Floods can occur under many different circumstances, such as a water leak in your home, nearby dam failure, heavy rain and thunderstorms, melting snow, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Even if you live in a low-risk flood zone you are still not immune to this type of disaster.
For years I lived in a quiet mountain town and never experienced a serious natural disaster, other than the occasional winter snow storm of course. But last Valentine’s Day was different.
Rain was in the forecast but no one really prepared for what was about to happen. At some point in the morning, a flash flood warning was sent to all cellphones but most people ignored it and continued on about their day. Schools stayed open and people went to work as usual. Before noon, however, the entire city was under several inches of water and it didn’t look like it was planning to stop. Due to high winds, power lines were being broken, hundreds of trees fell (several on homes), mudslides and debris were flowing from the hills, and the roads became rivers. Many people’s homes flooded that day, either because of the rising water levels or because of leaky roofs. Even though it took several months and many thousands of dollars for our town to recover, we are grateful that no one perished due to that flood.
I tell you this story because I was the “a flood will never happen to me” type of person. This event took me by surprise and woke me up to the reality that you can’t beat nature. The only thing you can do is prepare for it.
In this guide we’ll go into the safety measures that you can take as well as some tips to help lessen the effects of flooding on your home.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for floods, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here.]
Interesting facts on floods
- Flooding is the most common, costly, and deadly natural disaster in the United States.
- Floods and flash floods can occur in all 50 US states and all areas are considered flood zones.
- The worst flood in US history was the storm surge that followed the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Nearly 8,000 people died and the estimated cost was over $602 million.
- Six inches of moving water is enough to sweep you off your feet and two feet of moving water is enough to sweep your car away.
- The costliest flood in America is said to be the Great Mississippi and Missouri River Flood of 1993. The destruction was due to months of heavy rain, beginning in May and ending in September of 1993. The approximate cause of the disaster was $30.2 billion.
Flood terms you should know
Flood - A flood is when an area becomes submerged due to excess of water that the nearby bodies of water (lakes, rivers, etc) can no longer contain.
Flood watch - A flood watch only means that you should be prepared to expect a flood because the likelihood of it happening is high. A watch should give you enough time to gather your emergency supply and get to a safe place. Take flood watches seriously and prepare to evacuate, especially if your home is in a high-risk and low-lying area.
Flood warning - A flood warning is when a flood is occurring or bound to occur. At this point, you should have already started making evacuation plans. Make sure to stay away from any bodies of water and get to higher ground right away. Flooding can last several days, weeks, or months. Make sure to evacuate with your pets!
Flash Flood - A flash flood is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a sudden inundation of an area that typically doesn’t receive water. In most cases, it’s caused by excessive amounts of rain that have led to dam failure or overflowing rivers and streams. A flash flood is typically a short-term event but still extremely dangerous because they flow at high speeds and are rather unpredictable. A flash flood may occur up to 6 hours after it has rained.
Flash flood watch - A flash flood watch only means that the current weather conditions are likely to cause a flash flood within the next 12 to 36 hours. Begin your preparations and get ready to evacuate once the watch becomes a warning.
Flash flood warning - This means that a flash flood is underway and could reach you within the next 30 to 60 minutes. Stay away from any body of water and evacuate to higher ground as soon as possible.
Urban and Small Stream Flood Advisory - This advisory alerts the public of certain areas that are closed due to flooding. It does not imply wide-spread flood warnings, but rather highlights the risk in certain parts of the city to prevent people from traveling in that direction.
Base Flood Elevation (BFE) - Base flood elevation is calculated when flood-proofing a home and building new structures up to the flood building code. It determines the level that flood waters are expected to rise if a flood occurred in the location in question.
Current live map of floods
The National Weather Service provides an interactive map on their website of real-time flood data, including the probability and forecast.
Similarly, the USGS website offers a Water Watch map with information on flood watches. They also offer a Flood Inundation Mapper that provides critical information on flood watches and warnings for quick response, such as when to evacuate.
FEMA’s website features a map where you can input any address and it searches for flooding in that area, as well as the hazard level you can expect.
One of my favorite online tools for floods is a map that shows you the risk in your area, including the estimated cost due to flood losses in your community, and how much the average claim is. The map allows you to punch in your address and it shows you what your flood risk is specifically, as well as your loss potential. You can even get a printable copy of your report for free.
What to expect during a flood
Who monitors flood activity?
What are some of the warning signs of a coming flood?
The most obvious sign should arrive on your cell phone or local news station. Flood and flash flood warnings are dispersed quickly over the media. Physical signs that can hint towards the development of floods is excessive amounts of rain, so much so that the ground becomes saturated and no longer able to absorb the water. Tropical storms, hurricanes, storm surges, and tornadoes are also known for causing flooding because they bring a lot of rain in a short amount of time. Stay alert with the weather conditions.
