Emergency responders brace for challenges as whitewater course ramps up on Chattahoochee River

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 18, 2013 

  • Here is the information that should be posted on signs along the Chattahoochee River in and near downtown Columbus by Saturday:

    DANGER:

    • Enter the Chattahoochee River Park, Chattahoochee River and River Boundaries at your own risk

    • Water subject to sudden rise and dangerous turbulence

    • When alarm sounds, proceed immediately to shore

    • Only those with whitewater experience should attempt to navigate the rapids on the river from this point

    • It shall be unlawful for any person to be in the river without a personal flotation device (life jacket). The device must be U.S. Coast Guard-approved (City) “Ord. No. 12-52”

    • Only approved commercial outfitters are allowed access to the river for commercial purposes * Source: Uptown Columbus Inc.

  • The rapids on the Ocoee River, where the U.S. Olympic kayaking was held in 1996, can reach up to 1,100 cubic feet per second in volume, according to the Whitewater Express website. The rapids of the Chattahoochee River in downtown Columbus can reach up to 13,000 cubic feet per second in volume, when the North Highlands dam is at full throttle at high water flow. The low-water flow is 800 cubic feet per second.

With the official launch of the Chattahoochee River Park whitewater course less than a week away, Robert Futrell, deputy chief of the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services, said the city is prepared to ensure participants' safety.

But considering the 2.5-mile course is still a large, free-flowing waterway, strewn with rocks and boulders and large waves in spots, it's safe to say the new attraction remains unpredictable.

"There's the potential for something to happen just because it's so new and so many people are going to be down there," Futrell said of the whitewater course, which has been dubbed the longest such urban course in the nation. It opens at 10 a.m. Saturday.

The official safety "rules of the river" are fairly simple:

• Enter the river at your own risk.

• Be prepared for a sudden rise in water and perilous turbulence when North Highlands dam opens up for high flow.

• Those with no whitewater experience should avoid the rapids under the 13th Street bridge.

• A life vest, or personal flotation device, is mandatory per city ordinance for anyone swimming, rafting, kayaking or boating inside the river park's boundaries.

Those boundaries run from the raft put-in point just south of North Highlands Dam in Bibb City to the end of the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. And it doesn't matter if you're with a commercial outfitter or entering the water on your own, the life vest is required.

"I'm not that concerned about the outfitters because they're going to take the safety measures they need and everybody in the raft is going to be wearing helmets and PFDs," Futrell said. "It's the ones who do it on their own, that don't have the training they need, that concern us."

Emergency rescue personnel from Columbus and Phenix City have spent the past year preparing for the whitewater action to take off in earnest. The $24.4 million project that culminated in the course included the destruction of two old, smaller dams near downtown to expose a rocky bed that generates sections of rapids and a massive Class 4 wave called "Cutbait."

There will be 12 to 15 emergency personnel, including a swift-water rescue team, in place on Saturday. The Columbus team, led by Fire & EMS Capt. Brent Morris, has two personal watercraft and a motorized Polaris raft, manned by a crew of four, at its disposal.

"At low flow, we anticipate everything going OK. At high flow, when they crank the water up, the risk goes up and the water gets pretty violent," Morris said. "You start seeing more rafts flip. And when the rafts start flipping and throwing people out, that's when you have the potential, I should say, of having other problems."

Futrell said his department will use this opening weekend to gauge how dangerous the Chattahoochee River can be with large numbers of people on it and what additional precautions may be needed. But there are no plans to station anyone at the river every day to monitor people along the waterway. Special events will be evaluated for staffing.

That means the general public will have to use common sense, he said, and realize the limits of their experience and abilities when taking to either a raft or a kayak. The latter has grown in popularity in recent months as the whitewater grand opening approached.

"When you see a kayaker out there that really knows what he's doing, it looks easy, he makes it look easy," said the deputy fire chief, who is afraid people will think it's not difficult, purchase a watercraft, then jump in with little or no training. "If you get in there and get turned over in a kayak, if you don't know what you're doing, it could get bad real quick."

That's one of the reasons Dan Gilbert, president of Atlanta-based Whitewater Express, the outfitter sanctioned by Uptown Columbus Inc., plans to begin offering various classes at some point, just as The Outside World on Broadway in Columbus is already doing.

"They can come learn from us, They can go down the river and learn some pointers," he said. "If they find they love whitewater -- which a lot of people will -- they may decide they want to take a kayak clinic. We're going to be offering kayaking clinics and fly-fishing clinics. If they want to buy their own commercial raft, we'll even help them with that."

Naturally, Gilbert encourages those interested in entering the river do so on one of his company's guided tours. That's the safest way to experience the environment, he said, with his employees prepared to help anyone on the river if an incident should arise.

"This is big water that demands respect, and it demands experience," said Gilbert, whose company has been around more than three decades. "There are hazards in this river, just like every other river, that you cannot control. That's why you need guides. Going through Cutbait or through the (man-made) wave shaper (adjacent to Cutbait), there's some giant waves, and you can really get tossed around."

But getting tossed from a raft in itself is not the No. 1 safety hazard that the outfitter fears and preaches over and over to avoid. It's attempting to stand up in the river after tumbling into it, a reflex action that could get you drowned if your foot becomes caught in a rocky crevice.

"That's exactly the wrong thing to do," Gilbert said. "What you need to do is stay down in the water. If you stand up, you run the risk of getting your feet caught in the rock. The strong current can then push your head under the water, and that's the most dangerous position you can be in. It's called foot entrapment."

Again, the guides are there just in case that does happen, he said, ready to throw some ropes and somehow extract the trapped person from the rocks within a few precious seconds.

The beauty of the Columbus whitewater course, Gilbert said, is that city emergency responders are just 5 to 10 minutes away if needed, with his guides having phones and radios with them at all times in the water. On the Ocoee and Nantahala rivers where the company operates north of here in more remote areas, it can take 30 to 45 minutes for help to arrive.

"So if you've got a river guide in the boat with you, that's the safest way to go," he said.

Complicating the whitewater grand opening, however, will be a Dragon Boat Race starting at noon Saturday in the river behind the Coca-Cola Space Science Center. The event is expected to draw crowds on top of the whitewater enthusiasts and spectators.

Futrell and Morris of the Columbus Fire & EMS expect the race to have people lining the RiverWalk to find out just what a dragon boat is or to root a favorite team to victory. The problem is the riverbank in that area is very steep.

"The thing that concerns us is the site where they're doing the dragon boat races, they're also going to be selling alcohol," Futrell said. "And if somebody starts going down that hill, they're not going to stop until they hit the water."

Emergency personnel will be in the area, hoping such an incident doesn't occur.

"It's going to be a busy weekend, and it's probably going to be an extremely busy summer," Morris said.

Uptown Columbus President Richard Bishop said the city rules of the river will be posted in several places along the Chattahoochee River, and on both sides. He, too, asks that those venturing into the water and along its banks use common sense and an extra bit of caution.

"Is it fun and risky? Absolutely. Anytime you get in water, there's risk," he said. "That's why we want those in our community who want to be involved in the river to be very safe and use common sense, and for parents to make sure that they take care and pay a lot of attention to children. Not only this part of the river (downtown), but on this whole run of the river."

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