4 Ways to Protect Yourself During a Flood

It only takes six inches of moving water to knock you off your feet. Learn how to stay safe.

woman standing in flooded street, flood, ways to stay safe during a flood

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on September 28, 2022

Since Hurrican Ian made landfall on September 29, nearly two million Florida residents are still without power, and major roadways remain closed as the storm moves inland toward South Carolina. Many homes and businesses in its path have been decimated by high winds and record flooding.

Floods are the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States, as well as one of the most deadly. More deaths occur due to flooding than any other hazard related to thunderstorms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The vast majority of fatalities that we see during severe weather storms today are caused by flooding,” says Jake Marshall, Senior Director of Enterprise Preparedness and Emergency Operations with HCA Healthcare in Nashville, Tennessee.

Water can overflow and flood for a slew of reasons, including excessive rain, ice melting from snowcaps, high sea levels and storms. The water accumulation can be slow moving—or come on quickly—destructing everything in its path. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from flooding. Here are some ways you can stay safe during a storm.

How to prepare

Have a flood plan in place that includes your entire family and any pets. Delegate where you would go in an emergency situation and what your evacuation route would be.

If you receive a flood watch alert, that means there’s a possibility of flooding in your area. Listen to emergency instructions, figure out the highest floor you can safely get to and make sure your emergency kit—including water, food, any medications, batteries and a flashlight—is ready to go. Keep a three-day supply of water, with one gallon per person or pet for each day. Be sure to prepare your house by moving furniture to the highest floor, disconnecting all electrical appliances and if told to do so, turning off your gas and electricity. Bring any outdoor furniture or possessions inside or tie them securely.

If you receive a flood warning, it means you should be ready for imminent flooding or that a flood is already occurring.

  • Get to higher ground: Marshall says you should attempt to get to the highest point in your home, excluding the attic. If water rises, you could become trapped because most attics are enclosed with only one trap door leading to the rest of the house. “I really caution people against going into their attic unless that is the absolute last chance that they have,” he says.
  • Leave as early as possible: If you are told to evacuate, get out as soon as possible. Mike Wargo, assistant vice president for Enterprise Preparedness and Emergency Operations out of HCA Healthcare in Nashville, Tennessee, suggests leaving your home as soon as you can. Once a storm hits, it becomes even more difficult to evacuate.
  • Understand your local traffic routes: Study and understand the best route of travel before you leave. Keep in mind: Roads will likely be congested with traffic as people try to evacuate before the storm. If you do decide to leave, “get on the road as quickly as you can,” Marshall advises.
  • Don’t walk or drive through floods: Even if the water doesn’t look deep, six inches of moving water can knock you down; currents from only one foot of water can be strong enough to move your car. Ready.gov and other sites suggest “turn around, don’t drown.” That means if you start down a flooded street, turn around and look for an alternate route of travel. “The depth of water and the conditions of water underneath the surface can rapidly become extremely dangerous,” says Marshall. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Risks remain in recently flooded areas

Don’t try to drive or walk in areas that have been hit by flooding. “Listen to the advice of local authorities,” Marshall says. “And only attempt to repatriate yourselves to move back in once they have declared the area safe.” There are many complications that can occur post-storm, like drowning or being hit by floating debris. Some people might think it’s safe to go back home or they may try to rescue a neighbor, but it’s important to first keep your safety first.

Flooding can also result in exposure to contaminated water. “If someone does go into flood waters and reemerge seemingly safe, several weeks later we often see folks come down with very serious sicknesses,” Marshall says. These illnesses can be caused by bacteria, viruses and toxins lurking in flood water.

Anywhere standing water can sit and accumulate can become breeding areas for insects and parasites that may spread diseases. For instance, in newer communities and developments, storm runoff and rainwater may be collected in something called a water retention pond. These ponds can have some benefits to the community by helping to prevent flooding in homes and businesses but may also pose potential health hazards such as insect borne illnesses. Stay away from these areas and spray yourself with bug spray.

Plus, if there’s a fallen power source in standing water, it can cause electrocution. So, how do you avoid it? “Don't enter the flood water and heed public evacuation warnings that are issued by officials,” Marshall cautions.

Be aware of your surroundings, only leave your shelter area once you’re given the okay to do so, and avoid flood water at all costs.

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