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Swim At Your Own Risk

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Swim At Your Own Risk

Dr. Zoran Kilibarda, a geologist at Indiana University Northwest, tours the beach. (Mike Puente/WBEZ)

Possibly the only thing that matches Lake Michigan’s beauty is its danger. For the inexperienced swimmer, the lake can be deadly. And swimming is particularly dangerous off the sandy beaches of Indiana’s shoreline. Now, a new way of warning swimmers aims to prevent drownings there.

On a hot, sunny day, there’s no better place than the Indiana Dunes State Park here in Chesterton, just a couple of miles from our news bureau.

On a clear day, it’s easy to see downtown Chicago. Sun bathers and swimmers come to this beach and ones like it along the Indiana shoreline by the millions every year. They come mostly from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. But for at least two teenage swimmers this summer, the lake was deadly.

SEELEY: It’s always dangerous entering the waters of the Great Lakes.

That’s Tim Seeley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in suburban Romeoville.

Seeley says the National Weather Service is adding a new service to beef up warnings about strong underwater currents called rip currents.

The weather service has mentioned the potential for rip currents in its overall forecasts for the Indiana beach areas.

Now, a specific rip current warning will be sent out separately to Indiana lakeshore officials who then will decide whether to post warning signs alerting swimmers.

This new way of warning the public comes just weeks after the deaths of 14-year-old Davante Jackson of Chicago Heights, Ill., and 13-year-old Raphael Palomar of Chicago. The teens died within a few weeks of each other earlier this summer.

Jackson was swimming near Kemil Beach just east of Chesterton. And Palomar drowned in the waters of Porter Beach, just west of Chesterton.

Had the teens been swimming in Chicago or closer to Michigan City, it’s likely they wouldn’t have encountered strong rip currents.

Rip currents are basically water that gushes through a sort of canal that quickly forms when a sandbar collapses.

Sandbars are common to Lake Michigan’s southern tip where the teens were swimming.

KILIBARDA: Between Miller Beach and Kemil Beach, that’s where most of these events were happening and reporting.

That’s Dr. Zoran Kilibarda, a geologist who chairs the Department of Geosciences at Indiana University’s satellite campus in Gary.

Kilibarda says Gary’s Miller Beach is receiving the most sand of any beach on Lake Michigan because of erosion.

This transported sand forms sandbars, sometimes two, three or four, running parallel to the shore up to 400 feet away from shore.

That’s why bathers can swim a short distance from the shore and still be in knee deep water.

KILBARDA: They are not happening on the Illinois side because Chicago and the beaches around Chicago are erosional. There are not that many sandbars around there because those beaches lose sand and sand comes to Indiana.

But when waves get stronger near the shore, sandbars give way. If you’re on one of these sandbars when this happens, it can spell trouble even for experienced swimmers.

Since 2002, twenty-six people have either drowned or had to be rescued from the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

KILBARDA: These bars simply breach open. When that happens, the amount of water moving through these narrow openings is so fast moving that many people get caught in them and can’t get away.

One of Kilbarda’s students Michael Menchaca knows first hand how tough it is to survive a rip current. He barely survived one while swimming off a beach in Mexico.

But Menchaca uses that experience when swimming in Lake Michigan, where currents can change dramatically in just a few minutes and are the most powerful of anywhere in the lake, according to the National Weather Service.

MENCHACA: I pretty much learn to get out of the water once I start feeling the pull because there are currents under the water.

Rip current warnings will be based on the height of waves and how strong those waves hit the shore. Waves four feet high are strong enough for a warning to be issued about staying out of the water.

Beach officials say rip current warnings are already posted in some locations.

But even an extra level of warning from the National Weather Service, officials say, can’t always keep people out of the cool water on a hot summer day.

(We like to give thanks to Chicago Public Radio intern Sean Powers who provided production assistance for this piece.)

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