Hard lessons learned and remembered as flash floods devastate eastern kentucky
Houses being washed away in Hindman. (Photo by Zack Hall)
It’s been a week as we have watched the Eastern Kentucky floods devastate 13 counties where people are being rescued and at least 37 people have been killed. The search continues for those still missing. Governor Beshear declared a state of emergency after what has been described as a thousand-year flooding event that dumped up to 10.4 inches of rain on parts of the state. The North Fork Kentucky River in Jackson jumped 37.5 feet in under 33 hours as rains came down, according to the National Weather Service.
Last week’s deluge in Eastern Kentucky proved that although hurricane-related weather events and related flooding receive significant headlines and attention, the dangers of inland flooding and flash flooding are more dangerous. Luckily today people oftentimes are given several days of notice about hurricanes while in most flash flood situations, some may only get a few hours’ notice.
Mankind has tried to harness our waterways, building dams and locks to control the flow of flood waters, but floods remain one of the deadliest weather conditions known to man.
In the U.S., 127 million people live in coastal areas and countless tens if not hundreds of millions of Americans live near a river, stream, creek, or waterway. Roughly 3.5 million miles of rivers and tributaries in the United States connect us to the sea, even if we live far inland. Most Americans live within a mile of a river or a stream. Most of our cities and towns were built on waterways and rivers, and coastal towns.
As America was discovered, settled, and grew westward, many early Americans naturally located and settled near water resources, determining where people decided to live.
Being caught in a flood is incredibly dangerous. Like many other natural disasters, floods can occur with little to no warning. Flash floods move quickly and have strong and deadly currents, known to rip trees out of the ground, destroy buildings, and cause bridges to collapse.
The fact is flash floods cause more fatalities in the U.S. in an average year than lightning, tornados, or hurricanes. Approximately 75% of all Presidential disaster declarations are associated with flooding.
Flash floods most often occur in dry areas that receive heavy precipitation, and much of Eastern Kentucky had been experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Ironically, flooding is common in areas that are prone to drought. When the ground is too dry, it can’t absorb rain fast enough, so the water runs over land, flooding and destroying everything in its path.
Unfortunately, the normal peaceful stream or creek running behind your home can become a raging destructive fast-moving wall of water if heavy rain falls overhead — or even upstream.
A flash flood is a rapid flooding of low-lying areas such as creeks, washes, rivers, and dry lakes. Flash floods are distinguished from regular floods by having a timescale of fewer than six hours between rainfall and the onset of flooding and can be a wall of water.
Many in Eastern Kentucky had very little warning and the scary part is that it occurred in the middle of the night while many of them slept.
The intensity of the rainfall, the location and distribution of the rainfall, the land use and topography, vegetation types and growth/density, soil type, and soil water-content all determine just how quickly the flash flooding may occur, and influence where it may occur.
As a teenager, I once witnessed a flash flood, and it was an eye-opening experience for me and my father. While sleeping overnight in a camper on our family farm in Anderson County it had heavily rained all night long. The following morning, we noticed that the creek about 50 yards away had risen, then suddenly, we heard a roar coming from behind us from the ravine that ran between the two hills on the property. Within minutes a 4-foot wall of water came rushing down taking limbs and rocks with it. We were safely away, but I walked away respecting the power of a flash flood.
Past studies of flash floods in the United States show that injuries and fatalities are most likely to occur in small, rural catchments, that the shortest events are also the most dangerous, that the hazards are greatest after nightfall, and that a very high probability of injuries and fatalities involve vehicles.
It only takes only a foot of water to sweep a vehicle away during a flood, and I almost witnessed this that morning on our family farm. We quickly packed up and left so that we could get across the rising creek to access the road. We made it halfway across the creek when we began to get swept away turning us sideways and carrying us about 50 feet downstream, but luckily that 1970-something Toyota Land Cruiser’s 4-wheel drive was able to dig in at the last minute and we made it across the creek and on to the road.
At the time, I thought it was very exciting and adventurous and even bragged about it in class the following day in middle school, but little did I know that it was a near-death experience.
If you live near a waterway, creek, or river, here are a few helpful tips on how to survive a flash flood:
Prep Like Your Life Depends On It: Have at least three days of supplies for everyone in the household, including water (one gallon per person per day), non-perishable food, a flashlight, battery-powered or hand-crank radio, portable or solar-powered phone chargers, extra batteries, a first-aid kit a 7-day supply of medications, a multi-purpose tool, sanitation, and personal hygiene items. then store it on high ground or in go-bags.
Pay Attention: Listen to emergency broadcasts for further instructions. If told to evacuate, do so. Listen to emergency broadcasts for further instructions. If told to evacuate, do so.
If You Have The Time: Turn off electric or gas utilities at the main switches or valves.
Turn Around Don’t Drown: Never attempt to walk, swim or drive through floodwaters. It only takes six inches of moving water to knock a person off their feet and being knocked unconscious by a fall into moving water could be fatal. Additionally, as little as one foot of flood water can sweep cars away.
Avoid bridges: Bridges that cross rapidly moving water, as floodwaters can cause bridges to collapse.
If Swept Away Stay Inside Your Car: Stay inside a car trapped by fast-moving water. Only get out if the water begins to flood the car itself, then move to the roof of the vehicle.
If Trapped in a House or Building: If trapped within a flooding building, move to the highest floor. Do not go into the attic, as it is possible to become trapped there without a way to escape. Only relocate to the roof if necessary. Once there, signal for help with a mirror or flashlight.
Avoid Power Lines: They are often damaged or knocked down during strong storms and flooding. Downed power lines can cause surrounding water to become charged, leading to electrocution.