Flood Preparedness: Safety Considerations Before, During, and After a Storm
Floods are a coast-to-coast threat year round. In Canada, floods are the 2nd most frequent natural disaster, happening five times as often as wildfires. Excluding droughts, up to 90 percent of natural disaster damage that occurs in the United States happens because of floods and debris flow. Floods can happen almost anywhere, given the right conditions. Often, they can be deadly. From 1940 to 1999, the average number of people killed in the United States due to flash floods was 110 people per year. And roughly during that same time frame there were 241 floods in Canada that were considered "significant disaster events". From 1988 to 1997, the annual average cost to repair flood damage was $3.7 billion.
Simply put, floods can be devastating. Many people facing an impending flood are unprepared for the dangers it could present. They may also be unprepared for the clean-up and recovery that must follow. Knowing what to do before, during and after a flood event can save your life and the lives of those around you.
Table of Contents
- Before the Flood
- Home Damage Prevention
- Prevent Soil Expansion
- Improve Home Drainage
- Seal Your Home
- Install a Sump Pump
- Prevent Backflow
- Install a Generator
- Relocate Appliances if Needed
- Household Preparedness
- Make an Evacuation Plan
- Organize Important Documents and Possessions
- Prepare an Emergency Kit
- Audit Your Insurance Policy
- If a Flood is Imminent
- During the Flood
- After the Flood
- Re-entering the Area
- Insurance Considerations
- Clean Up
- Water Removal
- Wear Proper Attire, Maintain Good Hygiene
- Know When to Hire a Professional
- Disinfect Every Surface
- Moving Back In
- Flood Resources
Before the Flood
Proper flood preparation can save homeowners hundreds or thousands of dollars. It's good to understand that flood readiness begins well before a storm is forecast. Making home repairs to improve drainage and water resistance, stocking up on disaster readiness products, and becoming educated about flood safety can help you be more prepared if a flood occurs.
Some people assume that, because they don't live near a body of water, they don't need to engage in flood preparation activities. Anyone can fall victim to a flood. Floods can occur after unseasonably heavy rains, when snow melts, when dams break as well as when hurricanes strike. Floods can happen at nearly any time, often with little or no warning.
Even a person who lives in the driest desert climate could at some point or another find themselves in a location where a flood is imminent. Understanding the dangers and knowing how to stay safe in a life threatening situation can make survival possible.
Some places are more at risk for floods than others. You can increase your awareness by reading or watching local news and generally maintaining awareness of your surroundings and local happenings.
Flood maps are available online for a number of different communities. For those living in Canada, The Canadian Disaster Database is where flood maps and flood information can be found. And in the United States, the US government's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) produces a flood map that rates neighborhoods and areas by levels of risk.
Flood maps can also change with time, often because of human activity. Drainage practices, land use, community development, changes in terrain and even wildfires can increase or decrease the level of risk over time in different regions. Even homeowners who think they know what their risk level is should know to check back with flood maps occasionally as changes take place in their community and surrounding areas.
Many communities have alert systems in place for area residents. The U.S. Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA) is a service provided by the U.S. federal government. During emergencies, alerting authorities may send messages to cell phones in a specific area. During times of extreme weather and possible flooding, the National Weather Service (NWS) will also send alerts to people in at-risk areas.
In Canada, the National Public Alerting System (NPAS), known to the public as "Alert Ready", provides community organizations with the ability to warn citizens of local disasters in real time. Warnings can come via text and other mediums.
In both countries, local communities may have sirens, radio warnings, posts on social media pages, text messages and television warnings to advise community members of potential problems. Tuning in to these services can help you stay safe in the event of a disaster.
What Can You Do to Stay Vigilant?
- Get to know your neighbors. Information about emergencies can spread quickly via neighbors who know and look out for one another.
- Check out community social media pages. Look on the websites for your local police department, fire department, town hall and community Facebook or Twitter feeds.
