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Despite multiple warnings, swimmers still brave dangerous conditions

When winds blow strong out of the east during summer months in the Twin Ports, a warning system kicks into gear — a system that had worked for seven years to prevent swimming emergencies on the beach.

Thursday's drowning of a father and daughter on Park Point were the first on the beach since that system started in 2010.

From May to mid-October, when conditions warrant, the National Weather Service office in Duluth issues a beach advisory by 10 a.m. warning people not to swim in Lake Superior because of the higher probability of rip currents — strong currents that flow away from the beach and out into the lake.

The Weather Service issues warnings on its website, sends text and email alerts to computers and phones, media broadcasts and websites warn of the danger, and the Duluth Fire Department raises red flags on Park Point.

There are beach warning flags at four locations along Park Point — the 12th Street beach (sometimes called the Tot Lot), Lafayette Community Center, the "ore boat" playground near the Park Point Beach House and at the beach house itself.

Green flags mean it's safe to swim. Yellow flags mean there's a slightly elevated risk of rip currents. Red flags mean no swimming is advised. If easterly or northeasterly winds are forecast near 17 mph or higher, the rip current potential is raised to high, and the red flags go up.

There's also an electronic sign at the 12th Street beach parking lot, facing every driver heading out onto Park Point, warning not to swim during red flag conditions. The Duluth Parks and Recreation Department then pulls its lifeguards off the formal swimming beach in front of the beach house and puts up signs warning that there are no lifeguards on duty because conditions are unsafe.

"We have the flags up every day by 10 a.m... The (electronic) sign ... is part of that protocol. The red flags were up yesterday," said Capt. Corey Swartout, who coordinates the program for the fire department. "We can't close the beach. We can't make them stay out. All we can do is let them know it's not safe to be out there. I don't know what more we can do."

The same flag system is used at oceanfront beaches and across the Great Lakes and was developed locally by a coalition that included the city parks department, American Red Cross, Sea Grant, the fire department and the weather service.

Each year, an average of 12 people are killed by currents and 25 more are rescued on the Great Lakes, according to the National Weather Service. More than 500 rip current and wave-related incidents have occurred since 2002 on the Great Lakes, of which more than 130 resulted in deaths.

Duluth beaches have now seen 21 current-related incidents since 2002 and three deaths, according to the Weather Service data. Ottawa County, Mich., near Grand Rapids, has had the most current-related incidents and deaths on the Great Lakes, with 109 current-related rescue efforts since 2002 and eight deaths.

Human-made structures such as piers and breakwalls often generate the currents that cause such incidents. But 72 percent of all Great Lakes drowning incidents occur when winds are blowing toward shore, the weather service notes.

Other wind-driven currents, called long currents, also can pull swimmers down along a beach.

Rip-current danger

Along the sand beaches of Duluth's Minnesota Point and Superior's Wisconsin Point, rip currents are caused by the relentless repetition of easterly wind-driven waves washing up on shore, a huge volume of water tilting the lake, in effect, toward the beach. All that water has to go somewhere after it rolls up on the sand, so it flows back under the surface waves. In some areas, where slightly deeper channels have developed in the shallow sand, the water flows back out toward the lake at a ferocious speed — so fast even strong swimmers can't fight it.

The solution to surviving is surprisingly simple but not widely known: Instead of trying to swim or walk against the current straight back to shore, walk or swim parallel to shore. Rip currents usually are 30 yards wide or less, and you'll soon move out of the strong current. Then head back to shore.

There are incidents nearly every year in Duluth when rip currents are blamed for near-drownings. But before Thursday it had been nearly 14 years since there had been a drowning on Park Point.

On Aug. 17, 2003, 21-year-old Matthew Rheaume drowned, apparently after a rip current formed off the 12th Street beach on Park Point. That same hot August day, with a strong easterly wind, several others needed rescuing from rip currents, including then-University of Minnesota Duluth hockey player Junior Lessard.

In June 2012, 13-year-old Jeffrey Carlos Watson Jr. drowned while swimming near the cribs, just off Duluth's Lakewalk. That death was not considered weather- or current-related.

Lake Superior has fewer rip current issues than other Great Lakes because it has much less sand and more rocky shore where rip currents are much less likely to develop. Lake Superior also is colder than the other big lakes, with fewer people venturing into the water.

Lake Michigan, with sand along much of its shoreline, has many more rip current issues and by far has the largest number of drownings of the Great Lakes.

For real-time updates on current Duluth beach weather conditions, water temperature and rip current danger, go to www.parkpointbeach.org.

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