When heavy rainfall occurs in a short period of time, the rushing waters can submerge homes and basement apartments, overtake cars and knock people off their feet. Flash floods can develop quickly, within hours or even minutes; and often catch people off guard, killing an average of 88 people in the United States each year.
“Flash floods occur when there’s just too much water coming in too fast,” said Bonnie Schneider, meteorologist and author of “Extreme Weather.” And climate change is compounding the risks: Warmer air holds more moisture, Ms. Schneider said, which can lead to heavier, more intense precipitation.
However flash floods are scary, experts say you can increase your chances of survival by being informed and having a plan. Here’s what to do in advance—and now—to get through a flash flood safely.
Understand the difference between different signals.
The National Weather Service is currently issuing severe weather warnings in English and Spanish.
If there is a “flash flood watch”, according to the serviceflooding isn’t guaranteed, but conditions are favorable enough to make it possible, so be prepared to change your plans.
A “flash flood warning” means that flash flooding is imminent or already occurring and you should immediately move to higher ground if you are outside or in a basement apartment.
The most dire warning is a “flood emergency,” which indicates that not only is a flood occurring, but it poses a serious threat to human life. In 2021, New York received the first notice of this type during heavy rain caused by Hurricane Ida.
Before the flood
I’m making a plan
Long before rain is on the radar, the first step is to come up with a plan for how your family will communicate, meet and evacuate if there is flash flooding. How will you escape your home if necessary? Who will be responsible for the children? Where will you meet if your family splits up? The American Red Cross has printable templates to help guide your conversation.
You’ll also want to assess the flood risks to your home, work and school, and the routes between them. The flood maps developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are a good place to start. (If you live in a flood zone, you may also want to consider purchasing flood insurance.)
Prepare a bag to go out now
If you need to leave your home in a hurry, it is important to have readily available emergency kit full of supplies. Consider adding stable food; water or a portable filtration system; change of clothes; flashlight or flashlight with batteries; Charger for phone; face masks; cash; and a first aid kit. If you have pets, don’t forget their food, leashes, and portable bowls. Ready.gov also advises creating “password-protected digital copies” of important documentation, such as birth certificates, ID cards, insurance policies, wills, deeds and property titles.
If that seems far-fetched, it’s not, said Dr. David Markenson, chief medical officer at the American Red Cross Training Services. “The side of human nature is clearly nothing to worry about,” he said. And a lot of people think, “It’s not going to happen to me.”
But having a plan can help you make better choices in emergencies, said Sabine Marks, a senior instructor at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. As she described it, she wouldn’t want to “have to come up with this solution on the spot when I’m also probably in fear for my life.”
During a flood
If a storm is expected or looming, pay attention to local weather alerts via your phone, radio or television. In the event of a power failure, a battery powered radio may come in handy.
Be prepared to evacuate
If there’s a chance you’ll need to evacuate, gather essentials that aren’t already in your bag—driver’s licenses, credit cards, medications, and key documents—and seal them in a waterproof bag. (A plastic freezer bag works well.) Make sure your phone is charged and, if you have time, unplug small appliances so they don’t fry from electric shocks. Move valuables to a higher floor (if you have one).
If you live in a basement apartment, be extra vigilant when it comes to watching for rain storms, said Julie Munger, founder of Sierra Rescue International, an organization that has been training rapid water rescuers for 35 years. If you think you might be in danger, she recommended moving to a higher floor or evacuating elsewhere immediately. (To find emergency shelter, text SHELTER and your zip code to 43362.) FEMA is warning against climbing into an enclosed ceiling as you may become trapped by rising flood waters. If necessary, get on the roof.
If you find yourself in the worst-case scenario of water flooding into your apartment, you need to act quickly, Ms. Munger said. “Don’t wait, don’t grab anything, just get out,” because if you can’t get out, she added, your only option is to “hope the water doesn’t completely fill the apartment.”
According to Dr. Markenson, it’s important to keep a close eye on updates because conditions can change quickly. If you are told to evacuate, do so. Check the road closures on your state’s transportation department website before you leave, if there’s time, and take an alternate route if you encounter a flooded road.
The biggest problem with flash floods, Dr. Markenson said, is that people don’t always evacuate when told to. But if you try to pull it out, he warned, you will endanger yourself and the rescuers.
