Survival Situations: Floods


There are a virtually infinite number of possible survival situations that one could experience. It can be overwhelming trying to understand and prepare for them. In an effort to index and provide information about the most common survival situations, has prepared a series of articles which are entitled: Survival Situation. Each article provides high level information about a specific, common survival situation, and various ways to prepare and overcome them should they happen to you.

Floods are the most common natural disaster in the US. Every state is at some risk of experiencing flooding and billions of dollars are spent in the post-flood recovery process. Since virtually all regions in the US can potentially experience flooding, it’s important to know what to do to make it through a flood should you find yourself in the middle of one. As with any type of disaster or emergency, the best way to be prepared is to have a plan. If you live in a flood prone region, make a plan for you and your family so everyone knows the proper techniques of what to do in a flood. You must make the decision of whether you’ll evacuate before a flood strikes or if you’ll try and ride it out. Having a basic survival kit can go a long way in making sure you have the proper equipment to weather the storm and any potential disruptions the flood may cause.

As with other types of natural disasters, floods can occur very quickly, with little to no warning. Some floods may be byproducts of other storms such as tornadoes or hurricanes. They may be caused by a man-made structure such as a dam or levy being damaged or destroyed.  Flooding happens in floodplains whenever sustained rainfall over a few days or intense rainfall over a short period of time causes a river, or similar body of water to overflow and flood the surrounding area. Floods can occur in any season. In wintertime, melting snow or ice can cause bodies of water to overflow. Spring showers and summer thunderstorms also can bring about floods.

There are two general factors that are usually a precursor to an actual flood. Intensity of the rainfall and duration are both key elements when forecasting for the potential of flooding. Intensity is the rate of rainfall (for example, 2 inches hourly), and duration is how long the rain lasts (for example, two hours). Other factors include soil conditions, topography, and ground cover (vegetation or other natural foliage such as trees and bushes). For the most part, flash floods are caused by slow-moving thunderstorms, thunderstorms moving repeatedly over the same region, or heavy rains produced by hurricanes or tropical storms. “Regular” Floods, on the other hand, can be slow- or fast-rising, but generally develop over a period of hours or days. Flash floods are typically defined as occurring in six hours or less for the flood event to be complete.

Watches vs. Warnings

Just like with other storm types, flood warning systems such as the National Weather Service (NWS) issues watches and warnings to help alert the public of a potential or actual flood/flash flood.

Flood Watch – A watch means conditions are favorable for a flood or flash flood to occur. Watches are issued for a specific range of time before either expiring or being upgraded to a warning. If you’re in an area impacted by a flood watch, plan for the worst and make sure you’re in a safe area on high ground.  Try and avoid traveling during a flood watch if at all possible.

Flood Warning A warning means a flood or flash flood is imminent and you should seek immediate shelter. The NWS will also forecast a flood warning expiration time which is when they expect the flooding to cease and weather conditions improve.

What to do in a Flood

If you find yourself in a region impacted by a flood watch or warning, keep in mind the following points to stay safe and ensure you and your family’s survival until the risk of flooding has passed or the flood subsides.

–          Fortunately, the main safety rule for floods and flash floods is easy to understand and implement. Head for higher ground and avoid flood waters. If you can accomplish both of these points, you have an excellent chance of surviving the flood/flash flood. Even though it’s a big hassle and hardship if your property and possessions are damaged or destroyed in a flood, as long as you make it out alive (preferably without injury), that’s what counts. Your possessions are simply that, just possessions that can be replaced (hopefully you have insurance).

–          Flash floods are more dangerous due to their sudden occurrence with little to no warning. The NWS promotes the motto, “Turn around, don’t drown”, to help teach the public the safe bet should you come across an area that’s experienced a flash flood.

–          Vehicles offer virtually no protection from a flood or flash flood. It’s estimated that as little as 2 feet of water can sweep away most SUV or cars. If you’re driving and encounter a flood / flash flood, it’s generally a good idea to seek shelter on higher ground until the risk has passed.

–          Never try and outrun or navigate a flooded area on foot, by swimming, or driving through it. Many people underestimate the power that even a shallow depth of flood water can produce. There are also additional risks such as ripped up trees, debris, and snakes lurking underneath flood waters.

–          If you encounter flood waters, just turn around, and go another way. Climb to higher ground if you can. If the flood waters are moving swiftly enough, water just six inches deep can knock you off your feet. Even a fully grown adult can easily be swept away wading through flood waters, potentially resulting in injury or death.

–          Avoid flooded areas. Looks can be deceiving, and even if it seems safe, flood waters may still be rising. Furthermore, you may not be able to accurately gauge how fast the flood water is moving or see any holes and submerged debris.

–          If you are in a vehicle and become surrounded by water, if you can get out safely, do so immediately and move to higher ground. Remember, many vehicles can be swept away in as little as two feet of water. If a vehicle does happen to stall in the water, the water’s momentum will be transferred to the car. The force of a foot of water moving at 10 miles per hour is about 500 pounds on an average sized (think SUV) vehicle. The greatest effect is buoyancy so for every foot that water rises up the side of a car; it displaces 1,500 pounds of the car’s weight. Just two feet of water moving at 10 MPH has the potential to float virtually any car. Use extreme caution if you’re abandoning your vehicle, and look for an opportunity to move quickly and safely to higher ground

–          Avoid creek and stream banks in flooded or recently flooded regions. Often times, the soaked banks become dangerous due to heavy rainfall and can suddenly give way, throwing you into the rapidly moving river/stream, etc.

After the Flood

–          Throw away all food that has come into contact with flood waters. Contaminated flood water contains bacteria and germs. Eating foods exposed to flood waters can make you very sick.

–          Stay out of any building if flood waters remain around the building. Flood waters often undermine foundations, causing sinking, floors can crack or break and buildings can collapse.

–          Because of the very real threat of gas leaks or electrical hazards, it’s generally urged to simply avoid going inside of any building until the proper authorities and individuals can inspect the structure to ensure its safety.

–          Because water sanitation activities are often disrupted during and after a flood or flash flood, it’s strongly recommended to boil and/or treat water before drinking it until local public safety officials have confirmed water sanitation is back online.


Floods are the most common type of natural disaster in the US and knowing what to do should you find yourself in one is an important knowledge set to possess. As with most other preparedness activities and concepts, having a plan before disaster strikes is critical in ensuring you and your family’s survival. The most basic of flood survival strategies is to simply avoid flooded areas and head for higher ground. For additional information on floods and the National Flood Insurance Program you can click here.

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