Do sandbags keep water out?
Do sandbags stop water?
How long does it take for flood waters to recede?
Can I drink tap water after a flood?
How to mitigate floods
There are many factors that can influence the risk of flooding so it’s recommended that you look at the flood maps and elevations of your community to see whether or not you’re at risk. You can find these documents at your local county office as well as online by searching for your address under FEMA’s Flood Hazard tool.
An additional flood map resource, also offered by FEMA, can be found here. Just enter an address, or latitude and longitude coordinates and you will get a report with information regarding that location which can be shared and downloaded.
Since the topography of an area changes over time, you should expect that your risk of flooding will also change. Stay updated with potential risks that may arise, especially after significant natural disasters or disruptions to the terrain.
The following tips will help you become prepared for a flood in order to reduce its impact.
- Retrofit your home to make it flood-proof. For instance, you should install your utilities above the Base Flood Elevation to prevent major water damage to those systems. Relocate or elevate costly appliances, such as refrigerators, washers, and dryers. Install interior or exterior flood walls. For more ideas on protecting your home during floods, check out this in-depth guide or this short guide by FEMA.
- Replace the carpet with tile floors in the ground level of your home. This will make it faster to clean-up and dry the floor if it got flooded.
- Seal any vulnerable spots around your house where the water could otherwise seep through.
- Make sure that your important documents and other valuables are not stored in a basement. Instead, store them in a place where it’s not possible for the water to reach.
- Prepare an emergency kit and develop a family reunification plan.
- Get flood insurance. In most cases, homeowners and renters insurance does not cover floods.
- Learn how to survive in the event that you’re caught in the flood waters. You may want to take swimming classes at a local pool or learn techniques to help you survive in such a moment.
Flood safety tips
Before a flood:
- Place flood barriers, such as sandbags, around your house to ward off the water if there’s a possibility of flooding. Learn to do this correctly so you don’t cause drainage to your neighbor’s home.
- Turn off the gas and the main electricity switch of your home. Unplug all the electronic devices and appliances attached to the outlets.
- Elevate all your indoor electronics, outdoor machinery, furniture, rugs, and important documents to prevent or minimize water damage. If you have a two-story home, try to move your computers and other important electronics to the top floor of the house. If you have a single-story home, you can use concrete blocks, or any other creative method, to elevate your valuables.
- Close and board up the windows to your basement and any rooms on the first story of the home.
- Prepare your car with a full tank of gas. In the event that you have to evacuate, nearby gas stations might either be packed with people or closed altogether. Always keep at least half a tank of gas in your car.
During a flood:
- Get to higher ground!
- Keep your pets with you.
- Do not drive, walk, or swim through standing water or flooded streets.
- Do not walk near downed power lines, especially if they’re touching water. If the lines are still active, you might get electrocuted by walking into that puddle. If you see a downed power line, report it right away.
- Be careful where you walk. Flooding causes debris and mud to be swept around. Make sure you don’t step on muddy waters or rubble since it that may contain nails or other sharp objects that can pierce right through your feet. Mud can also become very slippery.
After a flood:
- Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
- If your home experienced flooding, consult with a professional prior to turning the main power switch back on. You want to be absolutely sure that it’s safe to do so.
- Do an in-depth inspection of your home. Hire a professional to prevent missing critical places, including checking your septic tank or sewer system.
- Keep all appliances unplugged until they have been fully dried out and inspected.
- Make sure gas leaks are not present before lighting a match or turning on the stove.
- Before you move or touch anything, take photos of your home and document the damage. These can be used as evidence for your insurance company once you file a claim. Call your insurance to make sure that this is enough proof before you start the clean-up process.
- Expect to see more snakes and insects than usual. Displaced animals seek out new shelter when floods and other natural disasters disturb them. Carefully remove debris from your home with protective gloves since there might be an unexpected inhabitant using it as temporary shelter. Do not attempt to handle a stray animal.
- Move any damaged property to an area where things can begin air-drying. Spaces with high humidity and stagnant air encourage mold growth, so make sure it’s dying in an open well-ventilated area.
- Toss any food that has come into contact with floodwater or looks damaged due to the high humidity level.
- Anything that is made of paper or cardboard material is very fragile. Do not open books or separate documents until they have air dried completely first.
- Don’t pump the water out of your basement too quickly. If your basement is flooded, there’s a high chance that the outside of it is as well. If you remove the water too soon, the exterior walls may collapse with the pressure of the water that has built up on the other side. Consider hiring a professional to help you with this.
- Use fans or a dehumidifier to begin ventilating the basement or other rooms that experienced flooding. Remove the damaged carpets to prevent mildew or mold from growing on the floor and around the walls. Move furniture to an open area where it can begin to dry and keep the walls clear to ensure a faster drying time. Call a flooding expert if you need help drying out the basement or other rooms and valuables in your home.
