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How to Survive a Flash Flood

Flash flooding is one of the most dangerous natural disasters you can find yourself in the midst of, because they are generally without warning and they happen, literally, in a flash. Every year there are occurrences and major ones cause death and destruction.

In 2013, 5,000 people in Uttarakhand, India were killed, and in the same year 3,000 Sardinians were left homeless. One of the worst in United States history occurred in 1889 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when a dam broke and killed 2,200. Watch this news report about an Israeli flash flood that took the lives of several teens:

While they may occur after the collapse of a dam or levee, they are most often associated with severe water deluges such as major thunderstorms, hurricanes, and meltwater from ice and snowstorms. You can find yourself in the midst of one almost anywhere unless you happen to be at the topmost elevation when one occurs, but they most commonly happen in low-lying areas such as river basins.

Unlike many other types of disasters, flash floods don’t come with complex warning systems. They usually arrive with the force of a rushing river who has lost its riverbanks to control it, and they recede within six hours. The short duration doesn’t mean they are anything less to worry about though – actually they are more deadly. Check out these compilations of people swept away in flash floods; most appear to willingly enter the floodwater thinking they can get through, but their lives are in danger and in some cases lost:

Know the terms associated with flooding – although due to the immediacy of the disaster, they aren’t very effective, they can still save your life:

Flood Watch – this means flooding is possible. Turn on commercial radio or television, or the NOAA Weather Radio to get more information. If you are in a low-lying area prone to flooding, you may get this notice quite often during storms. Do not become so accustomed to hearing it that you tune it out.

Flash Flood Watch – this means flash flooding is possible, and again, the warnings occur often in low-lying areas and you cannot be complacent about them. Be prepared to move quickly to higher ground in these situations, and stay tuned to news sources.

Flood Warning – the difference between a warning and a watch is that with a watch it’s possible, and with a warning, it’s happening or about to happen. Evacuate immediately if you are told to do so.

Flash Flood Warning – in this case, a flash flood is occurring somewhere near you. Move to higher ground immediately if on foot and evacuate the area if it is near you and an evacuation route does not pass through it.

By the time your area is experiencing a flood, it is generally too late to pick up your valuables and the essentials you’ll need to survive until the waters subside. There are, however, many easy things you can do to prepare a flood emergency kit that will be ready whenever you find yourself in an area of rapidly rising waters, so that you can get you and your family to safety and have the supplies you need to outlast the storm.

In addition, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind as you seek to evacuate. Let’s start with the flood emergency preparedness kit and the essentials you’ll need in it. Each person’s kit will vary depending on whether they have children, pets, elderly, or handicapped persons in your household but regardless of your family’s make up you will definitely need the following:

  • Portable radio with spare batteries. As an alternative to a battery powered radio, consider one with a handcrank. With that you won’t have to worry about running out of batteries or having them weigh down your kit. People don’t prefer them because they require some manual operation, but in an emergency that will be necessary.
  • Flashlight. Again, you’ll need spare batteries for this, which may make having a handcrank radio even more helpful in keeping the size of your kit down to a manageable size.
  • Candles and waterproof matches. Crayons can also serve as candles in an emergency. Make sure your matches are waterproof; it is perhaps even a good idea to test that before you are in a flood and find they are of no use to you.
  • Waterproof bags. You will want to put all your medical information, emergency contacts, and important documents in waterproof bags. But in addition you’ll need to bag all medications; prescription bottles are not necessarily waterproof. Also, if you decide that there are certain valuables you cannot live without, those need to go in waterproof bags too. Food and telephones should be bagged, and if you have young children with you, their items should go in a waterproof bags as well.

Even double bag everything to start with, and bring extra gallon size Ziploc bags just in case one of the bags containing your items springs a leak – when leaving in crisis, you may find lots of things get snagged and beat up in transit.

  • First aid kit: There’s nothing magic to this kit, make sure it contains all the standard items and is in a waterproof, durable container. Here are the cannot forget absolute essentials –
    1. A first aid manual
    2. Adhesive bandages in several sizes
    3. Sterile gauze pads in several sizes
    4. Hydrogen peroxide
    5. Rubbing alcohol
    6. Liquid bandage (Superglue can serve the same function if you can’t find liquid bandage and is used for cuts too deep to be taken care of by adhesive bandages. The types of cuts that you would generally get stitches for can be temporarily closed with the liquid to prevent debris or bacteria from getting into the wound.)
    7. Alcohol wipes
    8. Neosporin
    9. Ibuprofen
    10. Splint
    11. Soap
    12. Antibiotic ointment
    13. Calamine lotion
    14. Elastic bandage (also commonly known by the most popular brand name ACE bandage)
    15. Tweezers
    16. Scissors
    17. Safety pins
    18. Cold packs
    19. Thermometer
    20. At least 2 pairs of non-latex gloves
    21. Mouthpiece for administering CPR
    22. and more

Consider the needs of each family member when filling the first aid kid. A diabetic needs plenty of sterile needles, and a family member who passes out at the sight of blood might need smelling salts. Thoroughly consider the health issues and health history of all people in the family. Once you leave your home there is no guarantee you will be able to get somewhere with medical personnel.

