create waves and dangerous currents such as longshore currents, rip currents, and structural currents. The south sides (windward sides) of all piers will be the most turbulent and dangerous spots on Lake Michigan."

Offshore Winds Warning
(Credit: Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project)

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said there have also been two SCUBA deaths in Lake Michigan.

There have been 11 drowning deaths and one person reported this year in Lake Erie, six drowning deaths in Lake Ontario along with one SeaDoo death, five drowning deaths in Lake Huron, and two drowning deaths in Lake Superior, the organization said.

There have been 784 drownings altogether in the Great Lakes since 2010, the organization said.

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