- Cleaning out your house, after drying it out, may take a long time because your home and belongings require careful handling. You should use protective gloves and clothing. Remember to clean the inside of your electrical outlets (make sure the power is off when you’re doing this!) as well as all the nooks and crannies.
Flood preparedness kit must-haves
- Water storage barrels: Barrels like these are made from heavy-duty BPA-free plastic so they won’t come apart like other water storage methods may. Water is essential to your survival and you should store a minimum of 1 gallon per person (living in your household) per day for a recommended minimum of three days. It’s preferred if you store enough water for 14 days. That is why this barrel is perfect because it’s easy to store and it can hold 3 day’s worth of water for a family of five.
- Water purification kit: After a flood, there will be an excess of water, not a shortage. The problem is that the water will be contaminated from the sewage plants, industrial plants, dumps, debris, mud, and other objects floating around. Purifying your water is the only way to be sure that you’re consuming potable water. Whether you choose to purify it with a few drops of bleach, treatment tablets, or the convenient Lifestraw, make sure you have a purification method available.
- Long-term food storage: Freeze-dried food provides an easy solution to those who don’t have time to keep rotating their food supply. Sure, cans and dried goods are easy to store, but they’re heavy and rotating them every year or two is more of a hassle than it’s worth. Long-term food storage provides you with the convenience of having a food supply that will last you 25 or more years without the loss in nutrition nor quality. The flavors are amazing and the amount is enough to keep your family full until the next meal. They are easy to prepare, so save yourself the trouble of opening cans and soaking beans- check out this easy food solution and add it to your preparedness pantry.
- Plasticware, such as paper plates, cups and cutlery. This will make food prep and clean up much easier. Be sure to store several large plastic bags to throw everything away.
- Stove and fuel kit: This easy-to-assemble kit provides you with sufficient fuel to cook at least 16 meals (that’s the cheapest option). With 24 cans, you can cook up to 96 meals! I’m sure you can use it for several cups of coffee too! The best think about the Bobcat cooking fuel is that it’s clean-burning, meaning that it doesn’t release toxic fumes so it’s safe for indoor use. Just make sure there are no gas leaks before lighting it up.
- A comprehensive first aid kit: This should contain at least the minimum supplies to treat wounds until medical personnel are able to assist you.
- Prescription medication, if necessary.
- Bug repellent: After a flood, there may be a lot more insects because of their displacement. Prevent viruses by protecting yourself with insect repellent.
- A complete bug out kit: Make sure to include the essentials you need to survive a minimum of 72 hours without outside assistance. Each person in your household should have their own bug out kit.
- A whistle: This is essential for alerting others if you’re trapped or are in need of help.
- A headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries: If you can get a headlamp that would be preferred because it gives your hands free access to do other things.
- A NOAA weather radio: This is the best way to stay updated with the watches and warnings! You can download the app if that’s easier.
- A toilet and sanitation kit: Let’s get real. Going number 2 is a big problem when the plumbing system is covered in several feet of water and temporarily out of service. Sanitation should be one of your priorities post-disaster, especially if you want to prevent illness. Prepare yourself with a waste management kit that seals just about everything in a convenient bucket. Trust me, with a kit this clean and convenient, you'll definitely smell the difference!
- Wet wipes: These work efficiently in maintaining hygiene when you can’t shower every day.
- Important documents folder in a sealed waterproof container. You will need your important documents to file insurance claims quickly and being your recovery process.
- Waterproof gear, including solid rubber boots, gloves, and pants.
- Two or three extra changes of clothes: When you’re working in a post-flood scenario, you’ll likely get wet and dirty. Avoid staying wet for long periods of time, as this can cause you to become sick.
- Always remember to include additional supplies to meet the needs of your pets, babies, young children, and elderly or disabled family members.
I hope you don’t feel overwhelmed- I know I just flooded you with so much information (pun intended)! To make flood preparedness and recovery easier for you, I made a checklist that you can download and print by clicking on the button below. This list includes all the essential items you should have in the event of a flood as well as how to stay safe before and after.
Print your flood preparedness list and save a copy with your go-bag or important documents folder for quick access!
Is the idea of flood-proofing your home overwhelming? Don't let it be! Check out this handy guide that is not just simple to understand but also easy to implement.
Worried about the thought of losing important documents during a flood? This post highlights all the documents you need to protect during any natural disaster, as well as the best ways to keep them safe from damage.
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Hurricane Mitigation — FEMA
20 Important Flood Facts — Restoration Master
How are floods predicted? — USGS
What are the worst floods in American history? A rundown of the top 30 — USA Today
The Costliest Floods in America — The Atlantic