Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Mark Kirk Loves the Whirlybirds

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Mark Kirk Loves the Whirlybirds
Mark Kirk Loves the Whirlybirds

Kirkforsenate.com

Mark Kirk is a Navy man.

Mark Kirk is a regular water baby.

He's a sailor, a commander in the Naval Reserve and he lives in the lakefront city of Highland Park.

The congressman-who-would-be-senator even showcases his hydrophilia in legislation, too. 

In 2007 he teamed with then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel to stop the state of Indiana from allowing British Petroleum to dump more sludge into Lake Michigan. He co-sponsored the Great Lakes Fish & Wildlife Restoration Act, which authorized $20 million to clean up our waters.

Now Kirk is breaking out his flotation devices once again in a bid to stop the Coast Guard from shutting down its helicopter rescue stations in Waukegan, Ill. and Muskegon, Mich., and leaving a lone copter in Traverse City, Mich. -- at the opposite end of Lake Michigan, a 90-minute fly away.

“Right now, the helicopters in Waukegan and Muskegon arrive within half an hour,” Kirk told the Sun-Times. “If that same helicopter was launched from Traverse City, they would arrive in 90 minutes. The problem is that the average temperature of the water is 50 degrees. A swimmer in the open water would be likely to survive only 50 minutes at that temperature.”

Some of Kirk’s concern is personal -- when he was 16, he was rescued by a Coast Guard cutter after spending half-an-hour in 42-degree water. He credits the Coast Guard with saving his life. Some is pork -- Waukegan is in his congressional district.

But some is also awareness of Lake Michigan’s unique relationship with the Coast Guard.

Lake Michigan is the only large body of water in the U.S. that does not have an international border. The Coast Guard doesn’t chase down smugglers around here. It keeps an eye on ore freighters and sailboats. And the locals are grateful. Grand Haven, Mich., calls itself “Coast Guard City U.S.A.” and hosts an annual festival to honor its “Coasties.”

So while Lake Michigan’s Coast Guard stations don’t protect the security of the United States, they do protect the safety of its sailors. And there are far more sailboats and freighters in the southern part of the lake than in Traverse City.

Closing the helicopter stations will save $5.5 million. But it may cost lives -- both stations perform four or five rescues a year -- and it will certainly disrupt the bond between the Coast Guard and the people who live around Lake Michigan.

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