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Survival / July 23, 2017

How to not die in an urban flood

Written by: Brad Shannon

Across much of the U.S., this is urban flood season. Hurricane season is just getting started in the Atlantic, and monsoon storms are due soon in the Southwest and in the Rocky Mountains.

Floods are the most common and the most costly natural disaster in the U.S. (according to the Red Cross), and flooding killed at least 126 people in 2016 (per the National Weather Service). So I called up George Sullivan, who directs community preparedness programs for the Red Cross in Colorado and Wyoming, and asked him how to stay above water.


See it coming

“Floods can come upon you with relative speed and little warning,” says Sullivan. “Or they can be slow-moving disasters.”

To keep up to speed on flood conditions, Sullivan recommends an old-school technology: the weather band radio. The National Weather Service broadcasts seven different bands covering all regions of the country. So if you know which band covers your area, you can stay abreast of weather info even if the cellular networks go down.

The Red Cross no longer recommends battery-powered devices, though, as they tend to fail after some time on the shelf. Alkaline batteries often split open and leak acid over time, which can ruin the device. Thankfully, Sullivan says, solar and hand-crank units are now good enough to make battery-powered radios obsolete.

The Red Cross recommends hand-crank powered weather radios over battery-powered ones. Photo by James Case.

The easiest way to avoid becoming stranded on your roof is to leave before floodwaters reach your front door. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino.

get out fast

In areas prone to flooding, Sullivan notes that the key to avoiding being stuck in your attic or on your roof is to leave before the waters rise.

He recommends that all households in flood-prone areas have a “bug-out bag” packed and ready to go. with survival essentials.

That bag should contain both fresh water and a water purification system. “There’s a difference between water from a safe source, and water that is safe to drink. It is impossible to carry or store as much water as a family of four will need, so know how to treat water to make it safe for drinking and cooking via disinfection and filtration.”

Plan two or more routes from your home to high ground, and take them the moment you hear a flood is coming. When traveling on foot or in a vehicle, do not cross running water or flooded areas. “A small amount of water will sweep you off your feet, or float your car and send it downstream. It is not safe.”


Avoid the water

Drowning is the obvious hazard in a flood. But it’s far from the only hazard.

“Everything that’s been flushed, buried, or put on the land comes up with flood water and creates a hazmat situation. If you are exposed to that, you need to decontaminate yourself and anything that has come in contact with the water.” Otherwise, you will carry toxins into your home.

There are products available, including mold remediation products, that are effective for treating equipment and clothing, including boots and rain gear, and can kill things like anthrax, bacteria, spores, etc. For human skin, use a mild detergent with cold water (you want your pores to stay closed) and blot dry.

This contamination is another reason to set aside ample fresh drinking water. Avoid drinking flood water whenever possible (though its better to drink dirty water than to let your body shut down from dehydration).

Floodwaters are awash with chemicals from roads, vehicles, sewers, and industrial sites. If you find yourself submerged in the water, clean your skin with cold water at the earliest opportunity.

Temper your expectations before returning to a flood-damaged home. Even a small amount of water can do irreparable damage.

Expect serious damage

Upon re-entering a flooded area, expect all below-surface equipment—furnaces, water heaters, etc.—to be destroyed. In humid climates, mold is likely to grow rapidly.

If your house is flooded, you’ll have to “muck out,” removing everything in your home with a shovel, ripping drywall down to the studs up to the level of the flooding, remediating mold, and replacing everything. This arduous process can take weeks or months. Local contractors will be very busy, and some homes may be declared uninhabitable—and be red tagged—by the government, meaning they will have to be destroyed and re-built completely.


Get insured

This list has, so far, been written in a chronological order. This final instruction is an exception—do not wait until after a flood to get flood insurance. Get flood insurance today.

If you can, that is. Flood insurance is not available in all areas, and one way the government mitigates the potential for flood damage is through flood plain buyout. This involved the purchase of low-lying land in a predictable flood plain, not allowing property structures to be built on it, and designating it for some form of public land use.

Regular homeowner’s insurance does not typically cover flooding or water damage, including groundwater seepage and mudslides. You can purchase flood insurance if you don’t live in a flood zone (one in four claims is made for a home not in a flood plain) for around $600/yr. Consumer Reports notes that even in low-risk locations, you may want to be covered.

If you do live in a flood plain, your mortgage company will likely require you to have flood insurance. You can obtain a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program, which offers a maximum of $350,000 in coverage for your house ($250k) and possessions ($100k). Additional coverage is available from private carriers for claims in excess of these amounts.

Need more info? Visit, look up information on your state’s disaster planning efforts, or talk to your insurance agent.

Have questions or comments about this piece? Email them to [email protected]

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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