Dangerous Weather: Why You Should Never Drive During Flooded Road Conditions

Red Car Floating In Flood Waters In Oklahoma

Kingfisher, OK, August 19, 2007 -- This red car was washed off the highway and its occupants had to be rescued when Tropical Storm Erin flooded the area. FEMA was in the area helping residents recover from the flooding. Marvin Nauman/FEMA (source)

 

Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other thunderstorm related hazard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous flood waters.[1] A few years ago, 3 bodies of two elderly people and an 11 year old girl were recovered from a minivan that had been swept away from rising flood waters across a rural road near my hometown.

 

US Weather Fatalities

Graphic courtesy of The Weather Channel (source)

 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), flash flooding is the number one weather-related killer in the U.S.[2] If you were to ask people what weather phenomena causes the most weather related deaths, most may say tornados, hurricanes, objects falling or debris from high winds, or lightning strikes. But, it’s not trees falling on houses from high winds, tornados barreling through towns, or hurricanes themselves sweeping over coastal regions that cause the most loss of life and destruction of property, it’s flooding that actually kills more Americans over time; on average more than 100 people a year.[3]

 

Flood Related Deaths Graphic

Graphic courtesy of The Weather Channel (source)

 

Just to make you realize how dangerous flooding conditions can be, here’s another statement according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR); flooding kills more than any other single weather hazard, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Most flood deaths are from flash floods, however, and about half of those are because people try to cross swollen streams or flooded roads.[4] People attempting to drive through flooded road conditions is the culprit for most weather related deaths; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that over 50% of flash flooding deaths occur when vehicles are driven into hazardous flood waters.

 

US Weather Fatalities

 

Texas leads the nation most every year in flood related deaths and damage

 

Surrounded by water

Robert Flores waits on top of his car surrounded by water on South Gessner near Bissonnet Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Houston. It took more than 8 hours for his car to be towed. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) (source)

 

If you think your state has it rough, Texas probably has you beat when it comes to flooding damage costs and fatalities. According to the U.S. Flood Insurance Loss Statistics, Texas ranked #1 with total payments of $2,249,450,933.34 during the date range of January 1, 1978 to September 30, 2001; the most costly city in Texas being Houston at $641,722,736.10 within that same date range.[5] U.S. flood fatalities from 1965 to 1995 were many. Texas recorded a total of 612 flood deaths, the majority of them being vehicle related, ranking Texas #1 in the country ahead of California at 255 fatalities.[6]

  

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Driven To Disaster

 

Video courtesy of rickylm YouTube Channel - Texas driver swept away trying to pass flooded road (source)

 

The fact is that flood waters are a force not to be reckoned with. This is especially true when you are in a vehicle and come upon flooded road conditions. Just as little as 6 inches of water on the road can reach the bottom of most passenger cars, and people are unaware that most vehicles can be swept away in as little as 18 to 24 inches of moving water. Even in relatively shallow water, tires can act as flotation devices, lifting up big vehicles and sending them downstream. It takes only two feet of water to float a 3,000-pound car.[7]

As I had mentioned previously, 3 people we killed from my hometown from trying to cross flooded road conditions in their minivan a few years ago. It was believed that the driver of the vehicle tried to cross a low water crossing when the current swept the car away. The driver possibly thought that they would be able to make the crossing, not knowing the exact depth or current conditions of the flooded waters. Water speeds or currents can be deceiving to the eye. What might look like a calm murky water stream could actually have turbulent, fast moving water and debris below the surface causing your vehicle to be pushed along with the moving waters, possibly into more dangerous, deadly, deeper waters.

The point is that if you ever come upon flooding road conditions it’s simply not worth the risk to cross it, even if you think you can. In doing so, you may be driving yourself right into disaster, not only risking your life and limb, but any passengers in your vehicle, any onlookers or witnesses who may try to intervene and help, as well as rescue personnel. One error in decision could affect multiple lives.

