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'Beach Hazard' statement in the works

7:40 AM, Jul 10, 2012   |    comments
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GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - Powerful waves and strong currents led to 19 water rescues at Holland State Park on Saturday, and drownings on Lake Michigan are up 92 percent from this time last year.

That's according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

In fact, deaths and rescues attributed to rips currents have skyrocketed since 2006, which is why the National Weather Service is now expanding its definition of dangerous waves.

NOAA National Weather Service Senior Forecaster and Marine Program Leader Bob Dukesherer says right now every drowning is reported as a rip.

You've likely seen signs warning of rip currents at the lakeshore, but this summer the NWS started working on the Beach Hazards Statement. The hope is to find new ways of warning beachgoers of upcoming windy weather.

Dukesherer says there are other dangerous waves that pull people under, so his team created a list of five warning signs to look out for: Structural currents, breaking waves, long-shore currents, rip currents, and wave return. Dukesherer says structural currents and breaking waves are the most dangerous.

"If people are swimming too close to piers on windy days and just the breaking waves themselves, they come at you every three to four seconds. They tire you out really quickly," he said.

"If you arm yourself with this knowledge before you go to the beach on a NW flow day at Holland, don't swim near the pier, move yourself up the beach. Take yourself out of that structural current zone."

Dukesherer compares breaking waves to swimming in a washing machine.

At Grand Haven State Park for example, breaking waves approach the shore at a southwest angle. They then form into long-shore currents and rip currents near the shoreline. Strong SW winds take the long-shore currents into the pier, forming a structural current.

He said this is the pattern that forced the rescue of 19 people out of the water Saturday at Holland State Park. The difference there is that winds blow northwest. The currents swept down the beach and pushed people into the pier.

Dukesherer says rip currents often knock down people standing on the second sandbar on the lake, and with wave return, the water rushes up to the beach and back into the lake, and often pulls little kids down.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Lake Michigan far surpasses the other Great Lakes in drowings, with 78 percent of total deaths this year. Twenty-three deaths have been reported so far on Lake Michigan; that's up 92 percent from this time last year.

The U.S. Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan attributes the large increase in part to the warmer weather. More people are heading to the beach and some aren't familiar with the wave patterns.

In 2011, there were 44 deaths, with 14 attributed to rip currents.

The NWS is creating new signage and websites, but won't have the Beach Hazard Statement complete for a few more years. However, the agency does inform WZZM 13 of upcoming dangerous wave patterns. Our weather team will relay the messages during their weather forecasts.












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