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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Flash Flood Follies

By Catherine Powell

Last week I talked about hurricane preparedness.  This week I want to talk about flash floods.  When most people think of flash floods, they picture a torrent of whit water roaring down a canyon carrying trees and debris in a torrent.  Anyone who was born before 1970 remembers the flash flood that Mount St. Helen produced when it erupted on March 27, 1980.  While most people will never have to deal with a flood of such intensity, they do happen even in a state as flat as Florida.  To keep you from doing something foolish, I thought I’d take the time to tell you how to deal with them.

Water you gonna do?

All it takes to unleash a flash flood is a lot of precipitation and a slight decline.  I can recall one in my neighborhood that was caused by a thunderstorm seven years ago.  All I recall was looking out the window to see a rush of water taking the trashcans on my street and sending them on a block-long water slide.  For several hours afterward, cars in my neighborhood were forced to roll slowly though water that came almost up to their door-frames while trailing wakes behind them that made them look like boats.  While flash-floods like these are little more than a nuisance, it doesn’t take much to have one of these freaks of nature do harm to property or even endanger your life.  Here’s what you need to know about flash floods.

      1.      Uboat? You Bet. – While a highway can become waterlogged during a downpour, it’s the off-ramps that have a tendency to channel enough runoff to cause a localized flash flood.  Once in my youth, I wound up with a submerged car when I decided to exit the highway during a squall, only to have the water back up high enough to enter my car’s tailpipe.  This caused the engine to stall.  Before I knew it, water started seeping through the door-frame into the interior of the car.  Thinking fast, I told my friend to climb out the window so we could push the car to safety before it turned into a fish tank. Unfortunately, he panicked and opened the door which let in the flood.  While the car didn’t submerge completely, the carpet and seats were ruined.  So were the electronics in the dash. If I had only hesitated on the ramp before entering the pond created by the runoff, I wouldn’t have had to buy a new car a couple weeks later.

2.      News Flash - I also recall a TV news report of a flash flood about a decade ago that inundated Las Vegas.  The water rose so fast that the town was forced to shut down a number of casinos.  What was more dramatic was a woman whose car flooded so completely that she was forced to climb onto its roof to await rescue.  Fortunately for her, the car wasn’t carried away by the flood and a rescue boat was able to get to her a half hour later.  The thing that gets most people in trouble when it comes to flash floods is they don’t understand how quickly the water can rise and how fast it can move.  If the stranded motorist had chosen to try to walk across the flooded road, her story could have had a very different ending. 

      3.      Hurricane Hazards – Being the hurricane capital of the country, Florida can turn from bright and sunny to storm central in a heartbeat.  While a passing thunderstorm can unleash a flash flood if the conditions are right, hurricanes are even better at amassing water.  Not only can they deluge your neighborhood with torrential rain for hours on end, they can also pack a storm surge that can swamp your neighborhood in minutes flat, particularly if you live on or near the beach.  Choosing to weather a hurricane in a home that’s near the ocean can be a deadly mistake.  Most of the fatalities caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 came courtesy of a storm surge that submerged shore communities in New York and New Jersey.  Many of the homeowners who lost their lives made the mistake of thinking that the hurricane wouldn’t cause that much damage, only to come to regret it later when their homes were washed away. 

Image courtesy
      4.      What should you do if the water quickly starts to rise? – If you ever find yourself in a situation where the water starts rising, you need to think fast.  Waiting only gives a flash flood time to rise higher and move faster.  All it takes to knock a person off their feet are six inches of moving water.  In the US, floods claim an average of 75 people per year.  While this is tragic, what’s even more so is the fact that many of the lives that were lost could have been saved had the victims not made a fatal error of trying to cross a flooded road or tried to drive their vehicle across a waterlogged street.  Since water levels in a flash flood can rise a foot or more in a few minutes, your best bet to avoid disaster is to refrain from crossing the stream it at all possible.  Better to seek higher ground than to risk being swept away.

      5.      What should you do if you get swept off your feet by flood water? – Another mistake that many flood victims make is to try to swim against the current.  Better to cut across the stream to try to find something to climb upon to get out of the flood than to attempt to fight the torrent.  If you find yourself being carried away by flood water, look around for any trees.  Many a flood survivor was rescued the morning after a flash flood by clinging to a tree all night long.  While structures may seem tempting, beware the undertow created below the water that can suck a swimmer down.  Also beware of anything electrified like telephone poles or light poles, since they can pose an electrocution hazard.

      6.      What to do if your vehicle gets swept away? – While being carried away by flood water is terrifying, so too can being swept away in your vehicle by a flash flood.  If you suddenly find your car being swept downstream, don’t panic.  While your vehicle may become a waterlogged mess, unless there’s a risk of it submerging completely, you’re better off staying in it than by trying to swim for it.  That being said, if your vehicle does submerge you could be trapped in a watery grave if you can’t open the windows or the doors.  Trying to break a car window is next to impossible once the power goes out.  Your best bet is to open a rear window before the window motor shorts out and the car fills with water.  Like the lady in Vegas, once the water reaches the top of the door, your only hope is to call 911 and then climb atop the vehicle to wait for rescue.
      7.      Move to higher ground. – As I pointed out in last week’s blog, one Hurricane Katrina survivor weathered the storm unscathed by driving his car up to the sixth floor of a casino parking garage.  While the structure took a pounding, it stayed erect, which was more than a nearby casino barge did.  Anytime you realize that a flood is imminent, your best bet is to seek higher ground to avoid a watery grave. 

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more ways to save on flood insurance, check out her website at


  1. Better to lose some time than your life. Flash floods are no joke.

  2. You don't need a hurricane in Florida to get a flash flood. If we get heavy rain 5 days in a row, it could trigger a flash flood somewhere in our area.


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