Our planet has been described by NASA’s planetary explorers as the Goldilocks planet. Our solitary “blue dot” is just the right distance away from the sun—not too far and not too close—so that water is present in liquid form on its surface.
No other planet in the solar system has the traits necessary to hold water in liquid form; most are way too cold, like Neptune and Uranus, while the inner planets, like Mercury and Venus, are much too hot. The Earth does this in a big way, as 70 percent of its surface is covered in liquid water, trillions and trillions of gallons of it.
Without it, life on this planet would not be possible, as human beings are composed mostly of water and we need it daily to live comfortably.
The problem with water on our planet is that sometimes, there’s too much of it. Believe it or not, but the most common natural disaster on earth and the leading cause of fatalities by natural disaster worldwide for all of history is flooding.
Tsunamis, rainstorms and tidal surges kill more people than any other natural disaster combined. Because water is and has been an essential element to live, humans have always been in close proximity to lakes, rivers, marshlands and oceans.
Last year, in the United States, there were only 38 deaths related to flooding, but according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since 1940, there have been 3,309 fatalities due to floods in America (note that deaths due to hurricanes and rip tides, sometimes the cause of flooding, are listed separately), but the death toll worldwide for the same period of time is in the millions.
Overall, the odds of being caught in a deadly flood in the United States are far more likely than an earthquake, hurricane, tornado or blizzard.
“The problem with water on our planet is that sometimes, there’s too much of it.”
Watch For Signs
Listen to emergency services and weather reports. Storms that could cause flooding are easy for the news services to forecast. Unless a flood is caused by a dam breaking, storm flooding gives you time to respond accordingly as long as you are paying attention to the signs.
If you are camping near a river or stream, flash flooding can occur if a rain storm happens even miles from your location. Always seek high ground when camping, and when the weather turns sour and you fear a flash flood may threaten your camp, pack it up and move to a safer location.
Stay Or Go?
The decision to stay put or to bug out is made in most emergencies where the safety of the home is in question. If water repeatedly floods your home (or has flooded your city in the past), it may likely do so again, especially if the city’s engineers haven’t addressed the problem.
If your home has survived stronger storms in the past, riding out a storm in the safety of your home might be a better (and safer) option than risking the dangers the weather may pose outside your home.
If you planned ahead by putting together a very well-stocked emergency kit or a complete cache of survival gear, you should be well suited to maintain a comfortable living through whatever flooding may occur.
When building such a collection of supplies, think about providing the essentials first—those things that will be especially needed during a flood—such as extra (dry) clothing, gallon jugs of water (one per person per day), comfort foods and easy-to-prepare meals, a radio that runs on alternate power, and several sources of light (flashlight and lanterns).
Place this gear in a location that won’t likely fall victim to a flood, somewhere on a second floor or in the attic if you live in a single-story home.
In your flood kit, make sure to include tools to break out of your attic if need be, such as a hatchet/ax, a pry bar and a hammer. Wool blankets, tarps, ponchos and water boots are essential gear, too.
Mississippi River, 1927
In April and May of 1927, 26,000 square miles of land across seven Mid-western states were inundated with water from the Mississippi River. It killed 500 people and left 600,000 homeless.
Interesting fact: At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river was 80 miles wide.
Ohio River, 1937
The damage from Ohio River’s largest flood on record cost $20 million and killed 385 people. It left such a swath of flooding that some people were displaced 30 miles from their home.
Interesting fact: Twelve inches of rain fell in Ohio in only seven days.
Mississippi River, 1993
With $15 billon dollars in damages, this was the costliest flood in history, affecting nearly 30,000 square miles of land but only causing 32 fatalities.
Interesting fact: Though the flood reached higher levels and caused more damage, the Great Floods of 1844 and 1951 discharged more water into the Mississippi Valley.
Hurricane Katrina, 2005
Hurricane Katrina was this country’s most costly natural disaster, with an estimated $51 billion in damages and more than 1,800 fatalities. The highest winds recorded were clocked at 175 mph.
