Surviving Flooding During and After Hurricane Florence

It is hurricane season, and so far it is lining up to be an eventful one. Florence is likely to bring flooding to a lot of areas.

Figure 1. Infrared satellite image of the Southeast U.S. coast (left) with Hurricane Florence (right) at 8:57 pm EDT Tuesday, September 11, 2018. Image credit: NASA/MSFC Earth Science Branch.

The above video is a live feed from USA Today for those that want to keep up to date.

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Unfortunately, floods were a big part of my childhood.

Flooding is something I am all too familiar with. As a child in Skagit County Washington, I experienced many catastrophic floods. They were common enough that I expected to evacuate once every year or so. Sometimes it was a false alarm, and sometimes it was a 100-year flood event! The point was that it was better to be safe than sorry so we would get out ASAP.

That is what happens when you live in a floodplain or near a river. Most rivers have changed course at least some during recent history. Sometimes when you look at aerial photography or satellite photos, you can see where the old river bed once was.

The video clips above are from Skagit County in 2015. It is hard to find examples of the floods I went through in the 90s before the internet and digital cameras were widely available.

When prepping for hurricane season, it is important to learn how to handle it if you find that you are dealing with flooding on any level. Hopefully, I can help you by sharing what I have learned dealing with floods in Skagit County and the mountains of North Carolina.

Never drive through water of unknown depth.

It can be very hard to tell how deep water is and you also need to consider traffic. If you get stuck in a foot of water for 5 minutes and waters rise, or the current becomes greater you could be swept away. It is better not to risk driving in water that you know is more than a few inches deep. Even a few inches drastically increases the chances of slipping and sliding. If you do make it through with your car you still may have damaged it. You don’t know what type of debris can be in water or if you have to barrel through a few feet of water you may cause a lot of damage to your vehicle even if it seems like you have made it through just fine.

Avoid the temptation to take too many belongings with you.

Sometimes people do not leave soon enough when waters start to rise because they are trying to save items that mean something too them. Do not do this. As soon as it seems like it is time to get out and to a shelter or higher ground the priority is getting you and your family out. Don’t grab more than you need. Possessions are not going to do you any good if you are injured or killed trying to save them.

Here is a list of items that take priority when getting out of a flooded area.

  • Clothing and shoes for a week. Throw clothes in garbage bags and in your car if you have to.
  • Food/water for a few days is nice if you have it.
  • Medications and a medical kit
  • A few items for entertainment
  • Pet supplies/carriers if needed
  • Important documents as well as any cash or other small valuables
  • Phones

Of course, none of this matters if you wait too long. The list above is just for those that have a little time to pack.  

Remember that hurricane-related flooding can occur even in mountainous areas!

Just because I live at 3,000 feet in the mountains of North Carolina and not on the coast doesn’t mean major flooding is not a concern. A lot of the towns nearby have rivers running through or beside them. When Frances and Ivan hit in 2004, we had a lot of flooding in low lying valleys and towns. 17 inches of rain fell in a lot of areas. Here is a link to a photo gallery to show you what can happen in the inland mountains.

This week we are cleaning out our ditches, so the road doesn’t wash away as badly if we get a lot of rain. We also have to harvest all the grapes we have hanging on the vines still or risk a total loss of our crop. Other preparations include making sure we have water and food needs in order and resupplying on anything lacking before the expected rains on Friday.

Yesterday we spent getting some firewood cut in the woods and stacked by the house so we can cover it, so it doesn’t get totally saturated.

Matt cut up a bunch of trees, and we topped off our firewood supply. Barkley and Clover (my pet Shetland sheep) wanted to be more involved with the process or in other words get in the way of work in the cutest way possible.

Include your pets in your plans.

It is not safe to leave pets in an area where flooding is likely or already happening. Just turning them loose is cruel and not right. This includes cats. Just because they can climb doesn’t mean they know to watch out for the numerous other hazards out there.

Check out the BDS post on “Best Survival Kit Ideas & Products” for some helpful info.

Pay attention to flooding news or major rainfall announcements.

It is nice to have websites like Weather Underground around to keep tabs on the weather and the hurricane prediction models. I am thankful that easy access to the internet has made it easier to get announcements and keep track of things. When I was a kid, it was the TV and radio stations, and we didn’t have a TV, so the radio was it for us.

