MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee County has laid out a plan to reopen a popular downtown beach that has seen a number of drownings. However, a water rescue group says even with safety plans, Lake Michigan can be deadly and people need to be cautious.
Under the peaceful waters of Lake Michigan are some dangerous currents. Those currents can turn deadly. One popular Milwaukee beach has seen so many deaths it was shut down.
“McKinley Beach is closed and it has been closed because the amount of deaths that we have seen. We have studies that showed us that we have riptides that happen in McKinley Beach,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.
McKinley Beach was closed in 2020 after at least four drowning deaths. Despite that continued closure, a 16-year-old died near the McKinley Marina in May of this year. Crowley says he knows people are using the beach despite the county’s effort to keep people out.
”We’ve had fences there, but it is not going to stop individuals from going into the water,” said Crowley.
Crowley signed a measure Wednesday to repair McKinley Beach so it can be safely reopened for swimming. However, Lake Michigan itself is dangerous, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. The non-profit promotes water safety and tracks deaths in the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan is considered the deadliest lake in the country when it comes to drowning deaths. Bob Pratt from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project says in all of the Great Lakes, there have been 54 drownings so far this year, and about half, 23, have happened in Lake Michigan.
“The data is heartbreaking. We just passed 1,100 fatal drownings since 2010 since we started keeping score. It’s a large number but every one of those had a mother and a father, had loved ones,” said Pratt.
Pratt says Lake Michigan is so dangerous because it is a large body of water with currents like an ocean. It can pull even an experienced swimmer under. But he says any water can be dangerous. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. for children under 15. He warns that drownings do not happen slowly like is sometimes portrayed in the movies.
“People don’t understand that drowning happens very quickly, very suddenly, and most often it is just a momentary lapse in adult supervisor,” said Pratt.
The money to make repairs to McKinley Beach is coming from the county’s contingency funds. McKinley Beach is expected to be reopened by 2023.
"We should be out on the water and this will do it. Changing our beach structure will make rip tides a think of the past,” said County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman.
The work will include shifting sands from the lake closer to the beach to stabilize the beach’s rip-tide conditions. The work is expected to sustain for the next 20 to 30 years
These days, the beach is exclusively a popular place for seagulls to gather and relax.
Elissa Koppel enjoys the beach.
“It’s a bummer that people don’t have access to this part of the beach, especially since Bradford gets quite congested,” said Koppel.
Koppel said she loves spending time near the lake. She’s hopeful to see the fences come down and a day where people can enjoy McKinley once again.
“It is a shame and it needs to be more of a safer place,” she said.
Koppel says she’s looking forward to seeing more people and fewer seagulls enjoying the beach for years to come.