January 23, 2012

Tackling Gorge Safety

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On Dec. 1, President David Skorton endorsed the recommendations of the Gorge Safety Steering Group, which he assembled in August to address the dangers of the iconic gorges that run through campus. Over the summer, three students died by either falling down the rocky cliffs or drowning in the seemingly placid plunge pools, and the committee has sought to end this unsettling trend. Finding solutions to these problems requires a sense of urgency, something that recent initiatives to address the problem have been lacking.President Skorton’s statement endorsing the committee’s recommendations said that the University should implement them “as soon as practical.” But waiting for practicality is not adequate when students’ lives are at stake. The suicide barriers on campus bridges were not erected only when the circumstances proved practical — the initiative was rightly enacted immediately after the string of student deaths. The University should be approaching gorge safety with the same sense of urgency it exhibited in dealing with the losses of other students.After three months of deliberation, the committee recommended a variety of approaches. Some of the “high-priority” recommendations include presenting a video on gorge safety to students before they take their swim tests. The Student Assembly Safety Task Force is also considering improving Cornell’s gorge safety website and creating inclement weather reports to warn students when gorge conditions are especially dangerous. Increasing the amount of information that students receive before taking to the waters allows those using the gorges to make informed decisions with regard to safety. Students are often unaware of the dangers of the gorges. As his parents argued, the reason that Nathaniel Rand ’12 decided to enter the water on July 2 was not because of a propensity to take risks but because of a lack of information. They said Rand observed other swimmers exiting the water and saw fishermen wading nearby. As experts have noted, even an appearance of calm can be deceiving, as strong hydrological forces operate beneath the surface.Another set of high-priority recommendations proposed by the Steering Group includes installing signs and fences and finishing the ongoing reconstruction of the Cascadilla Gorge Trail. However, these initiatives were first conceived in 2008, when Doug Lowe ’11 drowned in Fall Creek Gorge. The University must go beyond simply restating the same previously-formulated ideas and ensure that they are actually implemented. As Rand’s parents pointed out in a letter published in The Sun, the informational signs now in place took three years to create and had not been put up on May 30, when Kendrick Castro ’11 drowned. Nor were they posted when Rand drowned nearly a month later. We believe the gorge safety committee is on the right track, but its success depends on the action of the administration. A greater knowledge of the risks of the gorges — communicated through innovative means — may help to reduce the number of deaths in the future. However, it is not enough to conceive of these solutions; they must be implemented. A stronger sense of urgency on the part of the administration may help to prevent more deaths in the future.