Skagit River floods — always a threat

Hamilton, Washington in 2003. Photo courtesy of Matt Wallis/Skagit Valley Herald

Avoid the temptation to stay in flooded areas.

I know that in the case of many evacuations, mandatory orders are issued. Well, that is not enough to persuade some people. There is a lot going on, and the folks in charge are not going to be looking in every little place that someone could be hiding out.

There was always a few people in my town that insisted on staying. They had canoes and other floatable boats if it came down to it. I think this is a very bad idea if you are very close to deep rising waters. If you have major flooding coming your way you need to consider all the dangers that can cause you trouble.  The few I discuss here should be enough to convince most people.

 Log jams

A logjam on a low bridge in Skagit County, Washington.

Those near major rivers and streams are probably used to some level of debris, especially that found under bridges.

I still remember standing on the bridge overlooking the Skagit River in the Cape Horn area near Concrete, Washington and being mesmerized by the sheer force of the cascading violence beneath me. Trees 2 or 3 ft in girth pummeling and the roar that sounded like something unleashed from the surrounding mountains. Looking back it was the mountains that caused this. A snowpack and a warm few days combined with rainfall and wind=8 feet of water in some houses.

These jams can take out bridges, and that means routes that were once open are not there and you are more trapped than ever. Where I lived the distance between bridges was many miles.

Be realistic about flood damage. Don’t risk your health by moving back into a contaminated space.

Dust, mold, and mildew can have some incredibly negative health effects. Silty dirty water can carry all kinds of garbage, debris, and excrement.

Where I grew up, people did not always clean up the way they should even when given FEMA money to take care of the expense.

Don’t try to move back in before cleaning out a space that is suitable to stay in while the other clean up is going on. If you have the financial means, you may want to stay somewhere else, especially if there is assistance available due to being in a nationally declared disaster zone.

On seeking higher ground: Don’t let a good idea turn tragic

Seeking higher ground is essential in a flood but be careful about trapping yourself in. Multiple story buildings allow you to gain considerable ground if you get caught in a flood. Most of us have seen the photos of people being rescued from root tops during floods and storms. This works if you can get out.

Sometimes people seek higher ground and find themselves trapped, and the waters rise to overtake them if a building is in a majorly high water area In a severe situation if you thought ahead you might be able to break through and get up higher using tools.

If you have to ford water on foot, follow some safety tips.

Always wear protective footwear when wading through any water.

I know that a lot of clothing can weigh you down but something like rain gear or anything to protect your skin is a good idea if you are going to be exposed to a lot of wading and you are unsure of what debris or substances are floating about. Getting cut in dirty water is a fast route to infection.  Carrying items on your head can work but be careful about trying to carry too much.

Avoid the urge to joy ride and look at the catastrophe unfolding. Too many people that are safe on high ground go towards the flood just to look!

During Hurricane Ivan and Frances, a lot of people went driving around the lower lying regions of Western North Carolina just to look at the damage, take pictures, watch the waters, etc. I remember that plenty of folks went down to the pizza joint parking lot in Swannanoa to watch a trailer park float away.

If you can stay safely at home then please do so. Extra people on the roads doesn’t help and it leads to more rescue situations and possibly roads being blocked for emergency vehicles.  Just because a road is okay to drive on when you leave and go out doesn’t mean it will be okay when you go back!

Electrical shock is a major concern in floods. Never touch water where power lines are down!

Hurricanes bring down lines, and high waters create a lethal combination. This is yet another reason to avoid going back to an area too soon and to not get in the water. You don’t have to do more than touch it to get shocked so stay well away and keep pets with you or contained at all times.

Get some dry bags if possible

I recommend that people have some dry bags as part of their preps at all times. A dry bag can allow you to throw items in and seal it. These bags you can float along with you rather than carry. We have some in three different sizes, and they are great for taking on boats and other trips or if you have to take gear out and want to have good water protection.

Know where shelters and evacuation routes are and have an alternative route planned.

It is important to know where you can go to seek refuge from flood waters. Where I lived a lot of churches would open their doors up to help people. They would also let people park camper trailers in the parking areas and even stay in them. If you have an RV you can manage to get somewhere safe then you are going to be in a good position.

Hotels and motels are full many miles out from a hurricane impact area.

