When sharks started showing up along New York beaches this summer, authorities sprang into action.
Suddenly, NYPD helicopters fly over the beaches. Park police patrol the water in boats. New York Governor Kathy Hochul sent drones over the coast.
As an avid ocean swimmer, I’m not crazy about extra shark precautions. I just wish we would act with the same urgency when New Yorkers drown because they can’t swim or, needing a place to cool off, wade through dangerous waters.
Since 2008, 58 people have drowned on New York beaches or swimming pools, trying to escape the relentless heat. The toll does not include those who drowned elsewhere, such as the Bronx River, which claimed the lives of two teenagers in 2010 and two others in 2014.
Many drowning deaths in New York City occur along the Queens coast, where currents are violent and New Yorkers who can’t swim or can swim only a little often find themselves easily overwhelmed. Lifeguards here make frequent backups.
On a recent day in Rockaway Beach, a young boy who had somehow strayed from the surf break waved his arms. No less than five rescuers hovered over the sand, rushing towards him. Moments later, bathers watched as lifeguards dropped the exhausted child to shore.
Sometimes the scene turns to death. On June 10, two teenagers drowned when the sandbar they were standing on collapsed, sending them plunging into Jamaica Bay in Queens, not far from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Exactly a week later, two more youths drowned in the waters off Rockaway Beach.
One way to prevent these deaths is to teach many more New Yorkers to swim. The other is to give them many, many more places to do it safely.
The city’s free swim lesson program serves about 30,000 people each year at an annual cost of $2.5 million, city officials said. If that sounds like enough, consider the size of New York, where nearly a million children are enrolled in public school and the budget is $101 billion a year. If Mayor Eric Adams made water safety a priority, New York could teach anyone who wanted to learn.
The city can also do much more to educate New Yorkers about water safety in general. Public health experts say part of learning to swim is knowing where and when not to enter the water and better understanding your personal limits. “We learn to ride a bike and learn not to walk in traffic,” said William Ramos, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who studies water sports. “It must be in the same bucket.”
So far, however, the political will is not there. As the summers grow increasingly sultry, New York remains a city surrounded by water where many people cannot swim. Data in New York and elsewhere in the country is sorely lacking. But a 2017 Health Department survey found that about one in three Black and Asian college students and about one in four Latino college students in New York City couldn’t swim. Only 8.7% of white students said they couldn’t. The survey defined young people as knowing how to swim even though they said they could swim “at least a little” but not the full length of a swimming pool.
New York also needs more swimming pools. The city is a swimming desert. Even for those who know how to do it, finding a public place to do it is often difficult.
There are 50 operational public swimming pools for more than 8 million inhabitants. Another 50 pools are owned by the city’s education ministry, but only 27 of them are operational, city officials said. The scarcity of pools means New Yorkers who rely on public pools often queue before they can swim. Hours are limited, and when crowds are large, pool-goers are sometimes forced to swim in shifts. People living in poverty in New York are already less likely to have air conditioning and more likely to live in warmer neighborhoods. Municipal swimming pools offer crucial relief, as well as pleasure.
In June, the city casually announced on Twitter that it would not be offering free swimming lessons this year, because of this said, a “shortage of national lifeguards”. The senior swim and the lap swim have also been cancelled. Caught off guard, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has hired 78 additional lifeguards in recent weeks. Free swimming lessons remain cancelled.
Then there are the New York pool rules, which are about as enticing as a visit to the dentist. Here’s a sample, taken verbatim from the city’s website:
“Electronic equipment, including radios, cameras and cell phones, are not permitted on the pool deck.”
“Beach chairs, strollers, bags, blankets, or beach balls are not permitted on the pool deck.”
Does this sound fun to you? People who rely on public pools deserve better.
As temperatures soared in June, Amanda Caraballo took her young sons to Douglass and Degraw Pool in Brooklyn to cool off and find respite in their apartment, which is not air-conditioned. Resort workers told her the pool was partially closed because there weren’t enough lifeguards to watch it. Ms Caraballo said they queued for nearly two hours before giving up.
A few weeks later, New York was once again baking in the scorching summer sun. Hoping to avoid a long wait at the pool, Ms Caraballo instead took Julian, 8, and Jax, 5, to the park.
In the small park in the shade of an HLM, steam rose from the bitumen. The two boys ran back and forth through a concrete sprinkler.
Their mother was sitting on a bench in the shade. It was too hot to do anything but watch them.