By Conor Greene
Six people have already drowned off the Rockaway coast this summer and officials say the worst conditions will arrive in the coming weeks when hurricane season takes full effect.
The latest incident came last Friday when Jose-Luis Olivares, 36, of Ozone Park died while trying to save his eight-year-old daughter from the waters off Jacob Riis Park. His daughter, Stephanie, made it back to shore safely. Lifeguards were off-duty for about an hour before the 7 p.m. drowning, which was the second in three days off the Rockaway coast. On June 12, 40-year-old Hayward Patterson of Jamaica disappeared while swimming in the water off the 15th Street Beach in Far Rockaway; his body has not been recovered.
The number of deaths this year has already doubled the total amount from the past two years, leading several elected officials to push for steps to help prevent more drownings. City Councilman James Sanders, Jr. (D-Laurelton) held an emergency meeting Monday night with Parks Department officials, community leaders and residents, where he said several “out of the box” ideas were discussed.
"Six deaths are too many... This year is just out of control," Sanders told The Forum. "With that in mind, we have to think out of the box on this one. We explored many things [Monday] including getting a boat or Jet Ski to patrol the waters." He noted that the closest Coast Guard station is now in Sandy Hook since the Rockaway one was closed. "Why not put a Jet Ski in the water or at least have them available on land so we can get to people quicker?"
Other suggestions included reopening safer beaches where the riptides are not as strong, staggering hours when beaches are open and encouraging people to visit public pools on hot days. "There are beaches that are closed in the Rockaways [that] absolutely need to be opened. The beaches that are open are not necessarily the safest ones," said Sanders.
The councilman noted that several of the victims traveled to the Rockaways from other parts of the borough and city and might not be familiar with the area's strong currents or sharp drop-offs. "One of the big secrets we have here is the big drop off in the water... Unless you know how to swim in ten feet of water you should not go past your hips."
In response to the spike in deaths, a Parks spokeswoman said the city has more than 300 lifeguards at Rockaway Beach and 50 Urban Park Service staff patrolling the area. Three of the drownings this year have occurred at city beaches, along with two at Jacob Riis Park, which is patrolled by the National Parks Service, and one at a private beach. Lifeguards were off duty during all of the incidents.
"Rockaway, unlike some of the other beaches around New York City is a true ocean beach and the ocean is a powerful and unpredictable force of nature and you have to expect it and be careful when you're going into the waters," Liam Kavanaugh, First Deputy Parks Commissioner, told NY1. "We urge the public, as tempting as it may be, particularly on hot days such as this, that they should not go in the ocean where there is no lifeguard around."
Sanders said the Parks Department - whose lifeguards have come under fire for safety violations - is paying attention to the issue but he wants to see real steps taken in the near future. "I want to see more action... The typical things are not working. Under those conditions, let's go with outside thinking."
On the federal level, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) is calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to expand a $4 million study of the Rockaway Beaches to include safety measures to help prevent the riptides, which are caused by currents of water between sandbars and the coastline. In a letter to the Army Corps Lt. General Van Antwerp, he argued that the study "won't be complete if it doesn't closely examine the serious safety concerns for swimmers and recommendations for structural changes to prevent drownings."
The study, which focuses on fighting beach erosion, is scheduled to be completed by 2011 and construction of the 100-year storm protection plan for the Rockaways could begin in 2012, according to Weiner. "The ocean currents may at times be very strong, but the Army Corps can help us turn the tides of the awful tragedies that have hit the Rockaways and make our beaches better and more importantly safer."
While the ocean waters off the Rockaways have long been known for the strong riptides, Sanders said the city has looked into whether the conditions have worsened. "We looked into that. I wanted to know if there was something going on in the waters... The Parks Department assured me that is not the case," he said.
The first drowning came on June 12, followed by the death of a 19-year-old Bronx boy off Beach 27th Street on July 31. The first four days of August claimed two more victims - a 21-year-old who drowned after going into the water to help his friend and a 56-year-old Brooklyn man who died in Breezy Point despite efforts to revive him.
"The waters will absolutely get worse. From this point forward the conversation is about how we turn this around and stop the senseless deaths in our community," added Sanders.