What to do when caught in a flood
Guess what is the number one cause of flood-related deaths in North America? With the exception of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the majority of drowning victims were in their car or truck! Probably, at least ¾ of the flood-related deaths in the United States and Canada each year are vehicle related. In fact the total number of flood-related casualties may be substantially higher because single person deaths in flash floods are often listed as traffic accidents, not flood-related deaths. These individual tragedies are not associated with the massive riverine floods that get the attention of the media.
The fact is that most flood-related deaths in North America could have been prevented. They are the direct result of people ignoring warnings from the National Weather Service or Environment Canada. They either try to do the things that are normal when there is no flood, or else do things that are just plain stupid.
Flash floods are the greatest killers because they may occur while people are sleeping or have been driving in areas where there is no flooding. Because flash floods are localized events, warnings about flood conditions may have not reached the victims in time. Even then, there are actions that can be taken when a there is appearance of flooding conditions.
Both the National Weather Service and Environment Canada are acutely aware of the number of deaths each year from flash floods. The two agencies do their best to forecast potential conditions for flash flooding or riverine flooding. Especially in the case of warm weather thunderstorms, intense local rain can cause local flash flooding without affecting a region, and therefore getting the immediate attention of radio and television. The best precaution for people residing in areas prone to floods, tornados and mudslides is to purchase a weather band radio with permanently charged battery backup. The type of battery radios based on conventional batteries is not an ideal option. These batteries will invariably be weak or dead when the time of crisis arises.
Voluntary or mandatory evacuations
If dangers to property and lives seem particularly ominous, the National Weather Service, Environment Canada or government agencies will issue announcement recommending evacuation of a locale or region. Only government agencies or executives may order the evacuation of an area. If you know that your community has been struck by floods in the past, heed the warning of the voluntary evacuation. Even if you are not in the evacuation area, if you see a stream that has flooded in the past near your home rising rapidly, it is still a good idea to temporarily relocate while there is a route to escape.
What often happens is that flooding closes bridges or even entire highways, making it impossible to escape. This is the second most frequent cause of drowning deaths. Victims are trapped by surrounding flood waters and have no options for escaping by either vehicles or foot. The flood waters steadily rise and eventually consume them.
Mandatory evacuations are a legal order by government to vacate your premises. Those refusing the order may be subject to fines or being forcibly removed. The effectiveness of mandatory evacuations is directly related to the capability of citizens to evacuate. What if they don’t own a vehicle or if it happens to be inoperable? What if they do own an operable vehicle and all escape routes are blocked? Both situations caused many of the drowning deaths during and after Katrina. Ninth Ward residents, who were unable to evacuated, were trapped in their houses until they drowned.
Alternative means of escape
If you live in low lying areas that are prone to riverine and flash flooding, it would be very wise to keep a canoe or boat in or near a residence. Even a self-inflating life raft could save your family’s lives. The ideal waterborne escape vehicle is a white water canoe constructed of laminated foam plastic. This type of canoe will always float, even when filled with water and passengers. It is designed to resist puncture from objects in or beneath the water. The biggest advantage of a white water canoe is that it is highly maneuverable. Typically, in both flash and riverine flooding, there are large objects floating in the water, which can capsize or sink small boats. Be sure to keep the paddles, and perhaps a spare set of paddles in the canoe at all times, so it can be used at a moment’s notice.
Many people living near rivers and lakes own motor boats. They obviously offer a faster means of escape than a canoe or raft, but what is the motor doesn’t start? What if there is no gasoline around, or flood waters have washed away the gasoline can before the owners can get the boat off its trailer? Then the evacuees must paddle the clumsy boat to safety – assuming that any paddles they own have not also washed away.
The escape means of last resort is a large floating object. There are plenty of stories through the years about people, who survived a flood by hitching onto a floating, wooden building or a tree. These floating objects may save your life, but also may cause serious injury or death later on. The object may be in the process of sinking when you latch onto it. Once you are on a large floating object, you share its fate. You may be crushed against other objects or accompany it over a water fall. Many victims of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood died in this way. They road the roofs of their houses or fallen trees to a log jam at a railroad bridge. Those that quickly found a way to get from their floating object to dry land, lived. Those who stayed, burned to death or drowned, while trying to escape a fire in the debris caused by friction.
Persons that live near bodies of water, which are prone to flooding, should always keep personal floatation devices (i.e. life vests) handy. They will make far more likely that flood victims, who are trapped, can eventually reach safety. Some especially athletic people may be able to swim to safety, but they can be knocked unconsciously by a floating object and drown – even if they were physically capable of traversing the distance to dry land. These safety devices should also be worn even if a large floating object is found. Violent swings of the floating object can knock the victim into the water.
Precautions while driving vehicles
As stated in the introduction, the majority of flood-related drowning deaths occur in vehicles. These tragedies have two major causes. People trapped in regional riverine floods may make desperate attempts to escape, as illustrated in the photograph above. They attempt to drive out and soon the vehicle is engulfed with water or floating. Alternatively, drivers may be driving on roads that are safe, but eventually come to an area where water has covered the paving. The driver assumes that the water is shallow, but soon it is too deep for the motor to operate and they are trapped. Eventually, the currents rise to the point where the vehicle is washed down stream and overturned. The trapped driver is drowned.
Deaths caused by vehicles trapped in flash floods are the most preventable ones of all. Never, ever drive your car into a flooded roadbed, even it seems shallow. It is quite common for sections of roadbed to wash away, making the actual water depth become much greater than what would be the level if it was water over pavement. It doesn’t matter how important your journey is. The chances are that if you try to cross a roadway, flooded by a flowing stream, you will never get to where you wanted to go.
The basic rule for surviving all floods is this: Stay alert to unforeseen dangers, and always go uphill . . . for water only flows downhill.