Lake boating and recreational accidents have been rapidly increasing to all-time highs on Lake Houston, according to officers with the Houston Police Department Lake Patrol. The officers poke at the June meeting of the Kingwood PIP program.
One incident was a highly publicized lake rescue effort April 12, 2020 in which four people were successfully rescued by local boaters but a fifth was not recovered and presumed dead after an extensive multi-day search by the Lake Patrol and the Houston Fire Department.
That incident led to the development of the “Know Your Zone” Lake Houston safety program. It is a public awareness and signage program intended to improve the ability to more accurately report locations of emergencies when they occur on the lake. Signs are posted throughout the lake and its public access points which display a large map of the lake divided into numbered color-coded zones. When an emergency occurs, if the zone can be provided when first reported to 9-1-1, HPD Lake Patrol and others can respond better and faster.
“Since COVID-19 we have had a big increase in boating traffic. Normally on the lake, we used to have zero or one water rescue a month. That has been the average, but in the last year it has increased so much that we have had an average of four a month,” said Sergeant Garza of the HPD Lake Patrol Division.
He pointed out the activity began increasing as COVID-19 isolation practices went into effect and then continued as time progressed. People began using the lake more and more as a way to get out of the house while trying to remain adequately isolated. Now, with the COVID-19 restrictions easing and summer approaching, recreational activity is still rapidly rising along with accidents and rescues.
Garcia explained the Lake Patrol operates from a lakeside facility near the east end of the FM 1960 bridge on the Huffman side of Lake Houston on Stillson Road. The patrol has five flat bottom boats; each are 22 feet long and powered by big 250 HP outboard motors. In addition, it has four jet skis and three “John boats” (small flat bottom boats) for shallow water work. The unit has five Chevrolet trucks to tow the boats to other areas as necessary and to use during floods to rescue people. Garcia explained they also have two high water rescue vehicles and, in addition, have just acquired night vision equipment.
“We have one sergeant, Sgt. Garza, and we have seven full-time officers. Those are the officers actively assigned to patrol the lake seven days a week. We stagger our days off. Normally we work nine to five, but we are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the event anything happens on Lake Houston,” Garcia said.
The Lake Patrol also has two reserve sergeants and four reserve officers. They are normally assigned to other functions but are brought in for emergencies and to help with holidays and other times when extra help is necessary. Garcia explained all of the Lake Patrol staff are highly and constantly trained, including swift water training in the New Braunfels area, search and rescue training and a lot of swimming and fitness training at the local Kingwood YMCA.
Garza addressed the causes of the incidents on the lake that lead to emergencies and sometimes drownings.
“Always … always, the same things are the contributing factors. One is the weather, and by weather, I mean the wind,” Garza said. He explained it often happens when inexperienced people go onto the lake on a seemingly nice day. Then the weather suddenly changes to windy, often stormy, conditions and they get into trouble.
“Two, the people are new to the water. Three, not wearing a life jacket. Four, having a small craft like a kayak or canoe which is naturally vulnerable to the winds as they change. Five, alcohol. You put those contributing factors together and we get an increase in drownings out there,” Garza said.
He explained the Lake Patrol is getting 60 to 70 calls a year. The calls are often general in nature, like a spouse who is worried because their loved one has not yet returned from the lake so they call 9-1-1 for the police. Often the person they are concerned about is in no trouble at all and returns home as if nothing happened, except for being a little late. But the Lake Patrol has to respond until the person is accounted for.
Garcia explained the routine day-to-day mission is to patrol the lake area and provide a presence to enforce and encourage compliance with boating regulations and safe boating practices. He noted the importance of boaters having proper life jackets, boat and other watercraft registrations on hand and the need to be aware of safe boating practices. He warned that BWI (boating while intoxicated) was one of the most frequent violations on the lake in terms of tickets written.
Dee Price of the Kingwood Service Association noted one of the new “Know Your Zone” program signs with its map depicting the lake zones had recently been posted at Kingwood’s River Grove Park boat ramp. She asked if the Lake Patrol was seeing any results from the new program.
“The way we are seeing it so far, the local residents are using it. That’s good because they get all the emails from Dave Martin (Houston’s mayor pro-tem). We think Dave Martin is doing great at getting the information out. The problem is the people not from the area. They come and visit and then go out there. They don’t know about the program. But we know the locals are using it and that is good for us,” Garcia said.
The Kingwood PIP meets the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Kingwood Church of Christ, 2901 Woodland Hills Drive.