I-TEAM: How limiting access to public pools is costing lives

Published: Sep. 8, 2022 at 6:42 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Pool season may be officially over, but river and lake season will continue as long as mother nature allows.

The pandemic brought a record number of new people into parks and onto lakes, but we also saw an increase in unintentional deaths, newbies taking to the water for the first time, and drowning.

The ITEAM found limiting access to public swimming pools and waterways is costing lives.

Overall, drowning deaths dropped since the 1990′s, but the ITEAM found that the number did not decrease among Black swimmers, it increased.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans found freedom from sheltering in place in the woods and on the water. Buying anything with a rudder, two or four wheels.

We escaped from the pandemic to our parks and pools.

“I grew up on Chestnut Street, which is a walking distance here of Jones pool, “says Joyce Law.

She represents the Georgia African American Historical Preservation Network.

She remembers the day the very first public pool opened in Augusta.

“I grew up in an era where the signs were posted as colored and white. So, you knew where you could and could not go,” she said.

The Holley Street pool gave the Bethlehem, Laney Walker, and Turpin Hill communities, historically Black neighborhoods, access to a pool for the very first time.

“That was a huge event, not only for public access but keeping in mind…1954 is when we have Brown v Board of Education,” said Law.

The year was 1950, four years before the landmark case and only two years after Senator Strom Thurmond’s infamous swimming pool speech which continues to shock to this day.

Tens of thousands of people have viewed the archived speech on YouTube.

“I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the n***er race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Clarks Hill or Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake is named after the Senator.

Recently the bodies of Eynn Wilson and Edward Kirk, two best friends, were found in the lake. The coroner said they died after one went off and the other jumped to save him last year.

The following month, another drowning. Ralph Jenkins of the Augusta Fire Department. Investigators say he, too, drowned after jumping into the lake to save someone he saw fall off a boat.

This year brought more heartache.

Investigators say Anthony Mack drowned while his girlfriend was teaching him to swim. The same day, four-year-old Izzy Scott lost his life.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health reports drowning as the second leading cause of death in children ages one to four just behind birth defects. It’s also the second leading cause of unintentional death after car accidents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports drowning deaths have dropped more than 30 percent since 1990.

However, the ITEAM found rates remain high among certain racial groups due to disparities.

The ITEAM found drownings significantly increased among Black people, drowning one and a half to two times the rate of White people.

The ITEAM requested data from local coroners to get a clearer picture of that reality here at home. Our analysis found local drownings more than doubled over the pandemic.

Getting to the swimming pool is still a matter of access and opportunity. And so, if you have limited hours, say, for example, Jones Pool, as the outdoor pool is still equitably, is only open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Jones Pool is the only one of three public pools in the area, all three are only open three hours a day.

Jones Pool is not even open on weekends. COVID shut pools down during the first year of the pandemic. Now three summers later, the ITEAM found a lifeguard shortage is limiting hours.

Jessica Bacon is the YMCA Training and Outreach Director of Greater Augusta.

“I know locally and throughout this year are some of the public pools, and some of the country club pools are also struggling to find lifeguards…I know locally, and throughout this year, some of the public schools and some of the country club schools are also struggling to find lifeguards as well.”

Heart disease, not drowning, is the leading cause of death in Richmond County.

Harvard Medical School found swimming improves heart health. Access to an open pool and fresh fruits and vegetables could change a community.

Many of our historically Black neighborhoods are located in food deserts, meaning a lot of families here have to walk to get food, but there is no grocery store here to walk to.

Law said: “My message, especially for African Americans, is that we want to preserve our quality of life, and that means staying alive, but also to take advantage of all of the boating safety courses, swimming.”

Rich in history but still with poor access to the basic needs of a healthy community.

“Because it’s a direct reflection on the health of the community as well,” she said.

YMCA provides swimming lessons, for babies through adults, year-round and at a low cost. The YMCA also offers lifeguard training for anyone wanting to become one.