SPRINGFIELD, Mo. _ It's been a deadly spring on Missouri's lakes and rivers as 21 people have drowned, almost half as many as in all of last year, with the busy summer recreation season just beginning.
The Missouri Water Patrol blames "strong currents" as contributing to seven of the 21 drownings but conditions created by excessive rain and flooding could have contributed to most of the death as they all have occurred since heavy spring rains began March 17. None of the deaths are being blamed on alcohol.
The Water Patrol's records show that two drownings happened within two weeks of the rains starting, with the victims hitting objects in the water and then capsizing. Others occurred when swimmers became tired and disappeared before friends could rescue them.
The greatest danger comes from flash floods that can cause a waterway to rise quickly and have treacherous currents, said Missouri Water Patrol Maj. Tommy Roam.
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"That's the type of flooding that can take people's lives," he said.
For example, Oscar Roberts drowned April 11 when he tried to drive his Chevy Blazer across a section of road flooded out by the Gasconade River near Hartville.
"In flash flooding situations like we saw near Hartville, the water went up and a young person drowned when he tried to cross a creek that he crossed on a consistent basis," Roam said.
Last year was also dangerous with 44 drowning deaths, well above the normal annual average of 19 to 28 incidents.
Continued rain and high waters has the Water Patrol asking boaters, swimmers and others playing near Missouri rivers to wear personal floating devices.
In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard said two-thirds of all fatal boating accident victims drowned and 90 percent of them weren't wearing a life vest.
"Just wearing a personal flotation device would save most lives," Roam said, although the Water Patrol did record two drownings this year where the victims were wearing life vests.
The worst types of flooding, such as that occurring on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, actually cause fewer drownings because they gain enough attention that people can plan for it and leave the area.
"What I'm concerned about ... are people canoeing or boating in rivers and waterways where there's a faster current have a chance of tipping the canoe," said Greg Oller, Table Rock Lake manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "If they're not wearing a personal flotation device, all of a sudden they pop their head up and the canoe is some 30 yards away."
Oller said the biggest danger to boaters in high water situations is submerged objects, such as trees, picnic tables and poles flipping boats and throwing passengers into the water. This is especially true in coves and along shorelines where objects are now just below the surface, endangering boat hulls and propellers.
Swimmers are also at risk if they are jumping into unfamiliar waters, Roam said, because timber may be floating just below the surface.
The Water Patrol considers 2007 the "safest boating year in Missouri in over 20 years" as the patrol recorded 241 boat accidents with 155 injuries and seven deaths. Col. Rad Talburt credited the decline in accidents on increased patrols, a stronger public safety campaign, more sobriety checkpoints and better boat training.
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.springfieldnews-leader.com