By Ivey Schofield
Five days after the second drowning in one month at Lake Waccamaw, a roundtable of who’s who in southeastern North Carolina decided to quit talking and start doing: Columbus County would get a public pool once again.
“This is something our county desperately needs,” said Jonathan Williams, assistant superintendent of Columbus County Schools.
On May 8, an 18-year-old man did not resurface after his kayak flipped on Lake Waccamaw, according to The News Reporter. First responders found his body days later.
On June 4, a 33-year-old man from Robeson County drowned while trying to rescue his son at the lake, according to The News Reporter. His son survived.
Neither man was wearing a life vest, which is the best way to prevent drowning, according to Dr. Peter Chambers.
As the county’s EMS medical director, Chambers was at both drowning scenes at Lake Waccamaw, one of the largest natural lakes in the state at 9,000 acres. As an author and television personality, he’s also a dedicated advocate for water safety.
Every day, 11 people die from drowning in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People don’t know how to swim,” Chambers said. “Everybody thinks they can, but they really can’t.”
Columbus County used to have several community pools for children and adults to enjoy safe swimming. But they were generally for white families who could afford the membership fees.
Now, those pools are empty, sitting on sinking surfaces and waiting for repairs that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addition, some residents had pools in their backyards in which they hosted swimming classes for local children. Now, they’re mainly for personal use because of the liability risk that would come from opening them to the public.
As a result, Chambers has been pushing for an aquatic center in Columbus County since he moved into the area four years ago.
“We are behind the times in aquatics,” Chambers said. “[Drowning] is addressed by the CDC, and we need to address this.”
How do drownings happen?
Drowning is a type of suffocation caused by the immersion of the mouth and nose in a liquid. It can be nonfatal or fatal.
The two recent drownings at Lake Waccamaw were fatal – a fact that confused some locals, since the lake has an average depth of only 7.5 feet.
Katie Hall, spokesperson for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, said that in a natural lake like Lake Waccamaw people can become snagged on underwater hazards, weighed down by their wet clothing or shocked by low water temperatures.
Simply, Chambers said, “People just panic.”
In the last five years, 25 people have drowned at state parks, according to Hall. At Lake Waccamaw, one drowning occurred in 2018, one in 2021 and two so far in 2022.
Hall called the numbers “truly heartbreaking.”
The state has guidelines for safe swimming and boating at its state parks like Lake Waccamaw. These include only swimming in designated areas, designating a responsible adult to watch young children, never swimming alone, not drinking alcohol and wearing life preservers.
Chambers said the key to water safety is wearing a life vest.
But many swimmers, boaters and even some water rescuers don’t wear them. Chambers offers free life preservers for rent at his place on the lake, and they just hang there year round – often molding from lack of use.
“Every drowning could have been prevented at Lake Waccamaw,” Chambers said.
Lake Waccamaw Mayor Matt Wilson doesn’t want to have to watch another family grieve the loss of a loved one due to drowning.
“We love people coming to Lake Waccamaw, coming to recreate and have a good time. While having a good time, please use good judgment: wear your life vest; know the conditions,” Wilson said. “We want everybody to be safe.”
And yet, Wilson said another drowning is inevitable. It’s harder to stay safe in a natural lake with unpredictable conditions.
Public pool for all
That’s why some locals are pushing hard for a public pool.
Last week, representatives from local government, education and health care met with the Wilmington YMCA chapter to discuss reigniting efforts to form a Columbus County chapter. And everyone there prioritized building an affordable and accessible pool for the diverse community to enjoy.
“I don’t like to read the paper before Memorial Day and know somebody has already drowned,” said Julie Strickland, director of the county parks and recreation department. “And we have a lot of mishaps that never make the paper.”
In the 1980s, the county parks and recreation department rented a privately owned pool and bused in residents across Columbus County. At least 3,500 children received swimming lessons, according to Strickland.
Liability risk stopped that program after eight years.
“We’ve had a lot of good things happen, but right now we’re kind of stuck,” said Lauren Cole, the YMCA coordinator in Columbus County. “We need to prove that the community wants this.”
In 2013, 94% of surveyed residents said they wanted a community wellness center, according to a survey done by the local hospital. And 35% desired a pool within that center.
At that time, the community wellness center had an estimated cost of $7 million, according to the survey. Now, Dick Jones, the president of YMCA of Southeastern North Carolina, said that $25 million would build a nice facility – but that price would also depend on the provided amenities.
That means the funding for this project might come from a bond referendum, which is a financing option put on voters’ ballots for them to decide. But raising taxes generally doesn’t go over well with Columbus County voters.
Some members of the YMCA committee were more optimistic than others about the possibility of a bond referendum passing, but all were committed to trying to build an athletic complex to meet everyone’s needs in the county.
Not only could it bolster water safety, but the facility also could provide exercise opportunities to one of the unhealthiest counties in the state and could serve as a recruitment tool within the county’s economic development strategy.
“It’s something we have to do,” Chambers said. “I just don’t want to see anybody drown again.”