Flooding is one of the most significant environmental dangers, and one that confronts millions of Americans every year. In 2016, for example, there were 19 separate floods that ravaged parts of the country, including one in Louisiana that killed 13 people and destroyed roughly 60,000 buildings.
In Missouri, where this author lives and serves as a member of his professional fire department’s water rescue team, a year rarely passes in which we do not pull at least one person out of a flash flood. Recently, there have been multiple such rescues, including in 2016, in which our relatively mid-sized department performed close to 50 water rescues over the course of one month.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on what to do if you find yourself on the move during a flash flood, away from the safety of your home and out in the open. At least where this author lives and works, this is the most common circumstance in which we must perform water rescues.
Turn around, don’t drown.
The smartest thing you and your family can do to avoid becoming flood victims is to avoid the flood waters altogether. This sounds easy, and really, it is. Move to higher ground. Do not try to cross bridges and roads in low-lying areas, where water usually flows.
This rule especially applies to when you are traveling in your vehicle. Do not drive through water moving across a roadway. The usual spots that will get hit hardest are along creeks, rivers, and streams. Roads that cross any of these will likely be washed over by moving water. If you go through enough rainy seasons, you will get a good feel for which roadways and low-lying areas commonly flood. Avoid them when the heavy rains hit.
Pay attention to severe weather warning systems.
If you live in tornado country, like I do, then you probably have an app on your phone that warns you when severe weather is approaching. Heed these warnings, and take them seriously. This includes flash flood warnings. The best thing you can do is stay in your home if it is not in danger of being overcome by the water, or move to higher ground if it is.
Never try to walk through moving water, if you can avoid it, especially in urban/suburban areas. You can easily be sucked down storm drains, the covers to which often float away during floods. The resulting holes will suck you down and you will likely not recover. Sadly, firefighter Jason Farley was killed in Claremore, Oklahoma, in this way in 2015. This author attended his funeral, and does not need another reminder of how dangerous such conditions can be.
Moving water can also sweep you away if you try to walk through it. If you or your vehicle does get swept up in rising flood waters, then you are in trouble. You have life-or-death decisions to make at this point. Should you hope your car stays upright, and stops some way downstream? In that case, you would choose to stay inside the vehicle until it comes to a rest. Should you assume it will roll, and submerge, and thus exit the vehicle quickly? There is no easy answer here, nor one that will be right in every circumstance.
One thing is true, though: You will not be able to out-swim the swift water.
One need only look at the tragic example of Navy SEAL Josh Harris to see the danger of trying to beat the swift water. Harris sadly drowned in an operation in Afghanistan in 2008 while trying to cross one of the country’s notoriously dangerous wadis during a flash flood. A flash flood can take even the strongest swimmer away, into deadly storm drains or to a drowning death. Anyone who has ever done swift-water training in a controlled environment understands the power of that water to take you away. There is no swimming against it if it is moving swiftly enough.
Your best course of action in this case is to try to go with the water, and angle your body so that the current takes you to the side of the flowing water, much as a kayaker will do when he creates a “ferry angle.” Once you get to the edge of the moving water, swim out of the swift water into the calmer water created by an eddy, or reach for something to hold onto near shore.
Try to grab for a tree, or anything that you can climb up on and out of the water. Once you are in the water, and moving with it, even if you are not sinking or being submerged, your level of danger is greatly elevated. The difficulty of rescuing you has also just gone way up. You must try to get yourself to a dry, elevated position, and hold on until help arrives.
Use your vehicle as a raft/refuge if you must.
If your vehicle comes to rest in an area of partially submerged tress, or a fence, such that it is is relatively stabilized, then climb up on the roof, and hope the waters do not continue to rise. If you can get higher, then do so (safely). Climb up on top of something and wait for water rescuers to arrive. They may be coming from a distance, and may have to get boats off trailers and into the water, gear themselves up, et cetera, so you might be in for a prolonged wait.
Do not succumb to hypothermia.
If it is the case that you are in for a wait in the rain and rising water, then you need to worry about hypothermia setting in, which could make you weak and disoriented. Secure yourself wherever you are and do not allow yourself to be carried off by the water. If you have extra layers of clothing, use them. Hug yourself and do whatever you can to stay warm and alert until rescuers arrive.
Flood waters are no joke, and they should be taken with the utmost seriousness. Do not let yourself or your family become victims when you can get to high ground and stay out of danger. If you do get trapped in rising and moving waters, fight like hell to get to a dry spot and stay alive until help arrives.
Stay safe out there.
(photo courtesy of ABC News).