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Rescue team shows dangers of rising river

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

BUFORD -- Wednesday afternoon, like most other days, sirens sound near the Buford Dam. Within several minutes, the serene and inviting Chattahoochee River turns dangerous -- water levels rise quickly, the current picks up and the waterway becomes a tumultuous one to navigate.

Water is making its way from Lake Lanier on the other side of the dam into the Chattahoochee, generating power for much of the metro Atlanta area.

Each year these water releases also generate danger for river-goers -- Gwinnett fire's swift water team has responded to three river rescue calls in the last week, saving rafters, kayakers and fishermen caught off guard by the rapidly changing waters.

Wednesday, the swift water rescue team hosted a demonstration, stressing the need for caution when shootin' the 'Hooch.

"Today it rose five to six feet in less than 15 minutes," said Park Ranger Russ Lundstrum of the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam.

"It sounds like a long time, but if you're down there on the river fishing or just sitting there, it's on you before you know it."

The past week has provided ample support for Lundstrum's statement.

Last Wednesday, three teenagers were rescued from the river near Settles Bridge in Duluth after one of their kayaks capsized in the swift water coursing down from a release at the dam.

The next day, a Providence Christian Academy student fell off a raft near Jones Bridge in Norcross. He and the Good Samaritan who tried to help him were stranded on a rock and had to be rescued.

Tuesday night, firefighters were there to assist three fishermen who were stranded in the middle of the river, quick-rising water all around them.

The swift water rescue team, which operates out of Station 14 in Buford, has had its hands full.

"It's summertime, kids are out of school," said Driver Engineer Dennis Pishock, a veteran of the SWT. "A lot of kids tubing now, not wearing (lifejackets), just ignoring safety. You think you can take it, and then that river is so cold, and when they start generating, that's it. It's too fast."

Generations and water releases are carried out most days, Lundstrum said. But times of such releases change daily (and often during the day), making it easy for unaware river-goers to be caught off guard by rapidly changing currents and water levels.

Wednesday afternoon's "half generation" quickly created waters flowing up to 8 mph in the area near the dam -- quick enough to float a fully equipped rescue team demonstrator down the river at a good pace, making it hard for even the highly trained firefighter to make it back to shore.

Those seeking fun on the river are encouraged to do so. They're also urged to wear a life jacket and call the Corps of Engineers for release schedules throughout any day spent on the Chattahoochee.

"Whenever that first siren goes off, I'm getting off that water, whether I'm wading or bank fishing or whatever," said Richard Bowman, a Buford man who said he fishes near the dam almost every day.

"Whenever you're out there on the water, you've got to wear a life jacket. And whenever you hear that horn, get out of it."

Those sirens aren't audible throughout the whole river, which covers dozens of miles along Gwinnett County's northwest border, and the rescue team is there when emergencies arise.

The goal is to be wise and cautious when dealing with the Chattahoochee's rapidly rising waters.

"Enjoy nature, but just be smart," Pishock said. "You hear those sirens, go for cover. If you're out there, just be smart. We want people to have fun still, but listen to your instincts."

"With the kids," he added, "they just don't know. They're just having fun, and don't know."

For more information and water release schedules, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 770-945-1466.