  • Blankets. If your first aid kit is big enough, store a blanket there, and then store another separately. At minimum, there should be one stored separately and if at possible there should be one to two per family member. Blankets will provide warmth in case of emergency or cold when there may be no other relief. Have emergency “space” blankets as well as  wool blankets.
  • Medications. If possible, consider storing any prescription medications with a month’s advance supply on hand, so that you can keep what you need daily in your medicine cabinet, while keeping an unexpired bottle in the first aid kit. Rotate out what is in the first aid kit every month for your current month’s supply, then restock the first aid kit with what you pick up at the pharmacy that month. Do the same routine with any vitamins or other supplements you use, although thankfully they will likely have a longer shelf life.
  • WATER! It may seem like the last thing you’d need but you should never drink the flood waters you find yourself surrounded by. You don’t know what has been washed into the flood water and you should assume, most likely quite accurately, that it is full of parasites and bacteria. The general rule of thumb is that you should have one gallon of clean water per person per day for a minimum of three days. This water is what you’ll drink but it is also what you’ll use for hygiene purposes, such as wound cleaning before putting on Neosporin and bandages.
  • Food. You will need to pack a minimum of three days worth of non-perishable food supplies for each person. If you bring cans, make sure they are the type that have a pull-off top and don’t require a can opener. Your food should also be put into waterproof bags – cans are an exception but things like granola bars that seem protected by their wrappers are susceptible to leaking and as mentioned, you cannot assume anything exposed to the flood waters is safe to consume. Consider foods in MRE (meal ready to eat) packaging, originally designed for military but now available for civilian consumption – field rations in lightweight packages that contain all the nutrients and calories you need in one meal.
  • Children’s essentials. These essentials will vary based on the age of the child.
    1. Infants who aren’t breastfed will need enough formula for a minimum of three days. Sometimes you can find the formula premixed and pre-portioned in small plastic containers with a lid size that matches the size of a bottle so that all you need to do is twist off the cap and twist on the bottle nipple, which should be pre-sterilized and put in a plastic bag. If you’ll need to mix your formula, bring pre-sterilized bottles and nipples, and factor in how much formula in a day the infant gets when considering how much water to bring.
    2. Older infants eating baby food in addition also need a three day supply and you should ensure you bring sterilized baby spoons as well. Young children are much more susceptible to infection and extra care should be taken with their items to ensure they don’t come in contact with flood water.
    3. You will also need plenty of diapers and wipes, more than you might normally use in three days because stress and exposure can cause diarrhea and will require more changes.
    4. Disposable bags to put dirty diapers in should also be in your kit.
    5. You will want to bring a couple of changes of clothes for the child, blanket(s), and their one most favorite toy or stuffed animal to provide them with comfort since this will be at least as stressful for them as for adults, and likely moreso.
  • Pet essentials. Anyone with pets knows that they are as much a part of your family as the humans are. Accordingly, you will want to prepare for providing for them in a flood equally. They will need three days of food and water. You will want to have all of their shot records with you and their vet contact info, along with any medicines they take if applicable.

You will not always be able to find an emergency shelter that will accept them but if you do, most shelters will want to see updated shots. Consider that you won’t know if you can get into the pet friendly shelters before you leave your home, so you should research in advance the locations and phone numbers of animal shelters in your area.

No one wants to be separated from their animal but in times of emergency and crisis, it is better to know where you can take them than to have to choose how to deal with a situation when your animal isn’t allowed in and the flood is too dangerous to go back out into. Finding another place that will accept all of you may prove impossible in a crisis and without proper preparation, there will be nowhere to go with an animal.

Once you have your emergency preparedness kit ready for a disaster, you are ready to evacuate. However there are many things you need to keep in mind when leaving your home and heading to the nearest emergency shelter set up for those being displaced by the water – if there even is one. Remember flash floods hit without warning, so unless the weather has been going for sometimes and your area is prone to flooding, they may not be equipped to open a shelter with little to no notice.

First, you should understand that a flood emergency kit is one of those things you should always have ready, not something you should wait to start preparing until flood warnings come to your area. Put it together now. Some people live in flood zones, areas where flooding is likely anytime there are heavy rains, but a flash flood can happen at any time, anywhere, even if it isn’t raining where you are.

Flash floods happen in the mountains where the elevation would make it seem as though you are safe. They can also happen in a desert, where extreme downpours aren’t likely to happen ever. It doesn’t take much water accumulation at all to make evacuation dangerous. An inch of water covering the roads is plenty to wash your vehicle off the roadway in a strong current if you begin to hydroplane, and six inches can begin to flood a low-lying car.

