The city is exploring possible ways to limit or restrict access to the Chattahoochee River during weather events such as the one that happened this week, Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.
It comes after Monday when what was left of Hurricane Irma came through Columbus. The city was under a State of Emergency, declared by the mayor as the city dealt with wind gusts that reached 53 miles per hour, heavy rain, downed power lines and trees blocking some streets.
During the storm several people ventured into the Chattahoochee River. In the the late afternoon, four kayakers spent time in Cut Bait, the notorious rapid on the urban white-water course in downtown Columbus. Near dark, two thrill-seekers dove into the river from the island behind the Eagle & Phenix condominiums and swam into Heaven’s Gate, a man-made rapid on the Georgia side.
Tomlinson said on Wednesday there needs to be a deterrent to keep people out of the river during such times.
“We are going to be looking into whether we can get it off limits, place some type of curfew on it or something to keep the people safe,” Tomlinson said. “I am concerned if we have to come rescue them during those particular times.”
One of the options Tomlinson is exploring is the possibility of putting the river off limits under a State of Emergency declaration.
Tomlinson witnessed the two swimmers jump into the river while she was nearby doing a television interview with Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera.
Tomlinson called 911, prompting a swift-water rescue response that was not needed. Rivera said he “thought they were committing suicide at first.”
The two swimmers were wearing wetsuits, the mayor said, but did not appear to be wearing personal flotation devices. They got out of the river safely and scattered before the authorities arrived, Rivera said.
The key to legally being in the river, during a storm or not, depends on whether or not the person is wearing a PFD, said Columbus Fire & Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Robert Futrell.
The city law states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to swim, canoe, kayak, raft, jet-ski, or use any other vessel on the Chattahoochee River between the North Highlands Dam and the southern property line of the Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center without wearing a personal flotation device.”
“I don’t want to cramp the style of our great river asset,” Tomlinson said on Wednesday. “But you are going to have a hard time convincing me that somebody is an expert in flood water body surfing.”
The issue is the potential impact on the city’s public safety employees, Tomlinson said.
Columbus was under a State of Emergency from 9 a.m. Monday until Tuesday morning as what was left of Hurricane Irma passed through this area. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson declared the State of Emergency and sent that request to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
Tomlinson had urged people to stay off the streets during the storm, but it was not an order and there was no curfew.
Public safety in Columbus, including the Police Department and the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, had canceled vacations and shifted personnel including trainers and detectives to response positions.
“We know this river has a propensity to kill people,” she said. “... We do not want to unnecessarily put our swift water rescue people in danger.”
The mindset of those who go into the river is similar to surfers who will go into ocean waters as storms approach because of the higher waves, Futrell said.
“They want conditions like that because it is more of a thrill,” Futrell said. “They want the rough conditions because they are adrenaline junkies.”
There is also a question of skill level and river conditions, said one of the kayakers who was on the river Monday afternoon.
All four people in the water on Monday were among the best kayakers on the Chattahoochee and in some cases the world, said Taylor Stephens, one of the four.
Hunter Katich is a junior world free-style champion now competing on the adult circuit. Tom Bolle is a two-time European junior champion. Joseph Ball is a certified swift-water rescue instructor and Stephens was a river guide for Whitewater Express before leaving the company a few weeks ago.
“We were not out there trying to kill ourselves,” Stephens said. “We are all qualified and active in the local white-water community.”
All of them were wearing Coast Guard approved PFDs, wearing helmets and were using Coast Guard approved boats, Stephens said. In addition, they all had throw ropes and PFDs in the event they needed to perform a rescue operation.
The kayakers were in Cut Bait rapid on the Alabama side below the 13th Street bridge. They tracked the weather radar before going into the river and were scouting the water for debris before each run, Stephens said.
“This is not something that we suggest other people do,” Stephens said. “We were comfortable because we knew what we were doing.”
It is the people who do not know the river and the proper procedures that concern Futrell.
“I am worried about the guy who goes to Dick’s Sporting Goods, buys a kayak and PFD and launches into the river and he has no idea what he is doing,” Futrell said. “The guys who are really good at this make it look easy, and I can assure you it isn’t that easy.”
Futrell said he has seen the recreational kayaker who bought a boat and put it in the river without proper training.
“They will come out of that river after flipping and say, ‘Never again,’” he said. “Then they will go to Dick’s and try and get their money back.”
Stephens has performed river rescues of those types of kayakers, he said.
“I have pulled four of them to safety before,” he said.
Whitewater Express, the lone outfitter that runs guided raft tours on the Chattahoochee course in Columbus, had ceased operations on Monday. Owner Dan Gilbert said the reason for that had more to do with sending his staff home to be with their families and property during the storm than it did with river conditions.
Asked if the kayaks should have been on the river during the storm, Gilbert said, “That’s a tough one for me. You have world-class kayakers out there and they can handle the water conditions, so it is not a safety issue.”
But there is another question, Gilbert said.
“Was it wise?” he asked. “That’s a tough one, too. But that is the whole issue.”
The 2.5-mile Chattahoochee River white water course is managed by Uptown Whitewater Management LLC.
President Ross Horner, who is also president of Uptown Columbus Inc. and the Business Improvement District, asked people to use discretion during storms and inclement weather.
“We understand that people will have a desire to use the many amenities we offer in uptown Columbus and that includes the white-water course,” Horner said in a statement. “During the storm, some individuals decided to use the river because they did not deem the river to be unsafe, and although their skill set may offer insight to their reasons, Uptown Columbus would ask that all citizens adhere to the declaration of a State of Emergency by the mayor. To that point, we did cease normal operation of rafting, zip-lining and other activities associated with the river park during the storm activity.”
The river flow at the time the four men were on the Chattahoochee was 7,060 cubic feet per second at the 14th Street bridge gauge, according to Georgia Power, which controls the flow at the Lake Oliver dam. The flow did not exceed 9,000 cfs on Monday, according to Georgia Power. In comparison, Whitewater Express does not pull its rafts out of the water until the flow reaches 18,000 cfs, Gilbert said.
“It was perfect water conditions,” Gilbert said of Monday.
What the men was doing was not illegal, said Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Robert Futrell.
“If they are kayaking and had on their PFD, then there is nothing we can do about it,” Futrell said.
Veteran river guide Jeremy Rose, who worked for Whitewater Express for three years and has been guiding this summer in Alaska, said if he had been in town he would have been right there with them.
“They were professional kayakers and some of the best at what they do,” he said. “And they, of all people, know when to go and not to go. And from looking at the video from where I sit in Alaska, the water was perfectly fine. Yes, the wind is blowing, but that is not an issue.”
One of the possible issues is floating debris, including logs, but Rose said he was never really concerned about that.
“The stuff will stop at the top of the dam,” Rose said.
Should they have been out there when the city was under a State of Emergency?
“That’s their call but you can bet that I would’ve been there with them,” Rose said. “And maybe Columbus or Uptown Columbus or Whitewater Express should hold a once-a-month free one-hour education about the river and its safety and how to be safe, and why the rapids do what they do. It’s all about being educated about what the water can do.”
One way to regulate it is to put up a flag system similar to the one many beaches use.
“If the red flag is out, you can’t go in the water at all,” he said.