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Why local lakes, creeks can be so deadly for swimmers

Published: Jun. 24, 2022 at 6:35 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Last year, the CSRA saw a troubling increase in drownings, and we could be in for another spike this summer.

On Thursday, three siblings drowned in Clarks Hill Lake. And those drownings come on the heels of two recent drownings in swimming pools – a 4-year-old boy in Burke County and a 49-year-old man in Augusta. And on June 25, one dead person was pulled from the water at Gem Lakes in Aiken.

Ponds, creeks, lakes and rivers in the region tend to take a higher toll than pools.

Like the siblings, Clarks Hill last year claimed best friends Eynn Wilson and EJ Kirk and Augusta Fire Department Lt. Ralph Jenkins, who died trying to save someone else. Also, a 72-year-old kayaker died down the river at Betty’s Branch.

Plus last year there were drownings in Brier Creek in Burke County and at a water-filled quarry in Grovetown.

What makes these natural settings so potentially deadly?

“In natural bodies of water there’s so many hazards, things that you wouldn’t have in a swimming pool,” Mark McKinnon of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources told us last year.

Plus things can change quickly in natural bodies of water.

“Within an hour, you can have a totally different environment under the water than you had the hour before,” he said.

Authorities speculated last year that the increase in drownings could indicate more people getting back outside after a long year cooped up.

This year, it might be that people are trying to stay cool during an especially hot summer with temperatures consistently near or surpassing 100 degrees.

As we venture outside, it’s important to remember safety comes first. There needs to be a life jacket for every person on a boat and kids under 13 need to wear them at all times. But DNR recommends everyone wear them whenever they aren’t in a swimming area where they can stand.

“One of the most important things that we want people to do when they’re around water, anybody – even if you’re an Olympic swimmer – we want you to have a life jacket,” said Cpl. Ben Payne of the agency.

McKinnon said the best advice to avoid drowning is to wear a lifejacket and know where you are, especially because of hazards that can be hidden under the surface in natural bodies of water.

“Know your surroundings know what’s in the water, if you’re in a natural body of water, it’s a good idea not to go in head-first,” McKinnon said.

“Most people just don’t believe it will happen to them, so they don’t often take the proper safety precautions.”

It’s especially important to avoid becoming a victim yourself if you’re trying to help someone else who’s struggling in the water.

“Very often, a would-be rescuer that tries to get in the water to help that drowning victim is also pulled under, and they become a victim themselves,” said William Caskey, a Coast Guard Auxiliary member.

That was the case with Wilson and Kirk at Clarks Hill; when one went into the water from a boat, the other jumped in to save him, and both drowned. And Jenkins died in a similar situation.

Caskey says he hopes boaters will remember “reach, throw, don’t go.” That is, reach for the person in the water or throw them a flotation device to hold on to.

Tips from authorities

The Georgia DNR has a water-safety initiative, SPLASH, which aims to greatly reduce the number of water-related deaths and injuries. The program encourages people to follow these tips when enjoying beaches, pools, lakes, rivers and other bodies of water:

  • Supervision – Designate an adult to watch children at all times. Do not assume someone else is watching.
  • Prevention – Wear personal flotation devices, install fencing around pools, and use drain covers in hot tubs and pools.
  • Life jackets save lives – Wear them and be sure your children do.
  • Arm’s length – Adults should be arm’s length to children in water, and safety tools such as hooks should be nearby at all times.
  • Swim lessons – Knowing how to swim greatly reduces the chance of drowning. Classes are often available through the Red Cross or YMCA.
  • Have a water safety plan – Know what to do during a water emergency.

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