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Video depicts dangers of red flag conditions

By Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Jun 5, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Last summer, Vincent Green’s family members paced the sand at Holland State Park for endless hours, staying throughout the night as they waited for news from the police.

They drove from Chicago as soon as they heard Green was lost in Lake Michigan and were determined to watch the waves until the 14-year-old was found. Green’s family was held in suspense for nearly a full day before his body was recovered from the water after he drowned on Aug. 31, 2016.

Green and his friend, 17-year-old Christopher Mimis, were two of the five people who died in Ottawa County waters last summer. Along with the two local teens, Holland Christian High School student Riley Hoeksema, 16, died in a boating accident in June.

After a dangerous summer, the city of Holland has teamed up with several law enforcement agencies and the Holland Community Aquatic Center to create a public service announcement about safe swimming conditions on Lake Michigan. The video PSA depicts three teens going to the beach and disregarding a “no swimming” red flag posted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. As a result, one of the three teens drowns.

The DNR posts one of three flag colors at all of its Great Lakes state parks each day, and updates them if conditions change. If a green flag is posted, no dangerous currents or swim conditions are expected. If a yellow flag is posted, there may be waves of 2-4 feet, with potentially hazardous conditions.

But when a red flag is posted, it is unsafe to swim at all, even in designated swimming zones. Beachgoers should stay strictly on the sand on those days.

Park supervisors can put up a red flag when there is contaminated water, whitecaps, high wind or waves reaching 3-5 feet and higher. There is serious danger in the water on red flag days.

“One of the most dangerous places to be on Lake Michigan is Holland State Park when the conditions present themselves,” said Chief Adam Smart of the Coast Guard’s Holland station. “As soon as I got here, the word got out to me that it’s a dangerous spot. I’ve got two kids and I’d never let them out there on a red flag day.”

 

The breakwalls at Holland State Park are part of why the area is so dangerous for swimmers, Smart said. When there is a strong northwest wind, there can be both structural current and undercurrent from the breakwalls if the wind hits just right. No matter how strong a swimmer someone is, rip currents and structural currents can drag anyone underwater.

The PSA video from the city of Holland is an attempt to get ahead of the upcoming summer swimming rush at the state park and educate the public about how important heeding the flag system is for safety.

Lake Michigan is the deadliest of the Great Lakes, causing nearly half of all Great Lakes fatalities in 2016. Forty-six people died on Lake Michigan last year, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

“We’re looking at some of the rescues and fatalities that we’ve had, and clearly it’s middle and high school kids that aren’t adhering to the rules,” Smart said. “It’s all about making decisions that day. It’s a serious thing and the flags aren’t up just because somebody felt like it.”

That decision to get in the water is vital, especially when considering how long a person can survive underwater before drowning.

“Ten minutes is typically the time for someone to survive in the water, and the response time for the Coast Guard helicopters and search vehicles is normally 15 minutes or more,” said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

At that point, the rescue efforts may need to be turned into a recovery effort for a body.

In order to make things clearer for the public, the DNR has made some changes to their flags in the past year. The flags are now larger and rectangular, rather than triangular. Green and yellow flags have 4-inch lettering on them that spells out the color in order to help color-blind visitors. The red flag has a “no swimming” symbol of a person swimming with a circle and line through it.

DNR employees warn that just looking out at the water is not good enough. The flags must be observed for safety.

“Depending on wind direction, the water may look relatively calm, but you can get some tremendously dangerous currents by those breakwalls,” said Mike Evanoff, statewide parks and recreation safety officer for the DNR. “Anybody can get swept into deeper water. Heed that warning.”

To make the PSA video, the city of Holland coordinated with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department, Park Township Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, Holland Community Aquatic Center, Michigan DNR, AMR Ambulance and Ottawa County Central Dispatch.

“With all these different agencies involved, everybody wanted to do something to make that high number of drownings from last year be zero this year,” said Marianne Manderfield, public information coordinator for the city.

In addition to heeding the flag color system, law enforcement encourages parents to put young children in life jackets and be aware of changing weather conditions. If caught in a rip current, swimmers should swim parallel to the beach until they are free from the current, then immediately swim to shore. As soon as someone appears to be struggling in the water, emergency personnel should be contacted. In water rescues, every second counts.

“This is a proactive approach to getting the word out,” Smart said. “Holland is a great spot. It’s one of the best beaches around. But when that red flag is out, it’s a serious thing. We have a duty as a community to keep people safe.”

You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDxWGfwP8m0.

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