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Dam releases can catch Chattahoochee visitors off guard
Kayley Roper, 8, cools off Friday in Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Park. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Swim safety tips

  • Always actively supervise children in and around water. Don't leave, even for a moment.
  • Children should swim only in designated and supervised swimming areas.
  • Use life jackets and other safety gear, but know that any child can get in trouble in the water, even if wearing a life jacket or having taken swimming lessons.
  • Always wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices while on boats, in or near open bodies of water or participating in water sports. A PFD should fit snugly and not allow the child's chin or ears to slip through the neck opening.
  • Air-filled swimming aids, such as "water wings" and inner tubes, are not safety devices and should never be substituted for PFDs.
  • Learn CPR and keep rescue equipment (like a lifesaving ring), a telephone and emergency phone numbers nearby.
  • Make sure children take swimming lessons when they're ready, usually after age 4.
  • Teach kids the safe way to help someone in trouble in the water: Call for help and throw the person something that floats.
  • Don't let children dive into water less than 9 feet deep, and no one should dive into a river, lake or ocean.
  • Children ages 16 and younger should never operate personal watercraft.

Source: Safe Kids 

A fisherman floats Friday afternoon down the Chattahoochee River, enjoying the last bit of silence before ear-piercing sirens order him to the shore.

A Buford Dam water release soon will turn the quiet stream into a dangerous river visitors need to avoid, Clark Allen explained as he packed up his gear.

"These are not people that are on the river all the time," he said. "They don't know what to do, and that's where the danger lies."

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Officer Pat Robbins said the daily dam releases occur whenever hydropower is needed for the city, but not on a regular basis.

The water levels quickly rise to 11 feet and temperatures drop as low as 44 degrees.

"The water is going to rise and move swiftly," he said. "So the smartest thing to do is just get out of the water until it stabilizes again."

Most releases are planned in advance so visitors can schedule their trips accordingly.

"Right at the scheduled time, (sirens) go off," fisherman Sam Alatar said. "Then every five minutes they go off again. By the third one, you want to be getting out."

But even with all the warnings, swimmers often are caught off guard. River visitor Al Shulhan recalled watching the daring rescue of a woman caught in the current several years ago.

"She was holding onto these branches out in the water because she couldn't swim in," he said. "It was pretty high water and the current was strong, strong enough so she couldn't swim. ... It was like a drama."

Robbins said these dangerous conditions have caused several drownings and should not be underestimated.

Everyone within three miles of the dam is required to wear a life jacket, but Robbins said they strongly encourage safety devices even for those further downstream.

Alatar said the releases can last well over two hours, usually bringing an early end to the day on the water.

"There have been times when the siren went off and we weren't expecting it as soon as it did," he said. "So we had to hurry back quick. ... We only had 10 to 15 minutes after the first one went off to get out."

In order to warn visitors, a release schedule is made available at 770-945-1466 or by tuning in to 1610-AM on the radio.

"If you're coming to use the river, that's great. But you need to call and get the release schedules in advance so you don't get surprised," Robbins said. "We urge people to get the information so they have a safe and enjoyable visit."

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