After Losing Her Best Friend, 21-Year-Old Fights for Guardrail Law for Florida Canals

On June 28, Chloe Arenas woke up before the sun to pick up her mother and grandmother from an early-morning flight. But the 21-year-old University of Central Florida student never reached the airport. Soon after worried friends and family called police, her car was found submerged in a retention pond off a highway exit in Orlando. It was too late.

The cause of the crash is still unclear, but Arenas' loved ones say her death could have been prevented. A guardrail would have kept Chloe's car from plummeting into the 15-foot-deep retention pond, they say. Now they've started a statewide petition to make such rails mandatory in the hopes of preventing similar deaths, which regularly happen in Miami's waterways.   

“Our findings and recent information suggest she would still be alive had there been a guardrail,” Arenas' best friend, Clarissa Lindsey, tells New Times. “She might've needed medical attention, but we think she'd still be alive. Drowning was the cause of death.”

Upon hearing the news, Lindsey knew she had to do something to prevent another tragedy. The 21-year-old prelaw student at the University of Baltimore was quick to act. Within a week, she started an online petition to raise funds to pass "Chloe's Law," a measure that would create more guardrails around bodies of water. It has garnered 5,800 signatures so far and the support of Florida Sen. Darren Soto.

Drowning in vehicles is much more common in Florida than anywhere else in the nation. Between 2008 and 2012, 49 people drowned in submerged vehicles in Florida. Texas has the second-highest number of these type of deaths (18 between 2008 and 2012), significantly fewer than Florida. 

Chloe's Law would affect South Florida, where incidents of drowning in submerged vehicles are higher than elsewhere in the state. In January, 50-year-old Carlos Alberto Mena was found dead in his car in a Davie canal. Donna Layer was shocked when she heard that her daughter had died in her car in the same canal. In 2001, 32-year-old Karla Gutierrez drowned in a 30-foot-deep canal near the I-75 exchange in Miami-Dade. She had dialed 911, but her call with the dispatcher was disconnected and rescuers couldn't get to her in time.

Clarissa Lindsey and Chloe Arenas met when they were only 2 years old. Their families lived just four houses away in Maryland, and the girls became inseparable. Even though the Arenas family moved to Orlando when Chloe was 8, the pair remained best friends, chatting on the phone every night and visiting each other almost every other month.

From an early age, Lindsey says, Chloe wanted to be a large-animal veterinarian and developed a fondness for elephants. Lindsey, who balances three jobs and a full-time course load, is ready to do whatever she must to pass Chloe's Law. She already quit her restaurant job and is contemplating deferring her fall semester classes to bring Chloe's Law to fruition.

“I think during the day, I'm really busy and keep a positive outlook on this whole thing," Lindsey says. "But at nighttime, I think about my best friend, and it settles in that she's dead.”
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson