GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sixty-two deaths have occurred across the Great Lakes this summer. Nearly half of those deaths occurred on Lake Michigan.
“If you look at weather threats in West Michigan, people drowning in the lake is up there,” said Bob Dukesherer, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids. “Over 80% of our wave and current drownings occur within the 3- to 6-foot range.”
Dukesherer is the marine program manager at the NWS office in Grand Rapids. By utilizing wind and wave model data, he and his team often know when beach conditions will be dangerous days in advance.
“We send out something in the morning, we like to do it a day ahead. If we know the risk is coming, and we communicate that to all the state parks and city, county beaches up and down the shoreline,” he said.
Despite the advanced warning, drownings have been seemingly routine. Most rescues have occurred on days when yellow or red flags are flying on state beaches.
“The most important thing about the flag system is it has to be properly managed. We have to have education about what the flag means,” said Dave Benjamin, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project executive director.
Benjamin believes that the variability in messaging between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and NWS may confuse the public. Currently, NWS uses four colors — green, yellow, orange and red —to show beach hazards. Michigan DNR only flies three colored flags — green, yellow, and red — on state beaches.
“That’s why we need to stay ahead of this. Keep the education moving, working with departments to make their beaches safer, and help them along the way,” said Benjamin.
NWS works closely with Michigan DNR. Dukesherer says they are in constant communication on high-risk beach days and are willing to adjust their current color system if it confuses the public.
Not only is messaging being improved but so is technology. Research is currently being done to test models that may be able to predict where rip currents will be. This would help NWS pinpoint locations within the lake for the public to avoid.
“I have seen models that are doing that right now in a research mode. I don’t know when we’ll get to that mode operationally,” said Dukesherer. “I would say we’re always evolving. I think we’re constantly looking at better ways to do this because of how big of a threat it is.”