- Know what the alerts mean. Find out from your town hall or community emergency service providers what sirens indicate and where to find more information when a siren sounds in the area.
Flood Warning Vs. Flood Watch - What's the Difference?
A warning is an alert that indicates a flood is taking place. A watch is an alert that indicates conditions are right for flooding, and one may take place soon. During a warning, citizens must take action to protect themselves from the flood. During a watch, citizens must be vigilant and ready to take action if needed.
Home Damage Prevention
Homes that are exposed to flood waters can suffer a variety of damage, from mold and mildew to structural damage and even foundation damage. If you're a homeowner, much of this can be prevented or minimized if you take action beforehand to improve drainage in and around your property.
Prevent Soil Expansion
Soil can become compact and hard when it becomes very dry, as in times of drought. When this happens, the soil can shrink away from the foundation of the house. When water returns, the soil may expand, causing the foundation to crack and become unstable.
As a homeowner, you can prevent this from happening by wetting the soil 6 inches (15 centimeters) away from your home's foundation, to a depth of about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters). Do this periodically throughout any time of drought to promote soil stability until the rains return.
Improve Home Drainage
Your home's drainage and gutter systems must be cleaned periodically in order to function properly. Failure to clean gutters can result in standing water near the foundation as well as leaks inside the home.
To prevent this problem, clean your gutters at least once per year if not twice annually, depending on the rate at which debris builds up on your specific property. If it's in your budget, install gutter covers to promote proper drainage with less professional cleaning.
Seal Your Home
During a flood, water can seep into homes via cracks in the foundation and siding, causing leaks, basement floods and other significant structure-damaging problems.
To seal your home, apply weather protection sealant around basement and ground floor windows, doors and walls. Seal small cracks in the foundation with caulking. Have large cracks (those approximately 1/4 inch or 6 millimeters wide) investigated by a structural engineer to find out if the home's foundation is solid or if more in-depth repairs are needed.
Install a Sump Pump
Sump pumps suck water out of a hole (called a sump) and move the water to another location. Sump pumps are typically installed in basements that have moisture problems. Battery-backup sump pumps are best because they continue to function even when the power goes out, which is common during severe storms.
If you believe your basement or property could benefit from a sump pump, have a licensed contractor perform an evaluation of your property and install a sump pump in your basement if needed.
During times of flooding, sewers can fill and back up into homes. A check valve is a device that enables water and waste to flow one direction through a pipe, but not in the opposite direction. Check valves prevent this unwanted backflow from entering the home.
If your sewers are susceptible to flooding during heavy rains, have a check valve installed by a professional plumber to ensure that it will work properly when the time comes.
Install a Generator
Generators enable critical systems like the sump pump, refrigerator and stove to continue functioning even when the power goes out. Installing a generator also makes it possible to charge a phone, run a radio and turn on the television. This is important if you wish to receive updates and alerts during a power outage.
If you're leaning towards wanting a generator installed on your property, have this work done by a professional electrician, so it's properly in place and can safely function if a flood occurs.
Relocate Appliances if Needed
Below-ground water heaters, furnaces and electrical panels are all at high risk in the event of a flood, because the lower levels of the house will flood first. To protect these critical systems, talk to a professional about relocating them to a higher floor.
Household preparedness begins with a good plan for evacuation and communication in the event of a flood.
Make an Evacuation Plan
Determine the fastest (and safest) route to high ground from your house. Often, floods come with some warning and people have a window of time to prepare if need be. However, flash floods can occur very quickly. Planning in advance can make it easier to exit the house quickly with everyone and everything you need.
Organize Important Documents and Possessions
In the event of a flood, many possessions may be lost. Keep documents in one central location to be gathered quickly in the event of any emergency.
Waterproof containers protect documents from flood waters, while digital copies can be held on a thumb drive or housed in a secure cloud server that can be accessed from any location at anytime. Valuables and sentimental possessions should also be kept in one easy to access location, to be gathered quickly and brought to safe ground in the event of a flood.
