Today from radio: Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director and riverkeeper at Coosa River Basin Initiative, joined us on Hometown Headlines Radio Edition on WRGA 98.7 FM to discuss what happened with Saturday’s Big Float and plans to prevent it from occurring again. The complete interview is available above and lasts for more than 14 minutes. Photo courtesy of Keith Beauchamp, KB Aerial Imaging.
MONDAY’S ADDITIONAL UPDATES
- What’s next in planning for future river events, including those not associated with CRBI.
- There might be some urgency as the July 7 downtown Rome celebration, Spirit of the Sun, has a strong river focus. Expanded details
- Latest statement from CRBI.
Coosa River Basin Initiative is being pounded by the “Court of Facebook” following Saturday’s potential life-threatening outcome from Rome’s Big Float that ended with emergency officials, CRBI volunteers and others helping more than 100 people off the river after the current proved too strong for many. No serious injuries were reported. Recent rains had the Oostanaula’s flow rate at three times normal and the river was four or more feet above normal levels on Saturday.
At the same time, some of those who took part in the float from Dixon Landing to Heritage Park are posting comments in support of the event, including one below who says she’d do it again “in a heartbeat.” (Please see her full post below).
Our take: It was a bad decision to go ahead with the float and all are lucky it ended without loss of life. To CRBI’s credit, it immediately owned up to the wrong call and is moving forward with plans to expand safety efforts along local water trails.The organization’s ongoing efforts to clean our waterways in an effort to get the community back on our rivers is quickly forgotten by some. Those with past grudges against the organization have taken to Facebook or Twitter to further attack staff and volunteers.
What’s next for CRBI is a meeting with state and local officials “to develop a protocol for determining at what river levels on-river activities should be prohibited so that incidents like what happened yesterday do not occur again,” as the organization posted Sunday afternoon. We will share those outcomes as they become available. Starting today, we’re also expanding our weather and news reports to better reflect river levels after heavy storms and related issues.
Statement from CRBI on the aftermath:
“Coosa River Basin Initiative would like to thank our participants, volunteers and sponsors who supported Rome’s Big Float. The goal of the event was to celebrate our rivers and encourage people to use our rivers. We believe that when people have a relationship with a river, they take steps to protect those rivers.
“Unfortunately, we as an organization made the wrong decision in not postponing the Float. That decision put our participants in danger and forced local and state emergency personnel as well as CRBI staff and volunteers to rescue many tubers when the strong currents made it impossible for many to reach our take out site. CRBI apologizes for these circumstances and regrets that what was supposed to be a fun day on the river turned into a bad day on the river for many.
“CRBI plans to meet with local emergency personnel as well as Georgia Department of Natural Resources rangers and other river stakeholders to develop a protocol for determining at what river levels on-river activities should be prohibited so that incidents like what happened yesterday do not occur again.
“We would like to thank the City of Rome fire and police departments as well as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for doing an excellent job in rescuing floaters on the Coosa.
“CRBI remains committed to connecting people with our rivers and protecting these important resources. Thanks again for supporting our efforts.”
Sgt. Michael Barr of the state Department of Natural Resources offered that office’s perspective on what happened Saturday with the attempted Big Float on the Etowah River in Rome. One assessment he attributed to the DNR officer on the scene, Cpl. Ben Cunningham, was as follows: “It’s only by the grace of God that we didn’t have multiple drownings.”
Barr says DNR and the Rome Floyd Fire Department had advised organizers against staging the event Saturday morning, saying the last conversation occurred at the “put in” location at Dixon Landing near Grizzard Park. While the DNR has authority over navigable waterways when major events are staged — such as wake board competition at Allatoona that draw large crowds for up to a week — this event did not rise to that level.
The float was believed to have had 458 participants, he says.
Among the DNR concerns were the high water from recent rains, scheduled releases from the dam that raised the water level another few feet and a “flow” rate in the river as much as three times the normal push, Barr says.
DNR was at the scene only for public safety reasons, he adds. At the float’s end, he described how many of the participants arrived at the same time and how the pull-in rope they were to used was taxed. Because of the current, people were washing past the main exit as well as the backup at Heritage Park, he says.
As many as 100 people needed assistance in leaving the river and 10 of those were “critical,” he says, meaning several things: They were out of their inner tubes, lacked safety jackets or were intoxicated.
A 12-year-old girl from Michigan was found clinging to a tree down the river from both take-out spots, he adds.
Also, the event was never closed by DNR as stated elsewhere. One person who waded into the water looking for a loved one was ordered repeated to leave, says Barr, because he was intoxicated and because he was wading inches from the rushing current that could have swept him away. The man eventually complied, he says.
Barr released the following statement Sunday afternoon:
“The Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Game Wardens were on the water by patrol vessel in Rome, Ga., assisting with Rome’s Coosa River Basin Initiative Big Float event on Saturday June 2, 2018. The event was held in the Coosa River Basin on the Etowah River from Dixon’s Landing put-in point to the take-out point of the concrete steps on the Oostanaula River in Rome. The event had approximately 458 participants.
