Drowning spike alarms Miss. officials

Published 11:20 pm Thursday, June 18, 2009

State officials are facing an alarming and unexplained increase in accidental drownings in the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.

“I can’t understand why,” said Capt. Calvin Fulton, administrator of hunting and boating safety for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “It’s not a lack of enforcement, because our officers are rolling.”

Fulton said his department has responded to 20 freshwater drownings in 2009, including the death of 17-year-old Brandon resident Frederick Robbie Jones, who drowned Sunday in the Pearl River south of Carthage. Fulton said that is twice the number of drowning deaths this time last year and almost as many as for all of 2008.

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In addition to the 20 drownings, the MDWFP has responded to 10 fatalities as the result of boating accidents, compared to five for all of last year.

Fulton said 2008 was an average year for water fatalities and he is at a loss over this year’s “unreal” spike in deaths.

“I personally would think that, with the economy being the way it is, people would be doing less boating,” he said. “Maybe more people are going to these little rural swimming holes. It’s a cheap afternoon with the family or friends.”

AAA spokesman Don Redman said vacation travel is up slightly this year, but the high cost of gas and the generally poor economy are keeping many close to home as families look for economical recreation.

“We are looking at more of a utilization of state parks,” he said.

In the Carthage incident, Leake County Sheriff Glen Waggoner said Jones appeared to have lost his footing in the strong current of the Pearl River and was pulled under. Between 75 and 100 people had congregated at the sandbar near the Mississippi 35 bridge that is an unofficial swimming hole for area residents.

Waggoner said it still is not clear what happened.

“No one could tell us exactly other than they saw him go out,” he said.

Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks spokesman Jim Walker said the drowning occurred in deep water a few hundred yards from a public boat ramp. The area is treacherous, he said.

“It goes from knee-deep water to very deep real quick,” he said.

Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for Mississippi residents age 18 and under, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of drownings are in “natural water” settings like lakes and rivers as opposed to pools or bathtubs, according to records kept by the state Department of Health.

Mississippi’s per-capita rate of accidental drownings is among the worst in the nation, with nearly 1.7 drownings per 100,000 people. For 2003-2006, the most recent three-year period available for national figures, only eight other states — including Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas — had worse rates.

Florida, which has one of the highest rates of accidental drownings, is seeing an increase as well. Lt. Ed Cates of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the state has recorded 22 boating-related fatalities this year as opposed to 18 by this time last year.

“We only had 54 fatalities last year. The year before we had 77 total boat-related fatalities,” he said. “We were actually trying to get a study done over a 10-year period on why we have a fluctuation in fatalities. It could be a lot of factors. It could be the economy, less people last year out on boats.”

Walker said the problem in Mississippi is a combination of too many weak swimmers in too many dangerous areas with too few life vests. It might be fun to dive into the old swimming hole, but that does not mean it always is safe, he said.

“The tide rises, the tide falls, the bottom changes continuously,” he said.

Fulton said alcohol is a factor in one out of every four boating-related accidents. This year, state wildlife authorities are writing more tickets than ever for boating under the influence in an attempt to drive the number of accidents back down.

“All we can do,” he said, “is try to help prevent it by increasing boating enforcement, increasing visibility and conducting more safety checks on boats.”