Flooding is a natural part of our planet’s ecosystem, but for inhabitants of flood-risk areas, high water is the harbinger of destruction and even death. In America’s most flood-prone states, like California, Florida and Arizona, up to 25 percent of housing units sit within a 100- or 500-year floodplain. Flooding can occur nearly anywhere rainfall touches, and as climate change shifts toward more dramatic weather, the damage caused during the wet season is becoming exponentially worse for residents of these areas.
Water damage from flooding can destroy your home and vehicle. Six inches of moving water is enough to sweep you off your feet, and two feet of moving water can make a full-sized car float. In places like New Orleans, Puerto Rico and New York City, the harsh realities of flood damage have seen people lose everything after getting overrun by high water from hurricanes and tropical storms.
In addition to the risk of long-term damage to your possessions, the short-term realities of surviving a flood can be daunting. Navigating flooded streets can be extremely dangerous and is not always a viable solution. Staying put has a different set of risks, and might require you to get by without power for several days.
1. Understand Your Flood Risk
If you live in a floodplain, you probably know it. Maps like those available through FEMA and the NYU Furman Center can provide information about the risk of flooding in different regions of the country. However, for many people, flooding is just a fact of life. It’s a risk that comes with living in the area they can afford or that they wish to call home. With all indicators pointing to our weather only becoming more extreme, you should have a plan to prepare for the next flood.
Floodplains fall into 100- and 500-year categories based on how frequently you can expect severe flooding in the defined area. The first step in actively preparing to face a flood is understanding how at-risk you are. We recommend visiting resources like the Furman Center Flood Zone Hazard Map, which can give you an accurate depiction of your risk of flooding at a high level, with the ability to zoom in on detailed areas down to the street level.
2. Know How to Stay Informed
If you pay attention to weather forecasts like most adults, you probably have some idea of when to expect wet weather. While it can be easy to rely on television and the internet, simpler forms of communication — specifically, radio — tend to be favorable in a flood scenario. Your county or city weather service will issue a flood watch when weather conditions show signs of potential flooding. If the flood watch changes to a flood warning, you should be prepared to move quickly or get your home ready to withstand flooding.
Make sure your entire family is familiar with emergency phone numbers to call for your area to check for evacuations and flooding updates. If internet access is available throughout the flood, you will be able to receive updates via social media and using online resources from NOAA, FEMA and others. These agencies offer phone services you can sign up for beforehand as a redundancy. You should also have a battery-powered or hand-crank radio on hand to receive updates if you lose power and internet connectivity dies.
3. Be Prepared to Evacuate
Severe flooding is challenging for most people to ride out comfortably. Know the quickest path to high ground from your home, and have a vehicle fueled up and ready in an area where it won’t be off-limits if you need to get out quickly. Know where to find all medication your family needs, as well as all essential documents. Store these items ahead of time in waterproof containers so they won’t get damaged if things get wet before you leave home.
Consider keeping a bug-out kit stashed in your evacuation vehicle to make your exit more efficient, as well as a survival kit in place in your home if you can’t evacuate. Talk to your family ahead of time, so everyone knows where to gather and what route to use in the event of an evacuation. During an evacuation, keep your radio on and listen for updates. If you get separated from loved ones, consider having them coordinate with friends or relatives to ensure everyone leaves in time.
4. Make Your Home Flood-Ready
Consider you may need to stay with your house through the flood, but that even if you don’t, you’ll want to have a safe, dry place to come back to after it subsides. That means you need to plan to protect the home itself, as well as provision it for the people who will stay there. Making your home flood-ready can be a long process, so you might want to get a head start on some of these things before the wet part of the year. For example, homes elevated on stilts are naturally safer than those closer to the ground. Move appliances like your water heater, furnace and electrical breaker to the house’s upper floors to limit the chance of their exposure to floodwaters.
If possible, do not install electrical outlets lower than 12 inches off the ground. You should know where your home’s breaker box is and how to disable all power if needed. A gasoline generator can be an invaluable resource during a flood, and is something homeowners who live in flood-prone areas should think of as a must. Make sure to keep a supply of usable fuel on hand if you do have one. It is possible to rig your car up to function as a generator in a desperate scenario. However, not everyone will have the equipment or know-how to do this, so if you don’t have a permanent one installed, consider a visit to your local hardware store ahead of time to purchase a stand-alone unit and some gas cans.