Prepare an Emergency Kit
A well-prepared emergency kit should keep a family safe and self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. Emergency kits need to be checked annually and expired items must be replaced at that time. A typical emergency kit will include:
- Water - one gallon of water per person per day
- Food - three day supply
- Hand crank flashlight, radio and cell phone charger (a 3-in-one device)
- Flashlight and batteries
- Local maps
- Moist towelettes, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products (if needed)
- Garbage bags and plastic ties
- Waterproof matches
- Change of clothes and shoes
- Medications and any important medical devices
- Emergency whistle
- Thermal blankets
- First aid kit
- Cell phone and chargers
Audit Your Insurance Policy
A normal homeowners or renters insurance policy does not cover flooding. Know what's on your insurance policy. Perform an annual audit to ensure that your possessions are properly protected, and if need be, get additional coverage with flood insurance. Don't wait until a storm is imminent to do this; insurance companies place a moratorium on insurance policies when a large storm is forecasted for an area. Often not allowing new policies to go into effect for 30 days or more. The only way to ensure your house and possessions are protected is to do this in advance.
If a Flood is Imminent...
You know a flood is coming, but you have time. Preparing your home can minimize overall damage and expense once the flood is over.
Prepare Your Home's Gas, Electricity and Fuel
Turn off your furnace and outside gas valve to prevent a gas leak in your home. Secure your outside propane tank by strapping it down or by securing the anchors that hold it in place. Safeguard your electrical appliances and equipment by turning off the electricity.
Move Into Upper Floors
Move furniture and electrical devices into upper floors to save them from flood waters. Toxic chemicals like cleaning products can pollute water in the lower floors, making your home dangerous to walk through for you and first responders. Move cleaning products and other chemicals into the upper floors.
Prepare for a Sewer Back Up
When flood waters arrive, sewers fill and overflow. Often, sewers flood homes, causing devastating damage. To prevent this from happening, you can remove any toilets from the lower floors of your home and plug their sewer drain. If you'll be sheltering in place and all of your toilets are disconnected, prepare a temporary toilet in a 5 gallon bucket for everyone's protection.
Disconnect the eaves trough on your house, if it's connected to your sewer line, then plug the hole to prevent sewage from entering your home. If you can't find a plug that will fit your eaves trough connection, use sandbags or polyethylene barriers. Plug any floor drains in the basement. Keep extra sandbags and polyethylene barriers on hand to plug other drains if they begin to overflow.
Charge Electronics In Advance
With your electricity off, you'll have a hard time charging your hand-held devices. Charge all tablets, cell phones and radios, and keep extra batteries on hand. When your hand-held devices aren't in use, keep them off or at least in low-battery mode to keep them operational for as long as possible. Do not use your mobile devices for entertainment, but for informational and communication purposes only.
Stock Up on Water
Find all water bottles, empty gallon jugs and other containers in your house and fill them with water before shutting off your water supply. Fill your bathtub to have water on hand for washing yourself and clothing.
During the Flood
When the flood occurs, be sure to stay tuned to local radio stations, television stations or local alerts to get updates and instructions from local authorities.
- Leave in the event that the authorities tell you to do so.
- Use routes specified in instructions from emergency authorities.
- Stay out of any rooms where water flows over the electrical outlets or cords; stay out of any room where you can hear buzzing or popping noises from electrical system.
- Stay out of all flood waters; it only takes six inches of moving water (15 centimeters) to knock over a grown adult.
- Drive through flowing water.
- Drive over bridges if water below is very high and flowing quickly.
- Stay in the lower sections of your home, if you're sheltering in place.
It's said that over 50% of flood-related deaths occur when someone decides to drive or walk through flood waters. It's easy to underestimate the power of fast-moving water, and that mistake can be fatal. If you're faced with flooding water, turn away from it and stay on land. If you must shelter in place because all roads have been overcome by flood water, then do so.
