Minorities more often drowning victims
by Jane Harrison
Part 2: Research into Lanier Fatalities
This is the second installment of a three-part series looking at fatalities on Lake Lanier.
The tragedies that took eight lives on Lake Lanier so far this year have spawned organizations targeting safety initiatives and potential legislation. But, the human wreckage on Lake Lanier this year has been significantly less than in other years, when as many as 19 people died in the lake that draws a reported 7.5 million annual visits.
A Lakeside on Lanier study begun in the October edition looked at yearly death tolls that appear unaffected by any factor except that of random human behavior. The previous edition also cited statistics showing that drownings outnumber deaths caused by boating incidents by a ratio of 2 to 1. (See Oct. 2012 Lakeside Archive online
The study of fatality statistics, incident reports, microfilm editions of the Gainesville Times and interviews with lake officials and rangers derived additional findings about death on Lanier, including the subject of this report: the high incidence of minority deaths by drowning.
The sandy beaches, picnic pavilions and campgrounds of public swimming parks on the lake attract millions of visitors a year who take advantage of low cost admission for group outings in picturesque settings where they can play in the water, hit volleyballs and grill out. Buoy lines mark the boundaries of swimming areas. Loaner life jackets and floating throw jugs hang on nearby billboards. It’s swim at your own risk. There are no lifeguards.
During the warm season, particularly on summer weekends, throngs of Hispanics and visitors from minority cultures gather at the parks. Lanier officials say it is from these groups that the lake claims most of its victims.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources does not compile annual fatality statistics by race or nationality, according to Georgia DNR Outreach/Communications Director Melissa Cummings, who compiled statistics for this report.
But a review of individual incident reports and interviews with DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials indicated that most of the 75 drownings between 1999 and September 2012 involved non-white or foreign born individuals.
Lanier draws from the burgeoning Hispanic and Latino population of Hall County and diverse cultural backgrounds in neighboring Gwinnett County. Minority populations in both counties make up more than a third of their total populations, according to U.S.Census 2011 figures.
The cultural mix on the lake is also influenced by its proximity to metro Atlanta. “Being close to Atlanta brings in so many different cultures … who come in large groups to recreate,” said Nick Baggett, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Natural Resource Manager for Lake Lanier.
The public has at least seasonal access to more than 40 day use parks and campgrounds on Lanier. Baggett reported that in his 12 years of service on Lake Lanier, he has seen a demographic shift of more Hispanics using park facilities. “They are a great resource for families to recreate … $4 (per car) will get you into our parks to have a nice experience,” he said.
Corps Lake Lanier Operations Project Manager Tim Rainey, who has targeted water safety education toward Hispanics, reported it’s not unusual to see groups of 10 to 30 Hispanic individuals gathered around lake picnic pavilions for family celebrations. “They are more social,” he said. But, horror also visits some gatherings when young men challenge each other to swim to an island. Parents get distracted from watching young children. People unable to swim wade into water too deep or slip off a shallow underwater ridge into a 40-foot drop. Children and non-swimmers fail to wear life jackets. Or persons making emergency calls cannot communicate with responders. Within three to four minutes, a human choice can lead to a horrific silent death.
“A large majority of the deaths are Hispanics,” Baggett said. The first Lanier drownings of the 2012 season occurred during an Hispanic family outing at Mountain View Park when a father and his step-son died after the father attempted to rescue the teenager, who had tried to swim to an island with his brother. The brother made it back to shore. The double drowning in April was reported by local media.
The tragedies involving Hispanics “do not get near the media coverage that white people get,” Rainey said, alluding to the broad media attention that focused on Jake and Griffin Prince, brothers killed in a June boating accident. The public may be unaware of the high death toll of Hispanics on Lanier because of a lack of mainstream media coverage, he said. And, the Hispanic community may be less informed about dangers on the lake because, he said, “they are watching Telemundo,” Spanish language television news broadcasts. A search of Telemundo Atlanta archives revealed only one news story about casualties on “Lago Lanier” since 2011.
Rainey and Baggett spoke of challenges communicating water safety information to minority populations due to what they perceive as a cultural gap that goes beyond language. Baggett described the southern part of the lake, especially West Bank Park, as a “melting pot.” Corps rangers passing out water safety coloring books to children of different cultures get cold looks from parents.
Spanish-speaking rangers and Spanish language posters may get the safety message across to some Hispanic visitors, but those words are lost on visitors who understand neither Spanish nor English. A Corps study reported 20 different ethnic groups visited Lanier in the 1990s. Since 1999, citizens from Israel, Russia, and Asian countries have been among those who drowned in the lake.
Rainey believes area schools, churches, media and roadside billboards can help get the water safety message across to minority populations. “The ultimate goal is education,” he said. That message can be plastered on billboards with pictures of lake-goers wearing life jackets. He believes that if everyone driving to the lake passed billboards showing pictures of people wearing life jackets, those pictures might prompt someone to make a choice that could save a life.
Next month’s edition focuses on the finding that there is no evidence overcrowding or congestion is a factor in fatality counts on Lanier, however, accessibility, particularly access to swimming areas may be.