Living on high ground isn’t an automatic safeguard against flood dangers. Unless you’re totally homebound, you’re bound to venture into areas that, under the right conditions, can quickly become inundated with roaring water.
Around downtown Louisville, and near the University of Louisville campus, for instance, there are numerous underpasses with signs warning drivers “Do Not Enter If Flooded.” Sounds like a no-brainer. But it seems like every time there is a heavy rainstorm, there’s news coverage of vehicles swamped in one of these areas, with doe-eyed drivers explaining, “It didn’t look that deep.”
News flash: Moving water that is just six inches deep is enough to sweep an adult off their feet, and as little as two feet of moving water can carry away most SUV-sized vehicles, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), which reports that people are more likely to die in a flood than be killed by lightning, a tornado or a hurricane.
Based on 30-year averages, 127 people die each year in floods, compared with 73 from lightning, 65 from tornadoes and 16 from hurricanes, the agency reports.
The bulk of those deaths don’t come from cataclysmic events like the Great Flood of January 1937, which devastated Louisville and remains one of the worst floods in U.S. history
That flood, which inundated cities and towns along the entire 800-mile length of the Ohio River, reached inland areas of Louisville previously not considered flood prone, including Churchill Downs. More than 70 percent of the city was flooded, forcing more than 175,000 residents to evacuate, and causing $52 million in damage (equal to $710 million today.)
The Great Flood of ’37 came after 19 inches of rain in one month, coupled with upriver snow melt. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a greater role in flood protection afterward, constructing flood walls and systems to divert rising waters from populated areas.
Nowadays, it’s generally smaller flooding events that claim the most lives, according to the NWS, whose “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” slogan is designed to stem deaths from flash floods. Even strong swimmers are at risk in flood waters, which can be swift, have unstable currents and often carry debris such as logs or building materials.
Five people drowned in three separate incidents one day last December here in Kentucky, when heavy rain made normally calm waterways swell over their banks. All of the drownings happened after drivers attempted to drive through flooded areas, emergency management officials said.
To prevent tragedies like the December drownings, the NWS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urges people to heed the following flood safety advice:
- Don’t try to drive, walk or swim through flooded areas, or allow children to play in them. It is easy to underestimate how deep the water is or how quickly it is moving. It can be impossible to tell if a bridge or roadbed under the water has been damaged.
- Remember that a vehicle provides little to no protection against being swept away. Being in a car or truck can make a person over-confident, and it may become too late to turn around once realizing how risky conditions are.
- If water comes into your home or business, do not go into basements or other areas where it has come into contact with electrical outlets or items that are plugged in.
- Keep children away from spillways, stormwater retention ponds and drainage pipes. These areas can fill rapidly after storms or in the case of a nearby burst water main.
- Have a weather radio, with fresh batteries, that can help track current conditions during a flood or other serious weather event.
- Find out if your home or roads that you normally travel are in low, medium or high flood risk zones.
- Develop an evacuation plan, should the need arise. Make sure everyone in the family knows the plan, and what to do in case family members get separated.