SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — With Memorial Day weekend ahead, beaches along Lake Michigan will be busy with many visitors.
One nonprofit organization is pushing extra hard to keep people safe by ensuring they're aware of lake conditions.
Last year marked the deadliest year on Lake Michigan since 2010 with over 50 drownings, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
They said South Haven's beaches saw three of those drowning deaths, but if lifeguards would have been present they might have been preventable.
"In 2020, there were 109 Great Lakes drownings. 56 of those happened in Lake Michigan. That was the record for deadliest year on Lake Michigan since we started tracking in 2010," said Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Co-Founder and Executive Director Dave Benjamin.
Three of those fatal drownings happened in South Haven with 23 additional rescues.
"We need to understand that lifeguards are the first responders on the beach. They have their eyes on the water. They are ready to go in a moment's notice is someone is struggling in the water," said Benjamin.
Currently in the city, South Haven Area Emergency Services (S.H.A.E.S.) responds to calls for rescues and recoveries at the beaches.
While Benjamin said they do an excellent job with the tools they have, there's one thing that is missing.
"The one tool that you cannot purchase is time," said Benjamin.
Even with the S.H.A.E.S. response time of three to four minutes, for a drowning victim, it only takes about one minute for full submersion.
Last Thursday, the South Haven Beach Safety Committee voted 5-2 against passing a recommendation to the city council to add a lifeguard program. Instead, the majority voted to improve a current beach monitoring program and enhance tools already in place regarding lake conditions.
"I think there is a multifaceted approach here. I think what the beach safety committee was trying to do was look at the safety features we can bring there and what we can easily rely on to add that extra layer of safety," said City of South Haven's City Manager Kate Hosier.
The safety features include colored flags that are changed based on beach conditions, a QR code to check current water conditions, and a text messaging subscription service to notify people when the colors of flags change.
"For many of us who have grown up at the beach, here at Lake Michigan, we know it is an inherently dangerous place to be so what we’re trying to do is to let our guests or people who are visiting what those conditions are whether it is a green, yellow or red flag out there," said Hosier.
"It would be absolutely better to have full-time lifeguards. We need to understand the flag system is a tool for lifeguards to use. It's not a replacement guards," said Benjamin.
If you are planning on heading out to Lake Michigan for Memorial Day Weekend, make sure to check the flags for beach conditions to ensure it is safe to swim.
You can also sign up for text alerts on when the flags change by texting BEACHES to 888777.