“At the take-out point in Rome, event coordinators had placed a rope with floatation noodles ahead of the take-out point with the intention that rafters would pull themselves to the concrete steps. Due to the high water flow and current, participants were missing the take-out point and continuing down the Coosa River. They then attempted to get to the boat ramp at Heritage Park in Rome, Georgia. Due to the strong and rapid current, the Heritage Boat Ramp area also quickly became a dangerous area.
“Recent heavy rains, overnight storms and dam generation increased the river flow to dangerous levels. It was suggested by DNR Law Enforcement, the Rome/Floyd County Fire Department, and a local rafting company early in the morning to CRBI that the event not go forward due to potential hazards and high water conditions. The event sponsors elected to carry on the event. The event did not draw enough people to require a marine permit.
At the confluence of the Oostanaula River and Etowah River, rafters were swept to the opposite side of the river from the Heritage boat ramp. Rafters were attempting to row to the side of the boat ramp yet the current was forcing them downstream in the Coosa River.
DNR Law Enforcement Game Wardens Cpl. Ben Cunningham and Carla Gann were on the water with a patrol vessel assisting rafters. They teamed up with the Rome/Floyd Co. Fire Department who also launched a rescue vessel. Fire Capt. Grant Collier had an additional rescue vessel on standby and had Floyd Medical personnel and the Rome Police Department on scene to assist. CRBI had an additional vessel on the water assisting rafters.
“Many rafters were swept downstream beyond the take-out point. The rescuers were encountering people with medical conditions, improper life jackets, young children, intoxicated rafters, people flipping out of their rafts without a life jacket, and people entering the water from shore trying to assist family and friends. One man was ordered out of the water as he had entered from shore to look for a family member. He was in waist deep water in the Coosa River without a life jacket and about to enter the channel area drop off point which would have resulted in him being swept down river.
DNR Cpl. Ben Cunningham estimates that over 100 people in distress were assisted and taken off the water by rescue personnel. Of those rescued, 10 were high probability of serious negative outcomes.
“The event shows the importance of using good judgment before launching into flowing waters. The water flow volume and current were estimated to be three times the normal flow rate according to USGS water flow information. These type waters can create a dangerous environment for rafters and small watercraft. The pressure of the flow at that rate has tremendous power and can easily be underestimated.
“Anyone considering entering a flowing water environment should first check the USGS water flow information at:
“Entering high flow waters is not only dangerous for the individual, it also puts rescue personnel at risk. Wearing a proper fitting life jacket in any hazardous water environment is simply giving yourself a better chance of survival.
“And as Game Warden Cpl. Ben Cunningham commented after the event, “It’s only by the grace of God that we didn’t have multiple drownings.”
“Think safety before entering high flow waters!”
One of those participating in Rome’s Big Float, Kim Black of Rome, posted about the adventure on her Facebook page. We’re reprinting that post with her permission today. She’s very familiar with the local waters and the outdoors.
FROM THIS MORNING
Developing: Rome’s Big Float attempt has ended with controversy with reports of dramatic rescues of some of the participants from the water at the float’s end — and others being ordered off the river because of unsafe conditions.
Contacted Sunday morning, CRBI’s Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director and riverkeeper, shared this comment:
“I’d just reiterate how grateful we are for all the first responders who helped get everyone off the water safely. Other than that, we’ll be spending some time going over how everything went but I do know that as far as the end of the day goes, we underestimated the flow of the Oostanaula, the debris coming downstream and what that would mean for our take out plans. Again, we’re really grateful for all of the first responders and volunteers as well as all of the participants that got into the spirit of the event and were flexible as we worked to get everyone to safety.”
Demonbreaun-Chapman will join us at 8:40 a.m. Monday on Hometown Headlines Radio Edition on WRGA 98.7 FM and online at wrga.streamon.fm to talk about Saturday and “our plans for stopping anything like this in the future.”
We also checked with Tim Herrington of Floyd County Emergency Management this morning on whether his office was activated. Says Herrington: “We had boat units on standby at Heritage Park but were not needed to assist.”
The Etowah River, near the “put in” spot at Dixon Landing near Grizzard Park, was at 19.3 feet at 8 a.m. Saturday, just before the start of the Big Float (see above image); it was at 19.1 feet this morning. “Action stage” for the area is 28 feet with flood stage at 32 feet.
The high water on the Etowah has been a concern for one of the local kayak and tubing providers, River Ratz. Owner Rick Dempsey posted the following note to his customers Sunday morning:
“River Ratz will be closed today, June 3rd 2018, due to the Etowah River being 6 feet higher than the norm. Please check with us on Friday as we hope the water will down. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
On Friday, Dempsey reported that “the road going down to Dixon Landing, where River Ratz puts in the river, is under water this morning.”
Rome certainly had a Big Float on Saturday with more than 500 participants taking part in the Coosa River Basin Initiative’s annual six-mile river celebration on the Etowah. The group was also attempting to set a world record for the longest line of innertubes and inflatables. “We’re looking at a tube chain that will stretch more than a quarter-mile down the Etowah River,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, Executive Director & Riverkeeper at the Coosa River Basin Initiative. “That’s nearly three times the previous record set at a river event in Canada last year.”
The chain started at the event’s launch site at Gizzard Park and extended downstream. Floaters were then able to drift down river at their own pace to Heritage Park where food, music and games were waiting including an after party at River Dog Outpost. No word yet on if Rome’s Big Float officially broke the world record.