In your home’s plumbing, install pressure-sensitive check valves that will stop floodwaters from entering all drains, showers, faucets and toilets. You can use plugs as a last resort — however, thinking ahead and using valves is much safer. Use sealing compound to seal any cracks in the basement or first-level concrete walls.
5. Protect Your House From Rising Waters
Next, move to preparing the house to be safe from floodwaters approaching outside. You can construct a levee or berm using packed earth with enough lead time. More high-tech solutions include inflatable barriers like the AquaDam perimeter flood barrier, which provided a temporary water-filled floor barrier. Seal off all windows and any vents into the house that are close to ground level.
You should augment your barricade with sandbags, which can be an arduous task, so plan your time accordingly. A good rule to keep in mind is that it takes about an hour for a team of two to build a 20-foot wall of 100 sandbags. Use this basic math to work out the time it will take to complete a barrier for your entire home when making the difficult decision to stay or evacuate. If you keep animals or livestock, consider moving any fencing or enclosures so they have access to high ground to get away from floodwaters if needed.
Since finding burlap bags, shovels and sand can be a challenge in a flood, it’s a best practice to have these items ready to go ahead of time and stored in an easy-to-access place. Sandbags not only help hold back water, but can absorb some of what hits the ground, making them invaluable in a home-protection situation. In some communities, their local government makes sandbags available to residents, so check online to see if there’s a way to have some delivered for you before things get bad.
If you have extra time, consider moving furniture in the home to a higher floor to make your stay more comfortable and reduce the chance of water damage. Remove any floor coverings like rugs and welcome mats from the ground floor of your home and move them to higher ground. Leaving them will almost certainly result in their destruction.
Flood insurance, while it can be expensive, can make the difference between losing everything and a swift recovery for those who live in problem areas. If you know your home is at risk of severe flood damage, consider speaking to your insurance company about coverage. Ultimately, not even the best-prepared house will be 100 percent safe from a serious flood. Insurance can help you and your family rebuild or relocate and avoid a painful reality if things get severely damaged.
6. Stock Food and Water
Clean water and food are essential if you’re going to remain in your home, and you should have plenty of both. Fill bottles with fresh water and store them somewhere that is not at risk of flooding, so you won’t need to risk getting wet to retrieve your supplies. Make a stockpile of canned and nonperishable food items you can prepare without power. As a backup plan, have at least one method of purifying water that doesn’t rely on electricity, such as a gravity filter or iodine tablets, so you and your family won’t have to go without drinking water. Floodwater is never safe to drink.
Don’t integrate the food you’ll rely on during a flood with your regular pantry. Instead, store it separately, so you don’t use it all, and set a reminder to check the dates on items, so you don’t find they’ve expired right when you need them. You can consider storing your emergency rations in a watertight container such as a large cooler or chest, which might make it easier to transport if you need to relocate the food to a higher area in preparation for a coming flood.
As you’ve probably already concluded, pre-packaged sealed items that don’t go bad quickly — such as soups, canned meats and vegetables — are the safest items to eat during a flood. You can use military rations such as MREs if you have them, as well as meal-ration bars packaged in a way that seals them from contact with floodwater. Avoid items with snap closures or twist-off caps, which can become contaminated more easily. If at all possible, do not consume any food that touches floodwater, as there can be waterborne bacteria and other contaminants such as gasoline and industrial chemicals and human waste swept up in the debris.
If you have power and want to attempt to cook during a flood, make sure to clean and disinfect all kitchen equipment. This tip is crucial if you need to boil water to purify it. If your home draws water from a well, it is not safe to use following a flood. Continue to drink and cook with your emergency water supply until you can verify the well water is safe to drink. Disinfect and test any well water before using it.
7. Know How to Ride out the Flood
All the preparatory work in the world can’t stop those floodwaters from coming, so being safe in a flood also means understanding how to safely endure the hours or days when you have to remain in your home. If you are in a secure location to stay indoors, turn off the power and make sure you have your emergency rations near you. Have your radio, phone and any other communications devices ready, and pay attention for updates from authorities. If you need to venture out, wear waterproof clothes and use a car with ground clearance unless it’s not an option. If you get caught on a flooded road, leave the car and move to high ground.
Avoid beaches and riverbanks, as well as any low spots where floodwater may pool. Notify your friends and relatives of your location as soon as possible, and if you did evacuate, only return to your home after authorities declare the area safe. The aftermath of flooding can be disastrous. However, if you take these precautions, you stand the best chance of getting through it safely and preserving your home in the best condition possible.
Note: This was a guest post.