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How to Survive and Prepare for a Flash Flood

Two years ago, this author experienced a flash flood. It really was a “flash” or sudden event. In just a little under forty minutes the small stream behind our home turned into a violent river that tumbled over its banks, destroying five homes and damaging over 50 properties.

Due to quick thinking on the part of our neighborhood, my home was spared. Well placed sandbags diverted the torrent from entering, even though the property sat on the banks of the stream, in close proximity to danger. Water surrounded and sloshed against the exterior for two days, but not a drop permeated.

My car, however, was picked up by the raging waters and tossed into a home. Both were hopelessly damaged. We were stranded 72 hours, as the flood waters receded from washed away roads. I opted not to be rescued when a local official aboard a canoe paddled into my yard to check on our welfare. Emergency workers were inundated with saving others in far more dire situations and we weren’t ordered to leave.

Our family had food, stored drinking water and emergency supplies to last for several days. Though we had no power, a contaminated well, no working sewage system and our temperature inside dropped below 50 degrees, we fared far better than many others.

The next day we learned about two teens from a nearby county that tragically got swept over a low lying bridge and died in the same flood-like conditions. A neighbor directly beside me had to be evacuated by boat when she ran out of insulin and was critically ill. Many of our friends were evacuated since they had no emergency stores to last through the flooding.

All told, our county and surrounding region suffered immense property losses and 4 flood related deaths. We didn’t make national news, like Katrina flooded areas did. Thankfully, our damage wasn’t nearly as widespread or lethal. But nonetheless, lives were altered- some forever, by the impact of our local flood.

I learned much that week about a force of nature I’d previously taken for granted. While small lakes abound in our region, the streams and tributaries are minor. Dangerous floods can and do happen far away from large bodies of water, raging rivers and coastal areas. Even something as innocuous as a small stream, barely three feet wide can become life threatening when surging with flood waters.

In a mere two feet of water, vehicles can be swept away and lives can be lost suddenly. Charged cell phones often die in a few days without a power source, leaving you cut off from emergency assistance. Overworked rescue workers in a major disaster aren’t as handy as you’d like them to be. And most of all, even a small flash flood can be devastating.

What You Need to Know About Flash Floods:
  • The majority of flood-related deaths are in vehicles.
  • Flooding kills approximately 127 people a year, according to the National Weather Service.
  • Flash floods differ and are more dangerous than normal flood conditions. Well saturated, low lying areas set the stage for flash flood conditions. When significant amounts of water accumulate on top of these moisture soaked areas, the ground cannot absorb the excess. Even without a heavy rainfall, large quantities of melting snow on still frozen grounds or a distant rainfall up river can set the stage for a flash flood.
  • Extremely life threatening flash floods can occur in many areas. In particular, watch canyons, downstream of dams, waterways, or low lying ground. Even dry stream-beds or small gullies and creeks can have sudden flood potential.
  • Never underestimate the dangers of flash floods. In 1976 a lethal flood occurred amidst the celebration of Colorado’s Centennial, killing 143 people as a 20 foot wall of water crashed down Big Thompson Canyon. The flash flood, traveling at a speed of up to 14 miles per hour destroyed hundreds of homes, cabins, tourist spots and campsites.
  • Be prepared. Like most emergencies, the key to survival or withstanding the situation is planning.

Be Ready in a Flash-Flood Preparedness Tips:

Before a Flood:
  • Consider construction areas. Never build in a floodplain without reinforcing and raising the structure.
  • Erect and maintain seawalls or levees to keep floodwater from entering home.
  • Maintain an emergency supply of pre-filled sandbags to divert water. If placed correctly, these can often reroute minor, but damaging currents away from your home and help protect property.
  • Water heater, furnace, appliances and electrical panels should be above the lower levels that run risk of water infiltrating home.
  • Sump pumps are useful and may keep excess water from accumulating.
  • Pick up a shop vac. If your area has a flood, these will be a hard to find, premium commodity.
  • Seal walls in basements or other lower levels with a high quality product.
  • Price and obtain flood insurance. This isn’t part of traditional homeowner policies and it is available even if you are not in a designated flood plain.
  • Have a plan on what vehicles and routes you’ll take if you evacuate. Drive routes before emergencies occur. Always have at least two exit routes. Avoid low lying areas if possible when evacuating.
  • Prepare an emergency kit to last you through at least three days. In the event of a flood, it’s likely you’ll need bottled drinking, as wells can become contaminated or power outages can prevent pumps from working. Plan on a gallon per person a day. Non-perishable foods and supplies such as prescription medicines should be stocked also. Flashlights, batteries, tool kit and a portable radio are essentials. Include a first aid kit with a good manual. Have at least one gallon of plain household bleach on hand also. After a flood, you’ll need it to disinfect. During an extended flood you might need it to purify drinking water. Keep a change of clothes (including shoes or wading boots) for family members in plastic bags with your emergency supplies. Most cell phones don’t hold their charge for several days. Consider picking up a solar powered charging unit for emergencies.
  • Educate yourself about local flood conditions. Do you live near a river, lake or coastal area? Are you downstream of a major flood risk like a dam? What is the flood history for your region? And what were the factors that caused the flooding?
When a Flood is Likely:
  • Closely follow weather updates and local broadcasts.
  • Check low points near sliding doors and entry ways. Sandbag these areas from the interior as well as the exterior.
  • If your home is at risk, especially in areas of streams or canyons where flash flooding can occur violently and suddenly, evacuate. A warning may not transpire before a flood strikes.
  • Danger: If you hear sounds of waters surging or rumbling. Evacuate to high ground immediately.
  • Sometimes you may be ordered to evacuate or need to seek an alternate shelter if the flash flood will result in standing water. These evacuations may not be as life threatening as a surging wall of water, but they may still be dangerous. Listen to your area officials and do what they say.
  • If you must evacuate and time allows, turn off utilities and disconnect electrical appliances. Move important belongings or items that may be damaged to an upper level. If water is surrounding electrical items or pooling nearby any electrical items, don’t enter water.
How to Evacuate:
  • Keep out of moving water. A current in as little as six inches of water can knock you off your feet. Use a stick to give you stability and to check depth of water and firmness of ground.
  • Watch for downed power lines and keep far away from them or bodies of water that touch these.
  • Snakes that may be in flood waters or surrounding areas. Enter cautiously. After waters recede, snakes may still be present.
  • Two feet of water moving water are enough to sweep away a vehicle. Avoid driving into water. Even a foot of water can cause vehicles to stall.