Driving in a Flash Flood

It is also incredibly difficult to gauge how much water there really is on the road if you can’t see the bottom. The common phrase used often by aid groups is “turn around, don’t drown.” In other words, if you are driving to safety and you see standing water on the roadway in front of you, completely covering the road, do not try to drive through it.

It is much safer to turn around and try to find another way around the water, out of harm’s way. Once all four tires are in water and you begin to hydroplane, it doesn’t matter how big or tall your vehicle is. It can become instantly swept up and you can find yourself out of control and in a much more dangerous scenario trying to navigate a vehicle of several tons that is supposed to protect you, not put you in further danger.

If your car is caught in flood waters, do not panic. Roll down windows and wait for the water level to get to the base of the window. You will then be able to open the door and get out on your own. If you have electronic windows, carry a tool to break the window, because the circuits will likely break in the water. It takes 30 seconds for the car to fill and the windows need to be down by then, or they won’t go down any further. You will not be able to open the door until then because of the water pressure.

A foot of water will float most cars, and two feet of rushing water will sweep away pick-ups and SUVs. Do not assume you can make it through.

Older children should be sent out of the window or door first, with younger children in an adult’s arms. If for some reason you cannot get the window rolled down before submersion, don’t panic – once the car is completely submerged, you’ll be able to open the door, but you’ll need to be able to hold your breath. You will need to stay calm for that to happen.

Prepare for the worst, assume the water is deeper than you think it is, and avoid driving through standing water so you can keep yourself and your family safe. In general it is always a good idea to keep cell phones charged, and if you have a backup emergency charger, it should be put in a waterproof bag and brought as well.

Phone Lines and Power Lines

Stay off your phone except when using it to contact people regarding the flood and your safety so that the battery will remain charged as long as possible. Be prepared, even after all that, for your phone to have no service at all and be of little to no use to you, because the flood will likely cause downed cellular lines. In the same vein, only use it for emergencies because with fewer lines and more emergencies, you may be preventing someone else’s rescue if you are simply calling to deal with things that are not emergencies and can wait.

If cell lines come down in the flood water, other lines can come down too, Live electrical wires are an electrocution hazard and have caused many deaths in flash floods. The closer  you are to the source, the stronger the charge is, but the shock can be felt hundreds of meters away and can cause death 125 meters away – up to 50 meters away it would cause almost certain death, and from 85 meters away death is likely.

Swept Away

If you find yourself swept into floodwaters, point your feet downstream and allow yourself to go with the current. Float on your back so that you can push away obstacles more easily. Go over the obstacles, never under.

If you are able to grab on to a tree or something else so that you can get out of the water, do so, but do not overexert yourself trying to fight the current. Do everything you can without wasting valuable energy to gain attention from rescuers – with all the debris floating in the water, it will be hard to see you.

Once you are out of the water, even if the water is rising or you believe you can make it to safety, wait it out for rescue. The currents are strong and you cannot tell what is in the water, including those live wires. Do not walk into the water even if it looks low; six inches of water can knock you off your feet and remember what a flash flood is – it arrives without warning and it is not actually isolated, so if one happens, more waves may follow.

After the Water Subsides

Don’t assume that things have returned to normal immediately after a flash flood. Remember, the difference between a flash flood and a flood is that a flash flood comes and goes in six hours. That means the damage can be extensive because the water has a strong current.

Don’t return home until authorities say it’s safe, and don’t drink water until boil advisories are lifted. Avoid all moving water, and keep out of all standing water, which is likely contaminated with gasoline, chemicals, and sewage.

Look out for clear damage from floodwaters and avoid structures that may have been weakened. Bridges may especially take some time to clear. If your home is flooded, do not enter until the water recedes and power is confirmed to have been cut.

When cleaning up in the aftermath, disinfect and clean thoroughly anything that was damaged, and throw out anything that cannot be properly cleaned. Remember it isn’t just water, it’s contaminated water, and if it isn’t dried out quickly enough, it can cause mold and mildew problems that are harmful to long term health.

Flash flooding happens quickly, and has varying degrees of severity. You can predict when it is more likely but it is known to occur with no advance notice. Take care to prepare for these situations so that you can save your life and those of your family members.

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One comment

  1. We live a block from a river. It last flooded in 1949. After the flood the river was dredged. It’s now so shallow that when the men in our church decided to clean the river in our area they were able to wade in rubber boots. We watch closely when the water starts rising in the spring. BUT we are invalids. We can get out if we leave before flood stage, but if the water rises suddenly we’re SOL unless someone thinks to come get us. We have water, food, chlorine bleach, ,and a lot of meds,but if the water rises enough to reach us those preparations won’t help us. So we watch the water. If it hits the bottom of the footbridge we’re out of here.

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