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Safety on the lakes: 2022 drownings ignite lifeguard debate

Safety on the lakes: 2022 drownings ignite lifeguard debate
Safety on the lakes: 2022 drownings ignite lifeguard debate 06:03

(CBS DETROIT) - Drownings in the Great Lakes for 2022 top the 100-victims mark. In a previous story, CBS Detroit talked about Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald who both drowned in South Haven and heard their parents' grief and determination to stop drownings from happening again.

 "I'm just heartbroken," said Stephen Ernster, father of Kory Ernster.

Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald Lisa MacDonald

"If your newscast saves one person. Not that it's going to make up for what we've lost, but people need to know" said Lisa MacDonald, mother of Emily MacDonald.

Both Ernster and Lisa MacDonald said lifeguards would have made the difference, and they hoped to see guards on South Haven beaches in the future. 

South Haven City Manager Kate Hosier said colored flags on the beaches and signage were enough and something determined by the city council.

 "I would say that it's a little hard to do one size fits all, but there should be common messaging," said Hosier at the time.

But Dave Benjamin, director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, disagreed.

Colored flags denote potential hazardous conditions

 "The flag system is a tool for lifeguards to use and not a replacement for lifeguards," Benjamin said.

"But the state of Michigan and many city beaches got rid of their lifeguards quite some time ago, and they kept the flags. Assuming that the flags are going to be enough and the flags are not, the flags are inadequate."

WATCH our first Safety on the Lakes story: Safety on the Lakes: Recent drownings in South Haven bring attention to lack of beach lifeguards

After that story aired, we went to South Haven to ask residents about the topic of lifeguards.

"I don't know if we're somehow not communicating the need for caution. We have a flag system, but that tends not to be across the beach" says resident Danielle Veenstra.

Veenstra lives near South Beach where Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald drowned. She says the inconsistent messaging we found during our first story is a big worry.

"We can have one area with yellow flags, which is caution, one area with red flags which is do not go in or you're going to be fined," she said.

Veenstra says that hearing the city suggest more signage is the solution doesn't sit well with her.

"Many of our signs, there's too much information," she said.

Kameron Daugherty, another resident of South Haven, has been vocal in support of implementing lifeguards.

"Why are lifeguards not surviving the conversation, especially when we keep having the conversation over and over and over again," says Daugherty.

One argument against them is the cost of staffing and supporting lifeguards on South Haven public beaches like South Beach. It's something Daughetry says they proposed a solution for.

"My partner in Beach Safety Awareness Shawn, the former director of the Lifeguard Program in South Haven, and I put together a proposal right sized for South Haven's current tourist traffic, the amount of beaches that we have. That proposal that Shawn put together, we're talking about $200,000 a year," Daugherty said.

We did the math and found about 160 parking spaces at South Beach alone. Current parking is $10 per full day, half as much as parking in downtown Detroit. 

If parking were increased by $5 per day, the additional revenue would be more than $98,000 from one beach lot if it were full each day. Doubling daily parking to $20 a day would add more than $196,000 from that lot alone remaining full. Even half full would leave an additional $98,000 in added revenue for one lot.

According to the South Haven Visitors Bureau, there are four paid lots.

"I've gotten lots of feedback from lots of visitors and locals alike that say that they would be fine with a further increase in beach parking fees if that's what it took in order to fund the lifeguards," Daugherty said.

Sue Chambers

"There's no lifeguards here. They can't change the flags fast enough to make a difference" says Sue Chambers.

Chambers lost her grandson Brandon to the waves off South Haven beaches in 2020.

"They didn't know that flags were yellow down there," she says.

"The flags at the pier were red, but they were way down at Flag 12. They came to swim on Sunday before Labor Day, and there was a storm coming. And it didn't matter. I mean, they were five-foot waves, and they changed in an instant."

After clinging to a buoy with a friend, her grandson disappeared beneath the waves and didn't resurface. The video provided by Chambers shows a rescue boat returning to shore with Brandon's body after a week of searching.

Since that incident, there have been more than 185 drownings on all of the Great Lakes as a whole as of the summer vacation months. At the time of this story, that number has climbed to 206 drownings since Brandon drowned in 2020.

A now-deleted Facebook post in a public South Haven group expressing condolences showing Clark Gruber, member of the South Haven Planning Commission responding to the reported drownings of Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald

The recent drownings have brought lifeguards back to the conversation in South Haven. But it was discovered residents are concerned about those making decisions in the case of beaches and beach safety.

After Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald drowned, a Facebook group in South Haven posted condolences for their families.

The comment, sent to CBS Detroit by a resident of South Haven, shows planning commission board member Clark Gruber calling it "The Darwin family vacation."

Requests for comment about lifeguards and beach safety decisions to every city council member and the mayor were denied, directing us to Hosier. 

Additionally, a request for comment from Gruber was directed to Hosier. In fact, all further requests for comment or clarification have been denied or redirected to Hosier.

Responses from South Haven elected officials to requests for comment on beach safety

We've reached out once more to the city of South Haven and Hosier for a response and have yet to hear back.

"We have decades of history showing that lifeguarding works in South Haven. So why would we not re-explore that?" Daugherty said.

"We have to take care of those people that we're inviting to our town because those are the ones that are drowning," Veenstra said.

"How do you value a life? We've lost four lives this summer. You can't place a value for the families there is no way they could value it. I can't place a value on that."

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