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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Jennifer Lovely stands at Hosey Dam, where her son Sean Hiebel drowned while kayaking in 2015.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Jennifer Lovely and her family have started a project to make and post signs along the city's three rivers.

Sunday, July 30, 2017 1:00 am

Family tragedy fuels dam-risk awareness

FRANK GRAY | The Journal Gazette

Two years ago, three kayakers on the Maumee River dared to shoot their kayaks over the Hosey Dam at Anthony Boulevard.

The river was high, and as they plunged off the edge of the dam all three were swept from their kayaks. Two made it to shore, but one, Sean Hiebel, was apparently caught in the hydraulic action of the water at the base of the dam.

Three days later, his body was located downstream.

It was a tragedy for the Hiebel family, but it made them aware of a danger they never realized existed.

Because of their design, dams like the Hosey, called low-head dams, can be deadly when rivers are high. Victims are sucked to the base of the dam, where they are caught in a washing-machine-type action that spins them around and around until they drown.

David Hiebel, Sean's father, said the dams have been called a “killer in our river” or “drowning machines.”

Not long after Sean Hiebel died, his parents, David Hiebel and Jennifer Lovely, and his sister Katie Hiebel started an organization called the Pelorus Project to inform the public about the danger and to put signs warning kayakers and canoeists well in advance to get out of the river before they reach the dam.

And there are plenty of low-head dams in Indiana. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the state has 150 they know of. Most were built in the 1800s to power sawmills and grist mills, and many no longer serve any purpose.

So far in 2017, there have been eight incidents at low-head dams in Indiana resulting in four deaths. An additional 16 people have been rescued from low-head dams so far this year, and four people have been injured.

In the past five years, 11 people have died at the dams and 43 people have had to be rescued.

But what the Hiebel family has discovered is that there are no state or federal programs to pay for signs along rivers warning people of dangers ahead, and the state has no standards setting how large signs should be or what they should say.

So the Pelorus Project has adopted standards used in Iowa, designed its own signs and placed 30 of them along the city's three rivers.

But that's just Fort Wayne. Because the state has no program, it's up to local groups to organize and educate the public about the dangers of the dams and finance and install signs.

That can get complicated because signs have to be placed far in advance of the dams and often on private property.

Somebody has to do it,  Lovely says; “People are dying.” 

And educating the public is vital, Dave Hiebel says. Kayaking, canoeing and tubing have greatly increased in popularity in the past 15 or 20 years.

“For $150 you can get an inflatable kayak, and the suppliers don't give people any warnings” about the dangers of dams and other hazards when rivers are high.

“You can buy a canoe and two hours later drown at the dam,” Hiebel said.

Some people advocate removal of the dams, but the ones in Fort Wayne, which date to the 1930s, were designed to maintain water levels downtown.

In other areas, though, the dams only present a hazard, said Jerry Sweeten, a professor at Manchester University, who researches the dams to understand their impact on rivers and advocates to have them removed.

“It makes no sense,” Sweeten said. “They serve no function.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.