When sharks began appearing along New York beaches this summer, officials sprang into action.
Suddenly, N.Y.P.D. helicopters are flying over the beaches. Park Police are patrolling the water in boats. New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, has sent drones soaring over the coastline.
As an avid ocean swimmer, I’m not mad about the extra shark precautions. I just wish we acted with the same urgency when New Yorkers drown because they don’t know how to swim, or, in need of somewhere to cool off, wade into dangerous waters.
Since 2008, 58 people have drowned at beaches or pools in New York City, trying to escape the relentless heat. The toll doesn’t include others who have drowned elsewhere, like the Bronx River, which claimed the lives of two teenagers in 2010 and yet another two in 2014.
Many of New York’s drowning deaths take place along the Queens coastline, where the currents are fierce and New Yorkers who can’t swim or can swim only a little often find themselves easily overtaken. Lifeguards here make frequent saves.
On a recent day at Rockaway Beach, a young boy who had somehow drifted out beyond the surf break waved his arms. No fewer than five lifeguards flew over the sand, racing toward him. Moments later, beachgoers watched as the rescuers deposited the exhausted child on shore.
Sometimes the scene turns deadly. On June 10, two teenage boys drowned when the sandbar they were standing on collapsed, sending them plunging into Jamaica Bay in Queens, not far from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Exactly one week later, two more young people drowned in waters off Rockaway Beach.
One way to prevent these deaths is by teaching far more New Yorkers how to swim. The other is by giving them many, many more places to safely do so.
The city’s free swim lessons program serves roughly 30,000 people every year at an annual cost of $2.5 million, city officials said. If that seems sufficient, consider the size of New York City, where nearly one million children are enrolled in public school and the budget is $101 billion per year. If Mayor Eric Adams made water safety a priority, New York could teach anyone who wanted to learn.
The city can also do much more to raise awareness among New Yorkers about water safety in general. Public health experts say part of learning to swim is knowing where and when not to enter the water and having a better understanding of one’s personal limits. “We learn to ride a bike and learn not to walk into traffic,” said William Ramos, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, who studies aquatics. “This needs to be in the same bucket.”
So far, though, the political will isn’t there. As the summers grow increasingly stifling, New York remains a city surrounded by water where many people can’t swim. Data in New York and elsewhere in the country is severely lacking. But one Health Department survey in 2017 found that roughly one in three Black and Asian students and about one in four Latino students in New York couldn’t swim. Just 8.7 percent of white students said they couldn’t. The survey defined the young people as able to swim even if they said they could swim “at least a little” but not the entire length of a pool.
New York also needs more pools. The city is a swimming desert. Even for those who do know how, finding a public place to do so is often challenging.
There are 50 operational public pools for more than 8 million residents. Another 50 pools belong to the city’s Department of Education, but only 27 of them are operational, city officials said. The scarcity of pools means New Yorkers who rely on public pools often wait in long lines before they can swim. The hours are limited, and when crowds are big, poolgoers sometimes are forced to swim in shifts. People living in poverty in New York are already less likely to have air-conditioning, and more likely to live in neighborhoods that are hotter. City pools provide crucial relief, as well as fun.
In June, the city breezily announced on Twitter that it wouldn’t offer free swim lessons this year, because of, it said, a “national lifeguard shortage.” Senior swim and lap swim were also canceled. Caught flat-footed, Mayor Eric Adams’s administration hired 78 more lifeguards in recent weeks. The free swim lessons remain canceled.
Then there are the pool rules in New York City, which are about as enticing as a visit to the dentist. Here’s a sampling, lifted verbatim from the city’s website:
“Electronic equipment, including radios, cameras, and cellular phones, is not allowed on pool deck.”
“Beach chairs, baby strollers, bags, blankets, or beach balls are not permitted on the pool deck.”
Does that sound fun to you? People who rely on public pools deserve better.
As the temperatures rose back in June, Amanda Caraballo took her young sons to the Douglass and Degraw Pool in Brooklyn to cool off and find respite from their apartment, which doesn’t have air-conditioning. Workers at the complex told her the pool was partially closed because there weren’t enough lifeguards to staff it. Ms. Caraballo said they waited in line for nearly two hours before giving up.
Weeks later, New York City was again baking under the scorching summer sun. Hoping to avoid a long wait at the pool, Ms. Caraballo took Julian, 8, and Jax, 5, to the park instead.
At the small park in the shadow of a public housing building, steam rose from the blacktop. The two boys ran back and forth through a concrete sprinkler.
Their mother sat on a bench in the shade. It was too hot to do anything but watch them.