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News Explainer: Gaps Exist In Drowning Numbers

drowning death numbers

Does it seem like an unusually high number of drownings this year in area lakes? It’s actually hard to tell whether there are more or fewer year-to-year because of the way those deaths are counted, and who does the counting.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says it keeps track of drowning deaths only if a boat is involved. County health departments don’t classify drowning deaths by body of water. The Knox County Health Department referred WUOT News to general statistics and information provided by the Centers for Disease Control – but the CDC doesn’t report at the county level, providing only statewide numbers based on death certificates. An online database showed 89 people died from drowning in Tennessee in 2016. The highest number since 2000 was 102, recorded in 2004.

Reported drownings for the years 2010-2016 fluctuated year to year. Still, these figures rely on death certificate reports which take time to collect and input. For relatively up-to-date numbers, the only way to find out is by calling the local law enforcement agency that responds to emergency calls. Lakes in East Tennessee are generally large, and that could mean checking a few counties to get a single total.

Douglas Lake, for example, includes parts of Jefferson, Sevier and Cocke counties. Neither Sevier nor Cocke recorded drownings this year to date; Jefferson County’s Sheriff’s office said they thought only two drownings had occurred in 2018. Based on local reporting, that appears to be accurate.

According to TWRA, Hector Perez, 24, from Norton, Virginia drowned on July 4 while swimming on Douglas Lake. In April, Webalem Abebe, 41, of Cordova, Tennessee was found face down in the water, fully clothed. As of June the sheriff’s department was still asking questions about her death, but it was determined she likely died from drowning.

So it’s up to the CDC to aggregate the reported drownings and make them publicly accessible. Heavy coverage in local media can make it seem like there’s an uptick. But the numbers remain fairly steady – at least from what we can tell until 2016. After that, there’s a lag in reporting that makes it hard to tell if 2018 has seen an increase or decrease in local drowning deaths on area lakes.

Available reporting indicates a typical year sees between 70 and 90 drowning deaths statewide.