Surviving a Flood

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We have often discussed preparedness for natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, but not as much about the complications that go along with them. Flooding is one of the most common disasters to affect the United States and is the reason for almost 75% of presidential disaster proclamations. As such, it’s important to know how to keep your family safe during these events.

Typical Flood Hazards

A flood is defined as an overflow of water that submerges land which is normally dry. In the United States, there are various causes for flooding. They are:

Flash Floods: Flash floods usually develop shortly after a nearby heavy rain. I say nearby because it doesn’t have to be raining at your location for rising water to endanger you. These floods create a rapid rise of water, especially in low-lying areas like floodplains. Causes of flash flooding include heavy rain, ice jams, and levee or dam failure. This is especially common in the western United States where normally dry low lying areas next to steep terrain become filled with rushing water.

River Flooding: River flooding can be caused by heavy rainfall, dam failures, rapid snowmelt and ice jams. Normally calm flow can become turbulent rapidly as in a flash flood or water levels may rise slowly but steadily. The result in either case threatens structures and populations along its course.

Storm Surges: Tropical (or even non-tropical) storm systems can bring heavy winds, but most damage occurs as a result of flooding due to the storm surge. Storm surge is the rise in water generated by the storm above normal tide levels. When the storm approaches the coast, high winds cause large waves that can inundate structures, damage foundations, and cause significant loss of life.

Burn Scars: The Western U.S. has had significant wildfire activity in the last few years. When these occur, the bare ground can become hardened to the point that water can’t get through. This is known as a burn scar. Burn scars are less able to absorb moisture, leading heavy rains to accumulate water wherever gravity takes it. Mudslides, essentially a moving river of wet concrete, can occur.

Ice Jams: Northern areas of the continental U.S. and Alaska may have flooding as a result of ice jams. When moving ice and debris are blocked by an obstruction, water is held back. This causes flooding upstream. When the obstruction is finally breached, flash flooding occurs downstream. Many ice jams occur at bends in a river.

Snowmelt: Snowmelt flooding is not uncommon in Northern states and mountainous areas . Snow is essentially stored water until temperatures rise above freezing. The soil does not absorb the water until this occurs. When temperatures finally rise, the snowmelt acts as if it came from rain. When there is more water than can be contained in the soil, rivers, and lakes, flooding occurs.

Barrier Failures: When a dam or levee breaks, it can be due to excessive rainfall, erosion, landslides, earthquakes, and many other natural causes. Some dams fail as a result of man-made issues, such as negligence, improper maintenance, and even sabotage. As a result, water level can “overtop” the barrier or water can seep through the ground beyond it.

Flood Preparedness

Most people have heard of hurricane or tornado watches and warnings, but the U.S. weather services also tries to warn the populace of flooding. A “flash flood watch” means that flash flooding is possible in the near future; a “flash flood warning” means that flooding is imminent in the area.

If you live in a low-lying area, especially near a dam or river, then you should heed warnings when they are given and be prepared to evacuate quickly. Rising flood waters could easily trap you in your home and you don’t want to have to perch on your roof waiting for help.

Flood Safety Tips


To make it safely through a flood, consider the following recommendations:

Get Out Of Dodge Early

Make the decision to leave for higher ground before flooding occurs and roads are blocked.

Be Careful Walking Through Flowing Water

Drowning is the most common cause of death during a flood, especially a flash flood. Rapidly-moving water can knock you off your feet even if relatively shallow. Even cars can be carried away by water just one foot deep.

Don’t Drive Through a Flooded Area

As many people drown in their cars as anywhere else. Cars stall and roads/bridges could easily be washed out. Try to figure out if there is a “high road” to safety before a flood occurs.

Beware Of Downed Power Lines

Watch for downed power lines; electrical current is easily conducted through water. You don’t have to touch the downed line to be electrocuted, only step in the water nearby.

Don’t Drink The Water

Flood water is not clean water. It is contaminated by debris and water treatment plants may even have been compromised by the disaster. Have a reliable way to sterilize water and a good supply of clean water in your storage.

Have Supplies Handy

Flood waters may not recede quickly. Besides water as mentioned above, have non-perishable food, heat and light sources, batteries, tools, a medical kit, a cell phone, and a NOAA weather radio available.

Turn Off The Power

If you have reason to believe that water will get into your home, turn off the electricity. Don’t use appliances or motors that have gotten wet unless they have completely dried. You might have to take some apart to clean debris out of them.

Watch Out For Intruders

Critters that have been flooded out of their homes may seek shelter in yours. Snakes, raccoons, and other unfriendly creatures may decide your home is now their territory. Human intruders may also be interested in your property.

Watch Your Step

After a flood, watch where you step; there is debris everywhere. The floors of your home may be covered in mud, causing a slip-and-fall hazard.

Check for Gas Leaks

Don’t use candles, lanterns, stoves, or lighters unless you are sure that the gas has been turned off and the area has been well-ventilated.

Exhaust Fumes Can Kill

Only use generators, camping stoves or charcoal grills outside. Their fumes can be deadly.

Clean Out Saturated Items Completely

As mentioned earlier, don’t use floodwater as drinking water or to cook food unless you have thoroughly sterilized and filtered it. Make sure you have food stored in waterproof containers, and thoroughly wash utensils and other items for personal use.
Floods are just one of the many natural disasters that can endanger your family. With planning and some supplies, you’ll be able to keep your family safe.

Joe Alton, MD

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