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3 Things to Know That Could Save Your Life in a Flash Flood

Aerial view of a car submerged under brown flood waters.

Aerial view of a car on a road submerged under flood waters from the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Kentucky, on July 28, 2022.
Photo: LEANDRO LOZADA / AFP (Getty Images)

Flash floods are some of the deadliest weather events in the U.S., and they’re becoming more common under climate change. Already in 2022, an estimated 67 Americans have perished in flood waters, and around 100 people drown in floods each year in the U.S. While you may not be able to prepare for every emergency, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of dying or needing rescue in flooding.

When there’s heavy rainfall in a short period of time, flash flooding can occur, sometimes within mere minutes. Floods are nothing new, but the warming climate is causing heavy rains to occur more frequently and to drop more water.

1. Never walk or drive through flood waters

Because flash floods develop so quickly, people living near areas that are newly prone to these floods may not take the initial shallow water seriously. More than half of flood-related deaths occur inside of vehicles, said Kate Abshire, the national flash flood services lead for the National Weather Service. She explained that cars become “metal bubbles” during flash floods, and once a vehicle is swept away, it’s difficult for passengers to get out safely.

“We have the ‘turn around don’t drown’ slogan for a reason. It only takes six inches of moving water to sweep someone off their feet and 18 inches to float a vehicle,” Abshire said. “It’s often very difficult to assess the depth of the water if it’s running muddy. Take alternative routes. Don’t drive through the flood waters.”

If you do not have to go out during heavy rain, it’s best to stay where you are. If the worst does happen and you find yourself in a car in rising water, ABC News has published tips for what steps to take, including rolling your windows down as soon as possible and moving to the roof of the vehicle.

2. Know your evacuation routes

So, we’ve just said to stay where you are—but what if you need to evacuate? Knowing alternative routes ahead of time can help get you safely away from a flooded area, especially when a main road is unusable. Look up different highways and roads near you, and save some of those directions on your phone. Share the information with friends and family so that they know where you’ll be headed, in case you end up needing help.

If you aren’t sure what routes are likely to be safe, try searching “[your city name] flood map,” which should lead you to local tools for seeing where in your community is at higher risk of flooding.

3. Know how to get emergency alerts and weather updates

Yang Hong, a meteorology and climatology professor at the University of Oklahoma, and his colleagues are working to improve emergency communication with the public during severe weather.

“We’re collaborating with the National Weather Service, trying to develop flash flood alert systems,” he said. “We can update our system every five minutes to issue flash flooding warnings. There’s still a lot of work to do because… look at Kentucky. It’s hard to predict that much precipitation.”

He suggested following online accounts like the many city-specific National Weather Service Twitter accounts. To find the account for your area, type in the name of your nearest city and “National Weather Service” using Twitter’s search function. (For example, here are the accounts for El Paso, Baltimore, and Reno.) Worried that you haven’t found the right account? The official NWS accounts have blue checkmarks next to their handles.

Also consider downloading an emergency mobile app and a weather forecasting app. FEMA’s app sends weather alerts for up to five locations per account, and it has information about local emergency shelters. You can also add a National Weather Service shortcut to your phone’s mobile screen; here are the instructions for both Android and Apple users. Need more options? Check out this list of emergency and weather alerts from the National Weather Service.

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