Flood waters are often accompanied by thunderstorms, which come with heavy rain, lightening and so on. To protect yourself from lightning, stay indoors when you can hear thunder or see actual lightning. Avoid touching things that are made of metal, and do not use your landline telephone.
Never drink flood water, or water that may have come into contact with flood water. If you need to drink water from your plumbing, check local advisories to find out whether that water is safe.
Conserve all battery power on handheld devices, especially if your electricity is shut off or if you're experiencing a power outage.
Never allow children to play in or around flood water. Flood water often contains toxins, animals and debris and can move very quickly, which could lead to drowning and death.
If advised to leave, don't delay. The longer it takes for you to leave, the more you risk becoming cut off from help or trapped by flood water. Take an emergency kit and any important documents with you. Put a note in your mailbox or in your home that states when you left, where you went, who came with you, and any contact information (such as your cell phone) that you might have. Bring pets with you, as it could be a long time before you're able or allowed to return to your home.
If possible, use only one vehicle to transport your family or members of your household. This prevents you from being separated, and also reduces the number of cars on the road. When driving, follow all designated routes. Shortcuts could be blocked or affected by the flood.
If you come upon a roadway that has been flooded, do not try to drive through it, even if you believe the water is very shallow. Water depth can be deceiving, especially at night, and it only takes a foot of water to sweep away a vehicle. Even large, heavy vehicles can be overcome by fast-moving water.
If You're Trapped
Becoming trapped in a flooded area can be terrifying. Maintaining a cool head during this event can save your life and the lives of other people in your group.
If you're sheltering in place in a home that is being flooded, do not allow yourself to become trapped in an attic. If you must, head to your roof and await help there. Find a way to signal that you need help, either by spelling words on your roof with sheets, paint or with something else that can be easily noticed from a distance.
If you're trying to escape in your vehicle and are trapped on all sides by washed out roads, then you'll have to find shelter where you are. When trapped, whether on the road, in your own home, or in an unfamiliar home, the most productive thing you can do is to signal for help. Using the reflection of a mirror or forming large rocks, bright pieces of clothing and even tarps into letters that can spell out the word HELP or SOS.
After the Flood
Once the flood waters stop rising, many people assume they are safe. Although they may be out of immediate danger from flood waters and drowning, there are many dangers that persist after the flood water begins to recede. Mold, mildew, polluted water, lack of food and safe drinking water, lack of access to resources and lack of shelter are all hazards that people face in the wake of a flood. Even people who are thoroughly prepared for a potential flood will face a long, difficult recovery when the storm ends.
The first step to beginning recovery is returning home. Often, authorities will prevent people from returning to their houses until the flood waters no longer pose a significant threat. It is at this point that the recovery begins. Here's what you need to know.
Re-entering the Area
Be cautious when returning to a home that has been recently flooded. Do not return before the authorities advise that it is safe. Each flooded home may present its own hazards.
Before you're able to enter your house, have it evaluated for safety. After a home goes through a traumatic event like a flood, there are many ways that it could be unsafe. Knowing the signs of a problem can help you decide whether your home is safe or not after a flood occurs.
- Foundation damage: Look for cracks in the foundation, buckling walls, floors or roof as well as cracks in the interior or exterior walls.
- Sewage damage: A foul odor in the home could be an indication of a sewage backup; check all drains for signs of raw sewage.
- Mold: It takes mold 24 to 48 hours to begin to grow after a flood occurs, often causing respiratory problems for people inside.
- Debris: Even if the home's structure is sound, debris like broken glass and metal inside the house could pose a risk for anyone who enters.
- Animals: Scared pets as well as snakes and other wildlife can be displaced from their hiding places during a flood and seek shelter in your home while you were away.
Once you're able to get back in your home, it's time to make a claim with the insurance company. Hopefully you've saved a copy of your homeowners insurance and flood insurance policy. If you haven't, you'll have to get a copy of the policy from your insurance company. Keep copies of all receipts throughout the clean up process.