 

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Nightmare Driving Conditions due to Weather in Recent History

 

Stranded Motorists

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press - Motorists are stranded along I-45 along North Main in Houston after storms flooded the area, Tuesday, May 26, 2015. (source)

 

Hurricane Katrina Flooding

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the morning of August 29, 2005, in Louisiana, it was rated as a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It had already been raining heavily before then, and there had already been speculation from experts and officials that the storm would bring in so much rain and storm surge that the water would cap the levees in the areas of New Orleans that flooding would occur. No one expected that the levees would eventually fail and collapse below their designed height.

The day before Katrina hit, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation order. By nightfall, almost 80 percent of the city’s population had evacuated. Some 10,000 had sought shelter in the Superdome, while tens of thousands of others chose to wait out the storm at home.[8] Even with the technology available in 2005, meteorologists and officials were able to track and predict tropical storms many days, even weeks prior to landfall. Predictions as soon as 24 to 48 hours from hurricane landfall can give very accurate predictions as to its intensity and possible damage, giving fair warning to all in an area of the path of an impending hurricane. So, yes, one should never plan on being on the road if such weather conditions are predicted, but what of other areas and states out of the direct path? Could there still be a danger to someone who lives tens or hundreds of miles away, or as far away as another state from the eye of the storm?

The majority of the fatalities from Hurricane Katrina were in Louisiana, followed by Mississippi. Actual statistics of deaths and injuries are complicated by the fact that some people were treated or died while evacuating the regions that the storm would directly affect. We all know how devastating Katrina was to Louisiana, but not many are aware how it was able to affect people directly and indirectly in other states too. Fourteen deaths from Florida's Miami-Dade, Broward, and Walton counties were identified as being directly, indirectly, or possibly related to Hurricane Katrina during August 25 - September 1. Of the 14 deaths, three persons died in car collisions with fallen trees in the road.[9]

Road conditions could not be more terrible for a driver than during a massive weather phenomenon, such as a hurricane that could create and leave deadly debris, create storm surges and produce torrential rains that cause flash flooding. This is why it’s imperative to be aware of weather and road conditions before your make a decision to be out on the road.

 

 

Memorial Day Flood

Houstonians and anyone living in the surrounding areas is no stranger to flooding. With any heavy rains, roadways in the Houston and surrounding areas can overflow within a short period of time, creating bad and unsafe road conditions. The Memorial Day flood of 2015 in the Houston area was just another one of those common flooding events in the long history of flooding in the area. According to the Harris County Flood Control District’s network, rain totals of up to 11 inches were measured in southwest Harris County over Brays Bayou and Beltway 8.[10] It was said that Houston first responders had conducted over 500 rescues during this weather event.

The torrential rain that created flooding issues caused at least 4 deaths, sending normally tame rivers and bayous surging past their banks, inundating streets and homes, and leaving roads littered with hundreds of abandoned, ruined cars. City officials said the fatalities included a man who may have had a heart attack while pushing his car out of floodwaters, and a person whose body was found inside a towed vehicle.[11]

Normal, everyday stresses can be a burden on many, but with added stresses of dangerous road conditions, hard rain, and flooding can add much unneeded and preventable stress on a person who may not be able to cope if they were able to avoid being on the roadways. Many if not all accidents are unforeseen, but if there is even a tiny sense of possible poor road conditions for you as a driver; work, errands, and other activities you think you may need to attend to can wait. All things can be made up for later, but one life is all you get and it simply isn’t worth risking yours or anyone else’s if driving conditions are unsafe.

Texas Flooding, May - June 2016

 

Video courtesy of mnabrown YouTube Channel - Granbury Flood 5-31-16 Car Swept Away (source)

 

During the months of May to June 2016 in Texas, there were a series of heavy rain events. A parade of thunderstorm clusters across central and southeast Texas on May 26-27 laid down a swath of 10-20 inches of rain from just southeast of the city of Austin to the far northern suburbs of Houston.[12] An observer east of Brenham, Texas, measured an incredible 20.50 inches of rain on May 27, alone, the wettest day on record, there dating to 1897.[13] Conditions had gotten so bad that it was reported that nine soldiers stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, were killed when their truck was washed away by flooding during a training exercise.[14]

Hurricane Harvey Flooding

 

Not going anywhere

Photo courtesy of Reuters Richard Carson (source)

 

Hurricane Harvey was a 2017 Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in parts of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. Upon the NHC resuming advisories for Harvey at 15:00 UTC on August 23, a hurricane watch was issued in Texas from Port Mansfield to San Luis Pass, while a tropical storm watch was posted from Port Mansfield south to the mouth of the Rio Grande and from San Luis Pass to High Island.[15]

It stalled around southern Texas for days as a weakening hurricane, producing catastrophic flash and river flooding. Harvey then downgraded to a tropical storm Aug. 26.

