Lake drownings up 64% since 2013

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ST. JOSEPH The number of drownings on the Great Lakes has increased 64% since June of 2013. So far, there have been reports of 22 deaths, 14 of those on Lake Michigan.

Researchers with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP) attribute low numbers in 2013 to cooler water and air temperatures throughout the summer. While that's still the case in 2014, some experts say more people are willing to deal with the cold, anxious to relieve cabin fever after an extreme winter.

"The biggest hazard we have right now is the cold water temperatures," said Dave Benjamin, the Executive Director of the GLSRP.

"It can really impact your swimming ability, it can cause hyperventilation gasp reflex, you can die of hypothermia within in an hour if you don't stay afloat."

Benjamin says floating is crucial.

"If you're too tired to swim, if you're exhausted or if you're a poor swimmer, just continue floating," said Benjamin. "The longer you're floating, the more time you're vying for rescue to arrive."

If a person submerges in the water for more than 2 minutes, the chance of survival drastically decreases. After just 10 minutes, the likelihood of survival, is 14%.

Berrien County hopes to increase survival chances with the installation of nine new life rings on the South Pier at Silver Beach. It's the first time life rings will be available on the pier since 1995.

"If other communities can do it, and have been doing it for several years and have been replacing them when they are stolen, we can do it too," said Commissioner Jeannette Leahy, the representative from Berrien County's 6th District.

"Grand Haven has them, South Haven has them, Frankfurt, Whitehall, we could go on and on. And we know they can save lives," said Leahy.

The county had issues with stolen property in the past, but Leahy and others agree the culture has changed. The county will also be adding security cameras to monitor the beach.

"Times have changed, people are on the water more, they want these safety devices there in case somebody needs help," said Berrien County Sheriff, Paul Bailey.

The life ring project will cost the county around $40,000. Each life ring costs $40. Several organizations within the community have offered donations to help offset the cost. The life rings are being shipped from California and should be installed within the next few days. The ring holsters were designed and installed locally.

To learn more about water safety, visit the GLSRP website.