Flash Flooding: Sudden and Potentially Deadly
What is a flash flood? Imagine tens of thousands of gallons of fast-moving water arriving with little or no warning. These powerful surges typically happen after heavy storms or rapid winter thaws. They overwhelm the normal capacities of rivers, streams, and man-made containment systems like levees. Within hours roads are impassable, trees are uprooted, power lines are down, and bridges could be out.
People frequently underestimate the danger. Yet as few as 6 inches of flood water can knock you over, and 12 inches can move your car. According to the National Weather Service, an average of 88 people die every year due to flash flooding—more than are killed by hurricanes, lightning, or tornadoes.
Our quick but comprehensive guide is designed to help you and your family stay safe and be in the best possible position to recover quickly once the threat has passed.
Get Connected for Flash Flood Warnings
What causes floods can vary tremendously. In cold regions, rivers dammed by winter ice can suddenly release huge amounts of water. Some states are subject to frequent thunderstorms. The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) website helps answer the question of where do floods occur in a particular area.
There are a number of flash flood warning systems available that can provide information about current threat levels. The National Weather Service has state-by-state information. You may be able to sign up for alerts from your local authority. Regional TV and radio stations usually carry warnings.
There are also an increasing number of smartphone apps. The American Red Cross provides a free service. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) also offers one, but some information requires a subscription. A little research will reward you with the best flash flooding alert for your area.
Create an Emergency Plan
In all likelihood, even when you get a flash flood warning you will have a few hours at most to react. If you are unprepared, stress can seriously hamper your ability to process information properly. As a result you are more likely to make errors, and that can make a bad situation worse.
So you can best be prepared in the event of a flash flood warning, create an emergency plan in advance, and make sure all family members understand their role in it. Prioritize the safety of people and pets before property. It can actually be fun to run practice drills—especially if you have a nice reward for participants afterward.
Work With First Responders
It can be tempting to consider an escape route, but if first responders advise staying put, they are doing so for good reason. The National Weather Services advises “turn around, don’t drown” as a warning against venturing out in flood water. Even minor rain floods can hide sharp debris or pollutants, and downed power lines present a danger of electrocution. Of course if you are advised to evacuate, you should do so immediately.
If you are caught in your vehicle during a flash flood, it’s best to wait it out if possible. Never move warning barricades; they are possibly there to protect against hidden dangers. Only if your vehicle begins to fill with water should you get onto the roof.
Prep a Survival Kit in Case You Lose Power
Flash floods frequently cause power outages. The outage may be isolated to your own property, but it’s certainly not safe to check the breaker box when there’s flooding. In fact it’s recommended not to use electrical devices at all.
A survival kit should contain some way of providing light. While most phones have a flashlight function, it is best to save battery power for emergency communications. Candles and matches are the old-school approach, though battery powered lanterns (available on Amazon) are more efficient.
Many homeowners already have a first aid kit in their home, but it’s something that should be added if not already present. High-energy food bars can be stored in an airtight container in case people get hungry. Don’t forget to include plenty of drinking water, as the household supply might be compromised.
Clear Gutters and Downspouts
People often picture a flash flood as a mass of water cascading down the road or boiling out of sewers. Flash flooding on your property can simply be the result of an overwhelming amount of water falling from the sky. Cleaning gutters and downspouts isn’t anyone’s favorite job, but this can be very effective at moving water away from the immediate vicinity. If rainwater just pours over the edge because of blockages, the likely destination is the basement.
Maintain the Sump Pump
Water naturally runs downhill, so in the unfortunate event that your property floods, the basement will likely be affected the worst. A sump pump may not be able to cope with the sheer volume of water from a flash flood, but if it is properly maintained it will go on pumping away as long as there is power connected, and eventually it will return things to normal. If the sump pump is neglected, a lot of work with mops and buckets will be required.
Move Items in the Basement to Higher Ground
If you live in a medium to high flood risk area, think about what you currently keep in the basement. Are items likely to withstand sitting in water for hours or days? If they aren’t, then consider whether they can be moved to another location, such as a loft, or put on steel shelving in a shed or garage. Raising things just a couple of feet above ground level will prevent damage much of the time.
Consider Purchasing Flood Insurance, and Create an Inventory
Many standard homeowners insurance policies do not cover flood damage. Those who live in high-risk areas in particular should think about adding additional coverage. According to FEMA, just 1 inch of water can cause $25,000 of damage.
It’s a good idea to have a written and photographic inventory of the property itself and things like kitchen appliances, TVs and music equipment, and furniture. This can help resolve any issues concerning value adjustments.
After the Flood Waters Recede
If you have been evacuated, return to your home only when advised to do so. Your first priority is people’s safety. If the power is out, check with the utility company; do not test things yourself. Any food that’s been in contact with flood water cannot be considered safe and should be disposed of. Disinfect floors and walls. Have soft furnishings and carpets professionally cleaned; mold and fungus will not only cause damage, they can also present significant health hazards.
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