Take pictures of the damage in your home, but don't begin repairs until you've confirmed with your insurance company it's alright to do so. Cleaning up too early in the claims process could impact your claim, and may even cause your insurance company to deny your claim.
Educate yourself about your rights as an insurance policy holder. Contact your state government's insurance department to know red flags to watch for when dealing with an insurance company. If you feel that your insurance company is ruling against you because of ambiguous language in your policy, you may be entitled to damages. Work with an attorney and your state's insurance regulation office to protect yourself.
The clean up process can be slow and frustrating. After a major flood, contractors in the area will be busy for weeks or months following the event. Many homeowners find themselves managing some of the clean up and repairs themselves.
Water removal comes first. Time is of the essence at this stage. The longer the water sits inside, the more damage is done to the house.
The method used to remove water generally depends on how much water is in the house. Air drying the home only works if the water damage is minimal. Open your doors and windows. Use rags to sop up the water and wring them outside. Wear gloves and rubber boots to protect your body from possible toxins in the water.
If your house is submerged in water, a combination of fans, pumps and vacuums may be used to suck out the water and dry off the surfaces. Contact a disaster clean up contractor to do this work for you. Disaster clean up contractors have more tools and can do this more efficiently than most homeowners on their own.
During the drying process, open the walls to allow them to dry properly. If the walls are not allowed to dry, they could develop mold. Proper drying can take up to a month.
Wear Proper Attire, Maintain Good Hygiene
Flood water can contain nearly anything. Pesticides, gasoline, cleaning products, sewage, E. coli, hepatitis, salmonella and tetanus can all be found in flood water. People working in flooded areas must take great care to protect themselves from harmful bacteria and chemicals.
Wear rubber gloves, rubber boots, chemical-protective outerwear and eye goggles before doing any work.
When washing up, use bottled water or water that has been boiled for 10 minutes. Never drink flood water.
- Remove carpeting (and carpet pads) immediately and dispose of it as soon as possible, as carpeting generally does not survive flooding.
- Move cautiously to avoid falling on debris or disturbing the surface of the water.
- Limit contact with flood water.
- Keep children and pets away during the recovery and repair process.
- Watch for snakes and insects, as both can come out during floods.
Know When to Hire a Professional
Some repair work should only be done by a contractor. Flushing or cleaning drains, replacing drains and air ducts, electrical repair and mold remediation are all examples of the type of work that should be done by a licensed, experienced professional. Wallboard repair and replacement, insulation replacement, wood floor repair and appliance repair are also examples of the type of work that should be left to a contractor.
Disinfect Every Surface
Flood water leaves a layer of bacteria on everything it touched. Dishes, cans of food and utensils must be disinfected or disposed of before they can be used again. Disinfecting happens in different ways depending on the item being disinfected.
For example, boil canned food, pots and utensils for 10 minutes. To disinfect dishes, place them in a solution of 2 tablespoons of bleach for one gallon of water, and leave them in that solution for 10 minutes. Cabinets must be disinfected with a chlorine bleach solution before dishes can be put back.
Never eat from dishes or use utensils that have touched flood water, unless you have disinfected the surface. To find out what needs to be done in order to disinfect all surfaces, work with a remediation specialist. Do not allow children or pets to return to the house until the house is certified safe by a professional.
Moving Back In
It may be a long time before you're able to move back into your home. Even with minimal damage, your home may not be inhabitable for weeks or months. If the damage is extensive, you may be shut out of your house for a year or more.
When Is It Safe to Come Back Home?
Your home should be safe to inhabit again when each contaminated room is mold-free and fully disinfected. Some repairs may be ongoing, but most important is to ensure that the home has a safe drinking water supply, a functioning bathroom, and a functioning kitchen. If portions of the home are not ready, they should be left closed off from children and pets until they're ready.
Can You Speed Up the Recovery Process?
