Unnoticed in the middle of the night, water crested the banks of the river south of town and quickly inundated the storm drain system, spilling into the streets.
You awoke to torrential rain, while hurricane-force gales swept through the lower part of the state, wrecking havoc on towns and villages all along the coast. You thought you were safe on the outskirts of the storm’s deadly path, but doubt is creeping in. The power has been out for two days, and the roads around town are now littered with cars stranded in the rising tides. The floodwaters are coming, and they’re larger than even the weatherman was able to predict. Decisions need to be made and fast…
SEASONS ARE PREDICTABLE
As vital as water is to the ecosystem and your personal survival, in excess, water is deadly. In recent history, this fact has become increasingly evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast and the deadly floods that hit Texas in late spring 2015. When Mother Nature opens the heavens and rains pour down, the balance of nature teeters on the ability of animals to survive the flood waters or perish in them.
Fortunately for humans, storm seasons are predictable, but the dangers associated with them are not. Survival comes down to good judgment, preparedness and willingness to take action when and where necessary.
Listen to emergency services and weather reports. Storms causing floods are easy to forecast with advanced radar technology. Unless a flood is caused by a dam breaking, rain-caused flooding gives you time to respond accordingly. Decision making does not need to be split second and evacuation of your area may either be voluntary or mandatory with adequate response time.
“WHEN MOTHER NATURE OPENS THE HEAVENS AND RAINS POUR DOWN, THE BALANCE OF NATURE TEETERS ON THE ABILITY OF ANIMALS TO SURVIVE THE FLOOD WATERS OR PERISH IN THEM.”
Though you may be hesitant to leave your home in an evacuation, whether for emotional, spiritual or financial reasons, keep a logical head and err on the side of safety. Follow instructions if authorities order you out.
By the time police, fire or other emergency personnel begin neighborhood door-to-door evacuation notices, you should already have your plan in motion or be out the door.
BUG IN OR BUG OUT
The consequences of your decisions are yours to live with. The decision to bug in or bug out is made in most emergencies where the safety of the home is in question. Historical data will help make this decision easier. Today in New Orleans, residents must live with the reality and likelihood of flooding given the hurricane history. If water repeatedly floods your home, it may likely do so again. If your home has survived stronger storms in the past, riding out a storm in the safety of your home is a better option than in a “storm refugee” camp like the one set up in the Astrodome post Hurricane Katrina.
If you planned ahead, you may guarantee the safety of your family in terms of preparedness and services better than a municipality, state or federal response overwhelmed. Remember, after Katrina the collective government struggled to hand out water let alone advanced services like medical care. If you have a neighborhood of mutual understanding, help each other with setting up a sandbag brigade to build retaining walls to slow water into your neighborhood, clear street drains to prevent blockages and combine your efforts for the good of the community and alleviate the workload for yourself.
“ANOTHER LIFESAVING REASON TO AVOID RETURNING TO A FLOODED FLOOR IS POSSIBLE ELECTROCUTION.”
In creating your Bug-in kit, think about providing essentials first such as extra clothing, gallon jugs of water, comfort foods, radio, etc. Make sure you keep these items wellmarked for quick recognition/access and placed in your refuge spot in your home. If you pack any perishable goods, keep track of expiration dates and rotate out supplies when those dates draw near.
SEEKING HIGH GROUND
The unpredictability of a flood situation may quickly push you and your family higher and higher in your house. Seeking refuge on a second floor might not be enough, but if the tide is rising beyond your ability to escape, your situation is quickly deteriorating into a dire problem. Make sure to prepare for exposure to the cold and have the means to provide cover from the elements if pushed out onto your roof (in your kit, make sure to include tools to break out of your attic if need be). Wool blankets are hard to beat and in your home, the weight factor is a non-issue.
DON’T GO BACK BELOW
Think about the items you would be tempted to retrieve in the middle of a flood by going back into the water on the ground floor. Pack these where they will be used and before you need them to reduce exposure to bad water. Another life-saving reason to avoid returning to a flooded floor is possible electrocution. High water may reach electrical boxes. Listen for popping or hissing sounds as well as sparks if you must absolutely move about in these areas.
Prepare your home with all the essentials, like a good sump pump to provide additional drainage and have a plan to get your vehicle ready for movement. Residents of Florida rush to purchase plywood to board up windows for hurricanes. Ground floor windows in flood areas can be boarded up to prevent breakage from floating debris.
Since no castle can stand forever, bugging out may be the better option from the get go. If you are willing to prepare our home for a flood, prepare your vehicle too. Have gear ready to move your family if flooding is imminent and safe egress is possible. Keep road maps handy of evacuation routes and make it a habit to always keep your vehicle filled with sufficient gas to escape the flood zone.