By Aug. 27, winds died down to as much as 40 mph, but the storm dumped a year of rain in less than a week on Houston and much of southeastern Texas.

By Aug. 29, two flood-control reservoirs had breached, increasing water levels throughout the Houston area.

Harvey made its third and final landfall Aug. 30 near Port Arthur, Texas, and Cameron, Louisiana, bringing widespread flooding.[16]

Emergency managers urged local coastal communities in the storm’s path to stay put and not attempt to drive on the roadways. Once roads are flooded, driving actually becomes one of the most dangerous things you can do. Most people who die in heavy flooding, it turns out, die in their cars.[17]

Almost two out of every three flood-related deaths between 1995 and 2010 (not including Hurricane Katrina) occurred in motor vehicles, according to Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert for the Weather Channel. Here’s how that happens.

 

NOAA Animation of Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey made landfall late Friday, Aug. 25, over Rockport, Texas, as a Category 4 storm. (©2017 courtesy of NOAA) (source)

 

Driving injuries and deaths occur in floods when:

  • Drivers hit pools and spin off the road
  • Drivers hit water, stall, and get stuck as water is rising
  • Drivers get carried off by moving water
  • Drivers hit trees in the road
  • Drivers drive into collapsed sections of the road

These conditions can cause fatal accidents on their own but can also lead to (horrifically) drivers or passengers drowning while trapped in or attempting to escape their vehicles.[18]

  

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What you should do if roads are flooded

 

National Weather Service Tweet off Twitter®

 

If you happen to be driving during conditions that may cause flooding on roads and come upon a flooded roadway, your best option is to STOP and DO NOT ATTEPT TO CROSS.

  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that over half of flood-related drownings resulted from a vehicle driving into floodwater. Drivers who get stuck in floods aren’t crazy or really into risk-taking. Like most people, they just underestimate how dangerous a low-water crossing can be. Sometimes you can’t determine the depth of water if the road dips or if there aren’t any good reference points around. Even if it’s apparent that the water is only a few inches or a foot deep, drivers don’t realize how serious the consequences can be for driving through water. At the very least, it can result in some serious vehicle damage, and at the worst can result in you or one of your passengers drowning.[19]

Remember these numbers:

  • 6 inches = water is high enough for tires to loose traction and slide. This means loss of control of vehicle
  • 12 inches = water is high enough to make most cars float. Your tires are basically floatation devises, but your vehicle is too heavy to keep you floating like a boat, plus you can forget the ability to steer properly at this point.
  • 2 feet = water is high enough to carry your vehicle away into deeper, and possible more turbulent waters. At this point you’re in an extremely dangerous and possibly deadly situation.

Better yet, just don’t drive if roads are flooded.

What you should and shouldn’t do if you drive into flood waters

 

Swept Away Truck

 

Flash floods can happen with little to no warning. If you find yourself in a situation where you have driven into flood waters the following are some things you’d want to keep in mind to do and not do in such a situation:[20]

