Editor's note: In light of the July 4 possible drowning, we're re-highlighting this article which raises important issues and questions about the area where multiple drowings have occured.
An Avon Lake woman concerned with what she says is an uneducated public combined with potentially dangerous riptides off the shores of Miller Road Park wants the city to be a leader in public education.
After learning of an accidental drowning in the summer of 2011 involving a Cleveland teen. Rebecca Vento began researching not only recent drownings at the area known as “The Cut” but how currents, some resulting from the power plant, may have contributed to numerous other deaths at the area.
“I had to do a speech for a college class,” Vento said. “It was supposed to be eight minutes; it ended up being 20 minutes on that area’s dangers.”
She's done her homework. She obtained aerial views of the area, learned how the plant functions and talked to members of the , and Coast Guard.
Vento makes it clear she is not interested in closing down the beach or preventing swimming, but she feels the general public needs an education on Lake Erie’s dangers as well as how to “break the grip of the rip," referring to rip tides or rip currents.
She put together a PowerPoint presentation for the class that opens with a video montage of several of the drowning victims including 19-year-old Daniel Smith and his friend Brandon Glass, both of Elyria, who died on July 19, 2007 after getting caught in riptides while swimming in a rough lake. On Aug. 27, 2009, 62-year-old David Morrow drowned while walking in restricted areas near the power plant’s discharge and apparently fell off an an underwater cliff.
And on July 31, 2011, Daryle Phoeur, 17, of Cleveland died saving his cousin near the area where Morrow died.
Vento created a website, http://thecutavonlake.webs.com/, which details currents caused by the GenOn Power Plant’s cooling system and the riptides that resulted when the city’s fishing pier, which resulted in Miller Road Park beach, was built.
The beach, which is open to the general public, is not monitored by a lifeguard. While some signs warning of dangerous currents are present, and the city recently roped off a “no swim” area, Vento thinks additional measures are needed, starting with public education.
“Avon Lake should be the leader in water safety education,” she said. She has forwarded information on how to escaped riptides to principals, and included the information on GradeBook Wizard, an online connection for parents.
She’s taken up the issue with Jerome Popiel, the Incident Management & Preparedness Advisor for the Ninth Coast Guard District about bringing in Coast Guard representatives to speak to students.
“That’s what I’d like to see happen more than anything,” Vento, a mother of three who grew up in Avon Lake said.
Popiel, also an Avon Lake resident, said the Coast Guard offers water safety campaigns for rip currents around the Great Lakes area and could provide information to Avon Lake students.
He understands Vento’s concerns.
“The power plant discharge has resulted in a number of cases that resulted in fatalities,” Popiel said. “It’s a higher probability than regular beaches. Clearly it has some additional risks including a drop off from shallow to deeper water.”
While that area is roped off, fishermen still walk around the area to access the channel at the plant.
Popiel said the area could pose a higher risk to poor swimmers. He said the remainder of the beach at The Cut is a “typical” beach.
“There’s always a risk of drowning at any beach,” he said, noting that riptides can be caused by an outlet or even water and wind.
Coast Guard will offer classes for free
The Coast Guard hosts popular boater safety courses, but Popiel said personnel will speak to students and groups about beach safety as well.
“It’s not as structured as the boat safety classes,” Popiel said, calling the discussions "not well defined."
“It more of an outreach effort than a course,” he said. “We could talk to grade school children, teenagers. Teenager seems to be a risk group.”
Popiel said the issue of beach safety has moved to the forefront lately and he said that while media outlets can provide information to some, a grassroots effort is also needed to educate those who the media might not reach as easily.
“A grass roots effort could target school groups,” he said.
Vento said Popiel’s comment that “the lake is a sea” reflects the misunderstanding many swimmers have of how a body of water the size of Lake Erie acts, and its dangers.
Superintendent supports classroom education
Bob Scott, the superintendent of Avon Lake schools, said he has been in discussions with Popiel and Vento.
He met with Vento last November and included information on GradeBookWizard and had the link to her web-site about “the cut” posted as well.
“All of her information was sent to the health teachers and will be included at some point in the class,” Scott said. “We have a number of contacts with the Coast Guard and plan to work with them on this. It will come down to matching times when we cover the subject and when can the Coast Guard can be available.
“It is a good thing for the kids to know.”
Signage could help
Both Popiel and Vento said signage could be a factor and Vento would like to see more prominently displayed signs at Miller Road Park beach notifying potential swimmers—many of them from cities including Lorain and Cleveland who are unfamiliar with the beach—of the hidden dangers from the drop off and rip currents.
“The other issue is signage,” Popiel said.
“Look at the west coast of Michigan,” Popiel said, using that area as a potential (guideline) for what can be done. In addition to signs, that area puts out flags that there are rip currents. “Some folks are not in favor of additional warning signs saying it can drive away visitors.”
Vento thinks education and signs on how to “fight the grip of the rip” if caught in a current could help and noted it was important that signs be bilingual.
"Avon Lake should set the example for the rest of Cleveland," she said.