ESCAPING HIGH WATER
If you cannot escape to safety in a timely fashion, you may be stuck in your home. Before moving to a second floor or the roof, take the time to move essential items out of lower levels. Make sure you grab a light colored bed sheet and a can of spray paint to create an emergency signal for your roof. The light color will contrast against your dark roof and alert rescuers of your presence. Keep to your plan and stay out of harm’s way. Help will come. Be ready to signal for them when they do.
There is a common misunderstanding a vehicle is unsusceptible to the effects of flooding. During drier times, our vehicles can prove to be reliable and the engines always turn over. The physical stature of our largest SUVs and trucks provides us a sense of security. However, the most reliable and sturdiest of cars, trucks and SUVs is no match for simple physics in action. Watch news coverage of flooding and you’ll see vehicles washed away and overpowered by floodwater. Only one foot of water can begin to float a small car and 18 inches of water an SUV. As vehicles drive through deeper and deeper water, the buoyancy of the tires affects the tire patch (the surface area of the tire in direct contact with the road). In deep, moving water, the tracking of a vehicle becomes affected and lateral forces can push a vehicle off the side of a road and into a ditch. Also, in deep water, the vehicle’s electronics and air intake can be drowned leaving you stranded in a worse situation than if you’d stayed in your house.
Another issue with driving vehicles around in flood water is unknown depth. Water creates a level surface regardless of changing depth. Flood water is rarely clear enough to see the bottom and washed away roads, obstructions and puncture hazards are easily concealed by murky water. The temptation is always present to leave the security of the home and check on the status of your neighborhood. Roads you have driven countless times before may be blocked off or appear to be completely abandoned. There is likely a reason for this. Don’t complicate your situation further with curiosity and vehicle issues.
WALKING IN WATER
For reasons similar to driving, walking through flood water is not advised. Cutting and trapping hazards may be impossible to see. Also, unseen current may be faster underwater than above. Only a half-foot of fast moving water can take a person off their feet. Should this happen, a person can be knocked unconscious, become hypothermic, suffer broken bones or severe lacerations in contaminated water.
“IT WASN’T RAINING WHEN NOAH BUILT THE ARK.”
The best option for travel in flooded neighborhoods is a shallow draft boat such as a rigid inflatable raft, aluminum skiff or canoe. As long as they are used far from the mainstream where they cannot be overpowered by the current, they can help navigate bodies of water formerly known as your neighborhood streets. Power is better than paddle so make sure to keep your engine in running order and have a supply of fuel handy.
WHEN THE WATERS RECEDE
At some point, nature will return to normal. Waters will recede and the challenge of survival continues during cleanup. Flood water has the capability to deposit tons of silt and mud along with a myriad of debris. In 2011, superstorm Sandy destroyed entire neighborhoods in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Homes were uprooted from their foundations and deposited in Long Island Sound and the Atlantic. The iconic Atlantic City boardwalk was washed away and some of the tunnels in Manhattan were flooded rendering the electronics running throughout inoperative. Even when nature returns to normal, life may not.
During the post flood cleanup, one of the immediate threats is structural integrity. Rushing water can carry heavy objects that travel with great momentum. Walls may be compromised and the ground underneath flooring may be eroded. Do not rush back into your home regardless of how much you long for the comforts of home. Smell for broken natural gas lines, listen for noises indicative of instability and scan your home for hazards. If you’re not comfortable doing this, have someone experienced in construction assess your home objectively.
If you are able to return to your home and if it appears there may only be minor flooding damage, a greater threat may exist unknown to you. Mold will grow if three conditions are combined, lack of sunlight, moisture and little air flow. To prevent health problems from mold, demolish and remove wet drywall or introduce sunlight or more airflow with fans. Spray down the wooden studs with mold inhibitor and let dry.
Yet another post-flood problem is bacteria. Raw sewage mixed with water and other biological waste can linger on surfaces. Never trust any surface that could have been in contact with flood water. This includes the dishes you eat on in your kitchen and the handles and railings you touch without even thinking. All that is needed to address this threat is wiping down surfaces with a bleach mixture. This correct combination is one part bleach to nine parts water. Apply it liberally with mop and bucket. Bacteria is found on many surfaces and one overlooked is our own clothing and skin. Take all clothing exposed to contaminated water and discard once clean clothes are available. Instead of covering your skin in a bleach solution, warm soapy water can be used to wash with. If running hot water is not available, it pays to have a small camp stove.
It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark. Floods may occur only so often but being ready for one is ongoing. Having a flood plan and acting on it can mean the difference between life and death. You shouldn’t wait until you’re over your head to learn how to swim and in a flood you shouldn’t wait until you’re swimming to learn how to survive.
Most American coastal communities have tsunami warning sirens, and that feature will save a lot of lives if and when the sea rises. The good news is that authorities can give you 7 to 10 minutes of warning of an impending tsunami. The bad news is, you’ll have just 7 to 10 minutes to make your escape. That includes up to one minute to recognize that the siren you’re hearing is the tsunami warning, another minute to grab your stuff and get to the car, if you’re quick about it, and then 5 minutes to drive to higher ground – along with every other person in town.