  • Stay calm. The worst thing to do in any dangerous situation is to panic. Panic causes the ability to lose control of thought and bodily functions. The mind is a sensitive tool, and panicking causes most people to think unclearly, and thinking unclearly in a life or death situation could easily cause the loss of life.
  • Turn on your headlights and hazard lights. What you want to do is try to make you and your vehicle to be seen, especially if you’re caught in flood waters at low light or dark.
  • Unlock your doors.
  • Unbuckle your seatbelt. You do not want to keep yourself strapped in. It may make yourself harder to get free later or when rescue personnel come to render aid. Your vehicle may also drift into deeper waters or water levels may rise and being strapped into your seat may prevent you from escaping your vehicle and possibly drowning.
  • Take Jackets and outer clothing off. You don’t want to weigh yourself down when you have to exit your vehicle into the water. Loose clothing also creates a risk for yourself to get caught in debris in the water, like tree limbs and branches which could drag you under and cause drowning.
  • Lower your window slowly. Most electric windows should work unless the car is completely submerged in water. If you can lower the windows, climb out and get to high ground and call 911.
  • If the windows will not open, you’ll have to use a door to get out. But you won’t be able to open a door until the water pressure is equalized between the outside and the inside of the car. This means you’ll have to wait for water to enter the car and fill up to about your neck level (this sounds terrifying, but this is the only way the doors will open). Once the doors are open, swim to safety and call 911.
  • DO NOT TRY TO SAVE POSSESSIONS.
  • DO NOT TRY TO BREAK WINDOWS. If water pressure has not equalized, glass will explode inward toward you or other occupants.
  • DO NOT WASTE ENERGY trying to open doors until the water pressure is equalized. Remember, you won’t be able to open a door until the water pressure is equalized between the outside and the inside of the car. This means you’ll have to wait for water to enter the car and fill up to about your neck level.
  • Once out, DO NOT STAY WITH YOUR CAR. Get to high ground.
  • DO NOT STAND ON THE ROOF OF YOUR CAR. If your car is swept away, you’ll be carried away with it. You could also fall and injure yourself if the car shifts abruptly.
  • DO NOT RETURN TO YOUR CAR if you think the water level is going down. Water levels could rise without warning. Allow emergency personnel to tow your vehicle to a safe place.
  • Most importantly, DO NOT PANIC.

 

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Turn Around, Don’t Drown

 

Turn Around, Don't Drown

When Flooded Turn Around Don't Drown Street Sign (source)

 

Turn Around, Don’t Drown® was originally coined by National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Hector Guerrero to raise awareness of the dangers of driving through floodwaters, the Turn Around, Don’t Drown program rolled out in Texas in 2003. One year later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) trademarked the phrase and the program rolled out nationwide.[21]

Also known as TADD, it is a National Weather Service campaign to warn people of hazards of walking or driving a vehicle through flood waters.[22]

Learn More On Flood Safety, Awareness, & Survival

A Personal Story: Our Harvey Experience

 

Tomball, Texas Street Flooding during Hurricane Harvey 2017

Flooded street Tomball, Texas, August 29, 2017. Photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)

 

What do I remember about Hurricane Harvey? The rain wouldn’t stop. My wife was 3 months pregnant with our first child at the time, and I knew that with what would occur during the week of Harvey would be a storm recorded in the history books. It would be a story I’d get to tell my future daughter for years to come.

Location: Tomball, TX (Northern Harris County)
Date: Wednesday, August 23, 2017

I had been watching the local weather on KPRC Channel 2 News; an NBC affiliate station based out of Houston, Texas, since the early morning hours to learn more about a possible hurricane coming into the area. I had been keeping watch on the news for the past few days really, since it had seemed that we were about to be in a situation that most East Coast, and Gulf Coast residents dread every year come mid to late summer and early fall; the possibility of a hurricane threat at the peak of what’s known as hurricane season.

The Atlantic Hurricane Season is a period in a year when hurricanes usually form in the Atlantic Ocean.[23] Over the years, the time period for exactly when the official hurricane season begins and ends has shifted, but the full hurricane season is June 1st to November 30th for the Atlantic and the Caribbean each year.[24]

Today, the NHC (National Hurricane Center) was resuming advisories for Harvey and a hurricane watch was issued in Texas from Port Mansfield to San Luis Pass in Galveston, with the addition of storm surge watches along most of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Location: Tomball, TX (Northern Harris County)
Date: Friday, August 25, 2017

There had been additional watches and warnings posted on the morning of the 24th, and there was a hurricane issued from Port Mansfield to Matagorda. Harvey’s intensification phase stalled slightly overnight.  Harvey would soon resume strengthening and quickly become a major hurricane and attain Category 4 intensity later in the day. After gathering more information in the morning from the news on the threat of the storm, I had decided that it was about time to begin weather preparations around the house, especially outside; tying down items that high winds could blow away, and doing my best to protect items such as lawn mowers, potted plants, and other materials outside by securing them up under the covered porch in my back yard. There was an expectation of heavy rain, and Houston and the surrounding areas are well-known for flooding even in non-hurricane conditions, so protection from flooding of the house would be a hope and a prayer.

