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Safety in the water critical this weekend

May 27, 2019

HUNTINGTON — With one of the busiest annual outdoor weekends here, and given the tragic drowning death of a 16-year-old Barboursville boy last week in the Guyandotte River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is urging caution when enjoying natural waterways.

The Corps is the nation’s largest federal overseer of water recreation, and the Huntington district — located in the Federal Building in downtown Huntington — oversees 44 lake and river projects in six different states, all within the Ohio River watershed. Those regional spots average more than 12 million visits annually.

But last year, there were six water-related fatalities in the Huntington district, which covers most of West Virginia, Ohio, and portions of Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. None of those victims were wearing a life jacket at the time, said Mike McCoy, a natural resource specialist who oversees the district’s water safety program.

The majority of fatalities happen between May and August, and most are men between 18 and 35 — the group the Corps is most trying to reach. By comparison, there’s rarely a fatality for children under 12, who are required to wear life jackets by law.

The Corps advises everyone wear life jackets on any waterway not a designated swimming area, such as the one located at nearby Beech Fork State Park. In those areas, the bottom is grated to give an even, shallow depth, it’s maintained free of underwater debris, and the area is roped off so boaters don’t get too close.

The perils of swimming in a river or lake are different from a swimming pool or even a manicured beach, and those factors can be deadly.

The water depth is unknown and can quickly vary, and it’s often impossible to tell what lies beneath the surface.

Debris like branches or roots can tangle a swimmer, and rocks can hide below someone jumping in. Rivers and streams can also have strong undercurrents, particularly after heavy rain.

Natural water is often much colder than swimming pools, and anything below 70 degrees is considered “cold water” that can spark involuntary gasping, hyperventilation, panic and occasionally vertigo, the Corps states.

Safety can also simply be a matter of knowing your abilities, and those who aren’t accustomed to swimming can quickly falter in natural water. The Corps warns that several people drown each year, some with no intention of swimming, while trying to retrieve loose toys or boats.

Alcohol can also play a major factor in water safety. A Corps study found that between 1998 and 2015, 17% of all boating fatalities in the United States could be attributed to alcohol consumption.

More water safety tips from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be found at www.pleasewearit.com.

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