Every second you can shave off that initial response time puts you that much farther ahead of the traffic jam and that much farther from the shoreline.
With that in mind, do you have a tsunami bag packed and ready by the door – or safely stashed in your car?
A tsunami bag is easy to pack, and is really a variation on a basic earthquake preparedness kit, designed for mobility. The exact contents will vary according to your particular circumstances (rural or urban? warm weather or cold?) but here is a list of the basics:
> Clean and sealed drinking water
> Non-perishable food
> A knife, leatherman, or other survival tool
> A whistle to get attention
> Necessary medications
> Hygiene items
> Flashlight – with batteries stored separately
> First Aid kit
> Mylar emergency blanket
> Portable recharge battery for technology
> Road flares for signaling and fire starting
Over most of the continental United States, help will be less than 24 hours away, but that could change depending on the size and scope of the event that triggers the tsunami. Plan accordingly.
You can find some interesting information on the frequency of oceanic earthquakes at the National Tsunami Warning Center (wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov).
Water Rescue Technique:
“Reach, throw, row, go”
Remember this saying, as it will remind you what the correct order is for addressing a distressed swimmer (not unconscious/unresponsive) stuck in the torrents of any out-of-control water. During a flood or other water-related tragedy, consider it your responsibility to assist them back onto dry land. Here’s how.
“Reach” This method of rescue involves extending an arm, a stick, a branch or any other object to create a link between the rescuer and the distressed swimmer. This can be done from solid ground or from water, provided you are on safe footing and in no danger of going in yourself.
“Throw” The objective of this method is to send the distressed swimmer assistance in the form of a throw rope, extra PFD, seat cushion or anything buoyant that can’t be extended out by hand. The range of this rescue method is limited by the length of your throw rope and the strength of your throwing arm.
“Row” When it is unfeasible to reach or throw, the next best option for rescue is to row. This involves taking a watercraft (kayak, canoe, paddle board, etc) out to the distressed swimmer. The danger of this method is putting yourself closer to the distressed swimmer if your paddling skills are not strong.
“Go” If no other options are available, the final option is to go after the distressed swimmer by swimming. This is the direst of circumstances as cold water, current, rocks/obstructions and other unforeseen conditions may limit your ability to help. However, adrenaline and emotion (especially if the distressed swimmer is friend/family) will help you endure these conditions. Once the swimmer is reached, the next stage is rescue swimming and the rescue is only part over.
Dangers in the Water
IT IS A SIMPLE MISCONCEPTION that can lead to compounding disaster: When the flood is over and the water begins to recede, the danger is over as well. In reality, as the water level is returning to normal, a host of new dangers become evident. In your arsenal of equipment for when the water recedes, include rubber gloves, boots, thick and sturdy pants, protective eyewear, shovels, plastic bags, clotheslines, and an alternate and trusted water source.
DAMAGE AND DEBRIS
After a storm, it will take some time for the water to recede back into the ground. Meanwhile, if there were damaged buildings or displaced debris from the storm surge, it more than likely will be lurking just under the water’s surface. Nails, screws, shards of glass and metal, and a host of other sharp objects are waiting to be stepped on. Also, watch for downed power lines, broken gas pipes, damaged buildings and polluted drinking water. What to do: In addition to wearing proper shoes or, better yet, boots, consider including tough denim or canvas pants. In your emergency pack should be gloves (both work and latex) to protect your hands when you are walking in the water. Use a flashlight and not an open flame when in the dark. Don’t touch electrical equipment, and don’t drink water that didn’t come from a sealed container.
DISEASE AND DRAINAGE
The first victims to the infrastructure of a town during a flood is the sewer system. Because it mostly works via gravity, it is the first to become clogged and overflowed. Toilets, sewers, septic tanks, waste disposal sites will easily lose their contents, which will then mix with the flood waters. Depending on the severity of the flood, included in the mix might be dead bodies (human as well as animal) and hazardous or industrial chemicals and waste that will make for a very toxic soup. Also, beware of mold.
What to do: Avoid exposing any part of your body to the water just after a flood, especially any cuts or open wounds you might have. Wear latex gloves when handling any carbon-based debris in the water. Don’t rub your eyes, mouth, or ears, and wash all exposed skin with soap and warm water. Change clothes frequently.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Humans aren’t the only ones affected by a flood. After the water begins to return to normal, a variety of animals will be displaced, confused, and likely to lash out if cornered. Snakes, spiders, and vermin (rates, mice) that survived the flood could possibly be trapped in unusual places. Usually floods will uproot trees and/or weaken the tree’s root and branch system, making them especially dangerous as the supporting water drains away.
What to do: Be wary of small spaces. Don’t put your hands into holes, under items or behind areas that you can’t clearly see. Look and listen for signs of trapped animals. Stay clear of trees, especially if they are leaning or their root systems are exposed.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.