 

Back porch preparing items for Hurricane Harvey

Preparing items on back porch for Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)

 

It had already begun raining and the back porch was getting full of items to protect. The garage became another worry of mine because of items possibly getting wet, like tools, electrical items, and other machinery, so I made the decision to bring everything that I didn’t want to get wet or ruined from rising waters into the kitchen of the house. We had gotten heavy rain waters from a couple years prior in the neighborhood from the Memorial Day flooding of 2015. The water levels had risen to the tops of the curbs of our street, so I was doing my best to guesstimate just how high the rising water may get for Harvey. I overestimated just as a precaution and hoped that the waters wouldn’t get any higher than getting the garage floor wet, since the garage slab sat 3-4 inches lower than the house slab. Our house sat higher than the road, so I was hoping we were going to be high enough that the waters wouldn’t reach over the foundation.

I had also decided that I wanted to record what I could from this impending torrential downpour we were expecting to receive and made a makeshift rain gauge out of an old cup, if memory serves me correctly. Over the days I was to measure the amount of water accumulated within the container to obtain an estimate of the rainfall we’d receive over the storm period. I’d also be taking as much video and pictures as I could to remember how this major event would play out at my own home.

Over the night and the next several days we’d receive several inches of record breaking rainfall, up to as much as 45 to over 50 inches of rain in the greater Houston areas, with continued rainfall. I do not remember the exact amount we had received over those passing days, but it seems that these record totals sound about right as the whole world would see in news coverage over the days , weeks and months to come.

We were completely blocked off in our neighborhood due to flooding. No one had a way out, unless you had a boat. The rain simply would not stop. The rear of our neighborhood, just down the bend of our street many homes on the lower end near Willow Creek had begun to flood. Whole streets were like rivers and trees and debris we strewn about, floating down the road, pushed up on the banks of people’s yards. We had become an island in the mainland. Luckily, our family was spared from the wrath of Harvey.

 

 

Page References

[1] https://www.weather.gov/safety/flood-turn-around-dont-drown

[2] https://www.boat-ed.com/waterrescue/studyGuide/Deaths-from-Flash-Flooding/191099_700084456/

[3] https://www.livescience.com/32410-whats-the-deadliest-natural-phenomenon.html

[4] https://www.livescience.com/32410-whats-the-deadliest-natural-phenomenon.html

[5] https://www.floodsafety.com/national/life/statistics.htm

[6] https://www.floodsafety.com/national/life/statistics.htm

[7] https://www.dps.texas.gov/dem/ThreatAwareness/floodSafetyAwareness.htm

[8] https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/hurricane-katrina

[9] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5509a5.htm

[10] https://weather.com/storms/severe/news/houston-flood-history-may2015-allison

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/27/us/texas-rains-bring-flooding-to-houston-area.html

[12] https://weather.com/storms/severe/news/flood-fatigue-2015-2016-texas-louisiana-oklahoma

[13] https://weather.com/storms/severe/news/flood-fatigue-2015-2016-texas-louisiana-oklahoma

[14] https://weather.com/storms/severe/news/flood-fatigue-2015-2016-texas-louisiana-oklahoma

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Harvey#Texas

[16] https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/2017-hurricane-harvey-facts

[17] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/25/16202636/hurricane-harvey-flooding-driving

[18] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/25/16202636/hurricane-harvey-flooding-driving

[19] https://www.aceable.com/safe-driving/driving-in-floodwater/

[20] https://www.cars.com/articles/what-to-do-if-your-car-is-caught-in-a-flood-1420688856970/

[21] https://chryslercapital.com/blog/more-than-just-a-catchy-slogan

[22] https://www.weather.gov/tsa/hydro_tadd

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_hurricane_season

[24] https://www.travelinsurancereview.net/hurricane-travel-resource-center/hurricane-season/



Dustin H.

Lover of road trips, married, a father, an entrepreneur, chaser of dreams.

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