Why Is McKinley Beach So Deadly?

Racial inequity heightens the risk of current shifts at McKinley Beach, but Port Washington’s high-tech warning system offers a possible solution.

It was Wisconsin’s most dangerous Lake Michigan beach in 2020, churned by a deadly mix of design shortcomings, racial disparities and the inland sea’s mercurial fury.

Four drownings were linked to Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach before county officials shut it down last August. That accounted for two-thirds of the state’s six 2020 Lake Michigan drownings, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project’s online database. Just 28 miles north, Port Washington swimmers are alerted to dangerous rip currents – the sudden powerful shifts that can unexpectedly pull swimmers out beyond rescue – by what might be the nation’s most advanced warning system. That system was once considered for McKinley and neighboring Bradford Beach as well.

McKinley is both Milwaukee’s oldest and newest beach. In his book, Milwaukee: A City Built on Water, historian John Gurda says the 1892 construction of the breakwater just to its southwest allowed sand to build up, forming “a slender beach that city officials would name in honor of President William McKinley after his 1901 assassination.”

Decades later, the rising lake levels of the 1980s threatened to obliterate the beach, as storm-tossed waves repeatedly flooded nearby Lincoln Memorial Drive. The county responded by rebuilding the beach and sheltering it with huge rocks from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Deep Tunnel.

   

Yet that “pocket beach” design could be contributing to rip currents forming near the rocks at each end, say Chin Wu, professor of engineering at UW-Madison, and Hector Bravo, UW-Milwaukee professor emeritus of engineering.

Rip currents are suspected in last year’s rash of drownings and near-drownings. A boater, who wasn’t publicly identified, died searching for two swimmers later found safe in a June 3 incident that didn’t attract as much media attention as the next three deaths. J’Varius Bankhead, 19, drowned on July 20 after saving his two young cousins. On Aug. 8, Jesse Brock, 50, and Tony Bishop, 14, died after Brock tried to save Bishop and 14-year-old Daniel Rivera, who survived.

Port Washington was shaken by a tragic drowning of its own, of 15-year-old Tyler Buczek, in 2012. Working with then-Mayor Tom Mlada, Wu won a $200,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to devise rip current warning systems for Port Washington as well as Duluth and Milwaukee.

Wu’s INFOS system combines data from webcams, wave sensors, NOAA and the National Weather Service in a website that warns when rip currents are likely. It was installed at North Beach in 2018 and at South Beach in 2020, Port Washington parks superintendent Jon Crain says.

The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program kicked in another $30,000 – matched by $40,000, mostly from local businesses – to add kiosks to each beach, equipped with screens that display the websites and traffic-style lights that show the rip current risk. That system, called BLINK, came online last summer.

But the program didn’t get as far at Bradford and McKinley. Wu and state program coordinator Todd Breiby say it was hard to find good permanent spots for the webcams and wave sensors. They say temporary equipment was eventually removed, leaving an incomplete picture of Milwaukee conditions provided by only the federal data.

Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, chairman of the County Board’s parks committee, says he first learned about INFOS from this re- porter, adding, “If Port Washington can have it, Milwaukee can have it.” Parks spokesman Ian Everett says county officials tried to contact Wu when they closed the beach, but Wu says he didn’t hear from them.

The county’s 2021 budget included $10,000 to study safety at the beach. At the parks system’s request, Wasserman successfully pushed to boost that figure to $80,000 for a review that could include redesign options.

But this isn’t just an engineering issue, says Wasserman. In Milwaukee’s unwritten rules of segregation, people of color consider McKinley more welcoming than Bradford, he says. However, national statistics show Black and Hispanic youth typically receive less swimming instruction and drown far more often than their white counterparts, he adds.

That racial disparity relegates the least skilled swimmers to the most dangerous beach. And at least three of McKinley’s 2020 victims were Black, Wasserman notes. He advocates more public education, especially for parents who may not see swimming lessons as a priority.

Everett says parks officials would “welcome [Wu’s] input on helping reduce the safety risks.” Wu and Breiby hope INFOS can be expanded to other Great Lakes cities as well. “I want to save people’s lives,” Wu says. “That’s my passion.”



 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.