Many people are overwhelmed by the process of working with federal agencies, insurance companies and remediation professionals. The more complex the clean up process, the longer it will take. Keeping detailed records, returning phone calls quickly and maintaining good organization can help. Proper preparation before the storm can also make the recovery process faster, but even with good prep, the process is slow and often difficult.
Types of Floods
Around 75% of all Presidential disaster declarations are flood-related. Familiarizing yourself with the following flood types may help you identify the flooding dangers in your area.
- Flash floods typically develop within about 6 hours of the original cause of the flood. Flash floods often start with heavy rain, but sometimes these disasters can occur because of a dam break, levee malfunction, heavy snow and other unfavorable conditions. Flash floods are especially common in urban areas, where the ground does not absorb water as easily as it does in rural areas.
- River flooding usually occurs when a river overflows its banks into surrounding farmland, countryside or urban areas. River flooding can occur because of problems like rain flow, snow melt and dam breaks.
- Coastal flooding and storm surges cause the highest percentage of all tropical cyclone-related deaths. Storm surge and coastal flooding occurs because of a combination of high winds and heavy precipitation. Although storm surge primarily affects the beaches and land that touches the ocean, inland flooding is a great danger as well.
- Wildfires can cause the ground to become water repellent, which in turn causes flooding. Even after small storms, flooding can affect homes miles away from the wildfire. The severity of the fire and steepness of the terrain can impact the severity of the flood.
- An ice and debris jam is a condition that occurs when ice freezes over or enough debris build up where a river becomes clogged. When ice melts, it overflows the river and can cause a flood. This type of flood is most common in regions where winters are harsh and very cold.
- Snow melt flooding typically occurs when low temperatures cause the soil to freeze, heavy snowfall covers a wide area and then a rapid warming or rainfall causes snow to turn into rain. The rain and snow melt cannot be absorbed by the frozen soil, and the result is a flood.
- Dry wash flooding occurs when heavy rain falls on dry, compacted land. Instead of being absorbed by the soil, the water rushes to the lowest point (often a dry river bed or canyon), and then a flood occurs. This is a problem commonly seen in deserts and severely drought-stricken areas.
- Dam breaks and levee failures, can happen for a variety of reasons. Foundation failure, cracks, problems with the spillway and inadequate maintenance are all common reasons that dams fail. Dam failures may occur suddenly and unexpectedly, or after years of poor maintenance.
Other Safety Resources
Whether you're a homeowner or a renter, living near water or in a dry canyon, these resources can help you stay safe during a flood event. The following websites provide information about evacuation, how to stay safe and where to get help.
- National Flood Association - This non-profit organization promotes helpful lawmaking and policymaking to support the National Flood Insurance program.
- Red Cross Safe and Well - The Safe and Well registry reconnects people who are separated from loved ones following a disaster.
- National Weather Service - The National Weather Service is an authority on weather in the United States.
- FDA Food Safety - This FDA Food Safety and Food Facts sheet helps people find safe sources of food and water during and following a flood.
- Wireless Emergency Alerts - The Wireless Emergency Alerts System enables authorized government officials in the United States to deliver emergency messages to cell phones in a targeted geographic area.
- FEMA Flood Map Service Center - The FEMA Flood Map Service Center provides helpful flood information and flood maps to people in the United States.
- Flood Ready Canada - The Flood Ready Canada website provides people of Canada with practical tips and helpful information about flood survival in Canada.
- Disaster Relief Organizations - This list of Disaster Relief Organizations can help people suffering through a flood.
- National Flood Insurance Program - The National Flood Insurance Program is the flood insurance program servicing homeowners all over the United States.
Be Ready, Be Safe
Flood safety starts with good planning and careful research. Whether you're a homeowner or renter, floods can impact you. Taking care of yourself, preparing for the worst and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency can help you survive when disaster strikes. Floods can be deadly, but if you're ready and informed when one happens, you'll be better positioned to protect yourself and the ones you love.