How to stay safe around our waterways

Published 10:20 am Thursday, March 21, 2024

The greater Valley area has experienced several tragic drownings in the past month, both at West Point Lake and along the Chattahoochee River. With the community being surrounded by waterways, and lake season coming up water safety is as important as ever. 

According to Travis England, the Public Affairs Specialist for the Mobile district of the Army Corps of Engineers, educating the public about being safe around water is a continual effort for the organization.

“A lot of our water safety messages are about prohibiting or reducing the risk of you getting into a situation in which you could be at risk of losing your life,” England said. “And our number one thing is just wearing your life jacket.”

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Wearing a life jacket is paramount. According to England, “The likelihood of drowning once you put that light jacket on is so minuscule compared to when you’re not wearing it. We compare them to wearing seatbelts and vehicles. It’s a lifesaver for a reason.” 

He adds that the majority of people who die at the lakes and waterways in the Mobile district, which includes West Point Lake, were not wearing life jackets.

“If you’re out on your dock, or loaded on your boat or getting on or off your boat; anytime we are in on or near the water we like to wear our life jackets,” England said. 

Making sure the life jacket fits is equally important. England explained that if it doesn’t fit properly it will not work properly. If the jacket is too small, unzipped, or unbuckled, it will not keep the wearer afloat. For testing if a life jacket is too big, England suggests the “tug test.” Tug the shoulder straps of the jacket up, if the straps pass your ears, the jacket is too big, and will not keep your head above the water. 

The other pillar of water safety, the Corp of Engineers teach is the practice of “reach, throw, don’t go.” If someone is drowning, or having trouble staying above water do not jump in the water to help them. Instead, England said to try to reach them with something, a paddle or something to pull them in. If you are unable to reach them, throw them something that can be buoyant, or help them catch their breath, like a life jacket. 

He reiterated that people should not jump in to help someone drowning, as the potential for the rescuer to drown increases, due to the panic of the situation. If the reach or throw did not work, England said the best bet is to start yelling for help. Emergency services should be called at the beginning of the crisis. 

Another precaution to take is not drinking alcohol around water. 

“Alcohol and water don’t mix… You get this disorientated and your likelihood of drowning goes up exponentially, the more drunk you get. That goes from boating to just swimming at one of our beaches. If you’re around the water, you really shouldn’t be consuming heavy alcohol products. That just gets dangerous,” England said. 

Many accidents can be avoided by having someone else with you when around water. 

“You’re supposed to always have a swimming buddy. In fact, to parents, we tell them that there should always be a watcher over the kids,” England said. 

A misconception about drowning is that it is immediately noticeable to others, but it is often not noticed until it is too late. This is why having a parent or lifeguard whose sole job is watching the kids while in the water is so important.

“Drowning can happen so quickly and a lot of times it’s actually silent. It’s not like what we see in movies and TV shows. It’s not flailing around and screaming. It’s sinking underneath the water and not coming back up,” England said. 

With the recent drownings on the Chattahoochee, England asks everyone, especially those on the river, to pay attention to weather advisories. 

“Water levels, especially rivers and streams can fluctuate really fast, especially during a flood or flash flood. So we recommend never being out on the water if it’s turbulent, brown, and rapid,” England said. 

The Army Corps of Engineers releases when they are releasing water from dams that will affect the water level of local waterways. The National Weather Service also alerts the public of heavy rainfall or flash flooding. 

For those doing water sports on the river, including kayaking, canoeing or rafting, England asks that they have a plan. He suggests that people not go alone on the river but if they do, tell someone the route, departure and exit point on the river, and how long it is estimated to take, updating them along the way.

“Notice when that water turns brown and rapid. A lot of the time we will see these fatal accidents happen because of underwater logs or trees or stems that have been ripped out of the ground and now are flowing down the stream…They could be two or three inches underneath the water and you’d never see it but they could potentially hit your kayak and flip you,” England explained.

He added that when streams or rivers are murky or brown it should only last a day or two, after which the mud will settle and the river will be safe to navigate again.

England comes back to the seatbelt analogy when explaining the biggest deterrent to accidents, wearing a lifejacket. 

“Back in like the 60s and 70s when they’re trying to get the seat belt to be a big thing. And there’s much pushback from it,” England said. “They’re uncomfortable or whatever and we kind of hear those same sentiments to life jackets. I don’t want to wear this big, bulky life jacket… There are so many different types of life jackets now. There are ways to get around the uncomfortableness of it. But it’s a life or death thing and that life jacket can save your life.”