Avoid flooding whenever possible
The best thing to do is avoid all flooding if you can — or, as the National Weather Service’s grim catchphrase urges: “Turn around, don’t drown.” It only takes six inches of fast-moving water to knock you off your feet, so unless you’re ordered to evacuate, usually the safest choice is to stay where you are. (Flash floods usually pass quickly.)
The most immediate risk of entering floodwaters is drowning, but you can also expose yourself to it various harmful things floating around the water itself, such as human, animal and industrial waste; physical objects such as cars, timber and other waste; stray animals such as rodents and snakes; and downed power lines.
If you get caught in your car
Sometimes flash flooding happens when you’re out and about and you can suddenly find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Almost half of all deaths from flash floods are connected to the vehicle, which is why you should never ignore the barriers. “Don’t drive in a flooded street, period,” Ms. Munger said. “There really is no better advice.”
Not only is it difficult to measure water depth and road conditions, but only 12 inches of water it can float your car and 18 inches can carry your SUV or pickup truck. “Everyone tends to underestimate the power of water,” Ms Munger said. “It takes a very small current to wreak havoc.”
That said, if your the car was indeed washed away by floodsroll down your windows first, said lynn burtschel, an emergency medical worker, lifeguard and founder of Wimberley Rescue Training. If they don’t budge, he recommends breaking the glass with an escape tool (eg the one in this Wirecutter guidewhich you can keep in your glove compartment) or by using headrest metal post like a ram. It’s important to open the windows, Mr. Burttschell said, because “if the water continues to rise, then that car fills up and becomes more like a rock instead of floating downstream.”
Then unbuckle your seat belt and grab it as you climb onto the roof and call 911, Mr. Burtschel advised. Do your best to stay with the car until help arrives. Lie on the roof for stability and don’t tie yourself to the car in case it rolls over.
During his 32-year career, Mr Burtshell has found that people who stay in their cars survive at a much higher rate than those who abandon them, simply because it is easier for emergency services to they notice a vehicle rather than a person. “I really never recommend leaving the vehicle,” he said. To make yourself more visible, you can also turn on your hazard lights, activate your car alarm with your key fob and, if possible, honk your horn.
If you are on a walk, hiking or camping
If you happen to run into a flash flood while you’re on foot, run perpendicular to the water and “get to the highest point possible,” Ms. Munger said — even if that means heading for the nearest building and racing. up stairs, climbing a tree or climbing a truck. The bigger and heavier the object, the better, she said, as it will be less likely to float.
If you do get swept away, don’t try to stand up, as you risk getting your foot caught in a drain, fence, or other object. Instead, Ms. Munger advised swimming perpendicular to the current, as you would in a rip tide, until you reach safety. Because you’ll be battling drains, debris and currents, she warned, it’s extremely difficult even for strong swimmers. “People need to realize that most people who lose their footing in a flash flood don’t get out,” she said.
As for camping or hiking, Ms. Munger advised researching the weather conditions and forecast in the region before heading out. If there might be a rain storm upstream of your destination, she suggested camping above the rivers, not next to them. If the water begins to rise where you are, move to higher ground immediately.
If you are on the underground train or subway
The subway is “the last place you want to be” during a flash flood, Ms. Munger said. “Because at the end of the day, if the storm drains are congested, there’s nowhere else for the water to go.” In other words, your best defense is to avoid it altogether.
If you do find yourself underground during a flood, Ms Munger urged getting out of the station as quickly as possible – even if that means forcing your way up the flooded stairs. If you’re on a train that’s stuck, don’t leave it until you’re instructed to do so, said Eugene Resnick, a spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Take flash floods seriously
While some of these steps may sound inconvenient, the reality is that following them could save your life. “You never want to be in a position where you look back or have others look back and say, ‘Why didn’t you just heed the simple advice?'” Dr. Markenson said.
Or, as Ms. Munger put it, “It’s going to be a lot harder and a lot more tragic when you don’t come home.”
Susan Shane is a freelance journalist and future contributor for the New York Times based in Madison, Wisconsin.
September 13, 2021
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Sabina Marks. She is a senior instructor at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, not director of research.
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