When millions of people are trying to get out of the path of a storm, hotels can quickly get filled. By the time floodwaters are upon an area, it can be hard to find anything within a hundred miles. If you have relatives or friends close by that you can stay with then that is a blessing.

Airbnb and VRBO were not around when I was in a major flood zone, but it may be an option for some people looking for lodging to get through the storm.

Wellheads and contaminated water supplies

Water supplies can be contaminated. Private wells that have flood waters go over the wellhead will need to be sanitized thoroughly after the waters recede. I

If you can create drainage to keep floodwaters from going over your wellhead, then you should do it well ahead of time. A contaminated well means having to shock it after the waters recede. Other damage may have to be accessed and fixed too.

You need an excellent water filter. You can check out our water start page for a list of articles and reviews on water filters. There are so many out there, and people have different needs and abilities. Family size is a factor when choosing the main water filter. You may want to make sure to have one that will filter out viruses too if you live in a hot and humid climate or near any facilities that could lead to virus contamination.

Keep filtering for a while after the flood waters recede.

Be sure to filter any water you drink during a flood situation and continue to do so until you are sure that water is no longer a hazard. You may want to get a well test kit after you sanitize it or if damage to your well seems substantial, you may want to leave it to an expert. If you are in a government declared disaster zone there may be free services to help you get your water tested.

Do your best to maintain good hygiene

Illness and disease spike during and after hurricanes and secondary events related to the storm. Standing water, garbage, sewage, deceased animals, and more can cause a myriad of health issues. Stocking up on wet wipes, sanitizers, and other items that allow you to keep clean when clean water on tap is not available are all things you should be putting together right now if you are in a hurricane zone.

Hurricane Florence is set to hit the Carolinas and impact one of the biggest pork and chicken producing areas in the entire country.

When a hurricane comes through a region like this then the lagoons of pig excrement and piles of chicken manure go right into the flood waters. Do not go in waters in these areas period! Every little scrape and mark on you are likely to get infected.  Those living near these farming areas should get out while they can and avoid the whole situation.

Please take a look at “Hurricane could flood many waste sites, creating toxic brew” from the Associated Press for more info on what is expected to happen in areas of the Carolinas with heavy industrial farming. There is an interactive map that shows the density and location of these operations too. According to the above article, there are 2,100 industrial-scale pork farms containing more than 9 million hogs whose waste is all contained in lagoons.

Tie down things you don’t want to float away.

Anchoring things down is one thing that you can do to reduce your losses. Water is a very powerful force that you don’t want to underestimate. Just a quick and sloppy knot is not enough. You need to be sure that it can withstand a lot of force.

Rope is only rated to so many pounds, so very thin or weak rope is not going to do. Paracord is an option that is affordable, and a lot of people have put back.

Keeping up morale and entertainment are important, especially for those of you with children

I remember it being somewhat exciting evacuating 10-20 miles down Skagit Valley but loathing the traffic and noise that was part of the bigger city. We only went more than 10 miles when there were no rooms available.

Sometimes if we got a room at the hotel where a lot of neighbors were staying it could be interesting. Oh and being a kid that had no TV in the house and living up the river, we got to see the controversial and heavily sought after MTV because the cable station provided it in the “big city” of 10,000. I always brought some books and a notebook when evacuating because this was back in 1990,93, before the internet, e-readers, and information at your fingertips.

This was the days of pink Lisa Frank notebooks, cursive writing, and using up every drop of ink in a Bic pen with my frantic scrawlings. Entertainment is different now, but my point is that some means of getting your mind off the disaster at hand a bit can go a long way towards getting everyone through with the least amount of trauma to mind and body.

I got through a lot of those times better than some because you get used to evacuating or the potential of floods. Having comfort foods helped too.  When away I got to eat things that I didn’t get to as much at home.

If there are other kids or people you know at the same shelter or hotels, then it can be easier to keep everyone entertained via socialization.

Evaluate for next time

Learning from experience is helpful. If you live in an area that is often at risk for floods or hurricanes and it is your first time going through one, then you will know a lot more after the first. At the same time no matter if it is your first or 10th incident it is always good to look back and see what you could improve on or make a note of things that were lacking.

What are you doing to prepare for rising waters? Any tips for reducing damage potential to your home? 

Stay safe out there and remember that there are a lot of people out there struggling. Kindness, compassion, and helping others when you can are all things to keep in mind.

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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