Interesting fact: 80 percent of the entire city of New Orleans was underwater.
Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado, 1976
Starting with a huge thunderstorm and rain event high up the canyon, dropping nearly 8 inches of rain in one hour, a nearly 20-foot wall of water swept down the canyon, clearing away everything in its path. One hundred forty-three people were killed.
Interesting fact: Because of this flood, building codes for canyons were forever changed.
Rapid City, South Dakota, 1972
In a span of only six hours on the night of June 9, 1972, 15 inches of rain fell over only 60 square miles of South Dakota land near Rapid City. It caused $160 million dollars in damage and killed 238 people.
Interesting fact: In the aftermath, the majority of the flood plain was converted to parks.
Galveston, Texas, 1900
The result of a hurricane that made landfall on September 9 with winds over 145 mph, the storm surge was the deadliest in history, killing around 8,000 people.
Interesting fact: Because Galveston was so damaged, Dallas became cultural and economic hub of Texas.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1889
A dam failure caused 20 million tons of water to be unleashed, devastating Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding area. It caused the death of 2,209 people. For the story, see ASG’s January 2015 issue.
Interesting fact: It is the most deadly flood in U.S. history.
Central Valley, California, 1861-62
The largest flood in California’s history happened between December 1861 and January 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated in water for 300 miles, averaging 20 miles in width. Over 200,000 cattle drown, devastating the economy, shifting it from ranching to farming.
Interesting fact: The state government was forced to relocate from Sacramento to San Francisco for 18 months.
Hurricane Camille, 1969
With winds over 175 mph and a storm surge of 24 feet, it flattened everything along the coast of Mississippi, killing 259 people and causing $1.42 billion in damages. Because of Camille, the clearer Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (Category 1-5) was implemented.
Interesting fact: The Army Corp of Engineers had to dispose of over 25 tons of dead cattle after the storm.
Prepare Your Home
With the threat of a flood looming in the near future, some cities will issue sandbags to its residents, usually free of charge. Study your landscaping around the house and decide where best to divert the water if a flood were to happen.
Even the smallest trickle of water can wreak havoc to your home. Prepare your home with a good sump pump to provide drainage, have a plan and keep your vehicle ready to go at a moment’s notice. Have gear ready to move your family if flooding is imminent. Keep road maps handy of evacuation routes (and alternate routes) and make it a habit to always keep your vehicle filled with sufficient gas to escape the flood zone.
Keep sheets of plywood on hand to board up any ground-floor windows to prevent breakage from floating debris. Have a generator handy and ready for additional power. It can be placed on an upstairs balcony or secured to the roof (never run a generator indoors).
If your house is flooded and you are stuck inside, never go into flooded areas like the basement or the ground floors for the sole reason of electrocution. High water may reach electrical boxes.
In your gear, keep a light-colored bed sheet and a can of spray paint to create an emergency signal for your roof.
Flooding While In Your Car
It only takes about 2 feet of water to float a car. As vehicles drive through deeper and deeper water, the buoyancy of the air in the tires affects their ability to maintain contact with the road. In even deeper water, the vehicle’s electronics and air intake can be drowned, leaving you stranded in a worse situation.
When at all possible, avoid flooded roads; even slightly moving water can easily sweep you away, regardless of how big your car or truck is.
1 in 500,000: Odds of dying in a flood
2.8 billion: People affected by flooding
539,811: People killed by flooding
361,974: People injured by flooding
4.5 million: People left homeless by flooding
4,093: Floods reported in the United States
131: Average deadly floods per year
69: Percentage of flood deaths in Southeast Asia
Having a flood plan and acting on it can mean the difference between life and death. According to the NOAA, nearly every county in the United States has reported and responded to some level of flooding in the last 30 years. It isn’t a matter of how or why, it is only a matter of when. Be ready for it when it comes.
After The Flood: 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 was damage to 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 (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 victim 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 and waste disposal sites will easily lose their contents, which will then mix with the floodwaters. 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. 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.
Critters, Flora And Fauna
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.
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 Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.