Understanding Flash Floods

By: Ben Nystrom


Flash floods are frightening and dangerous because they are sudden and strong. Since they usually start and end in less than six hours, it is nearly impossible to prepare for a flash flood. How, then, does one protect one's family from these frightening occurrences? The best defense you can have is knowledge: know what causes flash floods, what surrounding areas are susceptible to flooding, and what to do if you find yourself in a flash flood situation.

What is a Flash Flood?
A flash flood is a rapid flooding of a low-lying area of land, usually near a river or a stream. Most flash floods occur after heavy rain, often in areas that don't usually receive much rainwater. Flash floods may also flow when man-made or natural ice dams break. In very rare instances, volcanic activity may melt glaciers, triggering flash floods. When the ground can't absorb the rain as fast as it is falling, a flash flood will occur. Excess water then runs into streams and rivers and flows quickly downhill. Depending on geography, flash flooding can happen as far as thirty miles away from the original site of precipitation.

Flash floods are one of the most dangerous types of natural disasters. According to the National Weather Service, flash floods kill more people each year than lightning, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Surprisingly, the speed of flash floods is not their most dangerous quality. Indeed, most flash flood-related deaths transpire when people underestimate a flood's power. Even a flood of just two feet can be swift and powerful enough to carry away an SUV-sized vehicle. The majority of flash flood fatalities occur when people attempt to ford flooded areas in their vehicles. Many other deaths are attributed to collisions with hidden debris, such as branches or logs that are pushed along by flood water. When it comes to avoiding a flash flood-related injury or death, the best advice comes from the US National Weather Service: "Turn Around, Don't Drown."

Flood Damage Preparation
Due to their sudden nature, it is challenging to prepare for a flash flood. Still, there are a few precautions you can take if you live in an area that is prone to flooding. The most commonly flooded areas are southern and eastern states like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Desert areas of the West, such as Nevada, are also flash-flood hotspots, since arid soil can't hold much water.

The most obvious precaution to take against flash floods is to stay up-to-date on weather patterns and flood warnings. Do not take any chances; if there is a chance a flood may hit your home or business, get out immediately. You can prepare for flash floods before any warning is announced by storing valuables and sentimental items in high places. A flood may be powerful, but if you keep valuables high, there is a smaller chance of water damage. Finally, try to save pictures of your valuables, in case they do get damaged. Having pictures of your house, car, furniture, and other assets will help speed up the insurance claim process following any disaster. (By the way, you do have flood insurance, right?)

Flash floods are dangerous, unexpected, and unpredictable. They can take lives, destroy homes, and cause extensive damage. Fortunately, with a little preparation, a flash flood doesn't have to be devastating.

~Ben Nystrom, 2009

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