High water levels and wave events increase safety hazards

Published Nov. 18, 2020
Fall storm at the South Haven Lighthouse in South Haven, Michigan.

Fall storm at the South Haven Lighthouse in South Haven, Michigan.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urges caution around Great Lake piers, breakwaters and jetties, particularly during times of high wind and wave events.

Many accidents and incidents near harbor structures occur during the turbulent weather season late in the year and higher than normal water levels pose an added threat. The lakeshore attracts local residents and visitors alike and some may not be aware of the powerful impacts that strong winds, storms and high water levels can bring.

Dangers of High Water Levels, Waves. The Great Lakes are experiencing higher than normal water levels, which bring safety hazards such as submerged breakwaters, dangerous rip currents and electric shock risks.

Submerged Structures. Many piers, docks and portions of breakwaters may not be visible above the water surface due to high water and waves. Winds often affect local water levels, dramatically increasing levels during storms. and windy days. Structures that may be visible on a calm day may not be visible on a windy day.

Although breakwater structures are built for navigation, they are also often used for recreation. Walking along breakwater structures can be hazardous – the uneven slippery surfaces, especially when doubled with wave action, increases the risk of falling in to the water. In addition, large armor stones may be hidden below the water surface. There is significant risk of getting wedged between armor stones or striking a stone with one’s body, should an individual fall or jump into the water.

Rip Currents. Water circulation can differ with changes in water levels. When water levels, wind and waves increase, so does the risk of dangerous currents. Rip currents and structural currents are a common cause of drowning. Rip currents are fast-moving, narrow currents of water that flow away from shore. Structural currents can occur at fixed structures such as breakwaters and piers, and flow away from shore parallel to the structure. To get out of a rip current, it is advised to “Flip, Float, Follow” until the current subsides to save your energy and reduce your risk of drowning.

Electric Shock and Drowning. Electric shock drowning is an increased risk due to high water levels. Water-overtopped docks at marinas or public areas may have electrical hook-ups, which have the potential to shock someone that has come in contact with the water. When immobile due to shock, the risk of drowning increases.

Other Water Dangers. Cold water is a significant safety threat should a person slip or fall off a breakwater or pier into the water. Being immersed in cold water (60°F degrees and colder) can cause cold water shock during the first minute of exposure. Cold water shock causes gasping and difficulty in breathing, followed by muscle failure, all of which can lead to drowning.

Stay Safe. For more information on water and pier safety, the Great Lakes Beach & Pier Safety Task Force’s video, “Respect the Power,” is a great resource. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project http://www.glsrp.org/ is another resource for water safety.


Bill Dowell
313-300-0662 (cell)

Release no. 20-197