Gentleman’s Handbook, Vol. 9.4: Flash Flood Safety

Sneaky buggers, flash floods. Here’s how to match ‘em for wit.

By The Editors

Up the Creek Sans the Paddle, Literally
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22 January 2016

This is the Gentleman’s Handbook, a recurring series on all the lemons life can hand you and how to prepare accordingly. This month: Winter Survival.

When a large amount of water accumulates in a short amount of time (from, say, a thunderstorm), it moves aggressively to low ground. That’s a flash flood.

So when you see the water around you rise, it’s best to head to higher ground. Sounds simple enough. Knowing what’s rising water, though, isn’t. “Flash floods are tough to predict,” says Katie Garrett, NOAA meteorologist. “If there’s a warning, don’t go out, especially at night.”

They can be caused by any number of things: backed up sewers, dry ground, a quick rise in water volume, a levee breach. It only takes two feet to stall an engine and a few inches more to make your car buoyant enough to get carried away, leading to the number one cause of death in a rainstorm and primary motivator for the National Weather Service’s Turn Around Don’t Drown campaign.

As El Niño blows through over the next few months, many of the country’s dry areas (like the American Southwest) will get hit hard. Be prepared.

What am I looking for?
If you’re on foot and see a trickle building or culverts puddling, it’s time to make like a Chili Pepper and head towards higher ground. Then call for help and stay put. Don’t try to cross flood waters, as it could sweep you off your feet faster than you’d realize.

Say I’m in the car though...
If you’re driving in heavy rain and groundwater levels are trending in the wrong direction (i.e., you see puddles one minute and washed-out culverts the next), turn around. “If you’re in your car, you’re approaching it quickly and a little water on the road can be deceiving,” explains Garrett. “There could be a hole that you don’t see.” Also avoid streets covered in water, even if you’re in an SUV.

K. I turned around. Now what?
Garrett recommends having a communication plan in place with your loved ones. “This way if you’re on the way home and your route is blocked, you can stay connected with the folks at home.” It also helps to know high elevation routes in your neighborhood and beyond.

What if I get caught? How do I Superman out of that?
“You’re at the mercy of the water,” says Garrett. Translation: You’re in trouble. Sorry. Your best bet is to get on the roof of your car and pray for a helicopter to find you. Tempting as it may be, don’t try to swim to shore; you’ll likely drown in the powerful and unpredictable currents. Sit tight. Pray, if you’re the type.

Note: This pertains to experiencing a flash flood while in transit. For a comprehensive list of flood preparedness for the home, read what the United States Search and Rescue Task Force says.

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