National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Thunderstorm Hazards - Flash Floods

Except for heat related fatalities, more deaths occur from flooding than any other hazard. Why? Most people fail to realize the power of water. For example, six inches of fast-moving flood water can knock you off your feet.

While the number of fatalities can vary dramatically with weather conditions from year to year, the national 30-year average for flood deaths is 88. That compares with a 30-year average of 41 deaths for lightning, 68 for tornadoes and 45 for hurricanes.

National Weather Service data also shows:

  • Nearly half of all flash flood fatalities are vehicle-related,
  • The majority of victims are males, and
  • Flood deaths affect all age groups.

Most flash floods are caused by slow moving thunderstorms, thunderstorms that move repeatedly over the same area or heavy rains from tropical storms and hurricanes. These floods can develop within minutes or hours depending on the intensity and duration of the rain, the topography, soil conditions and ground cover.

Flash floods can roll boulders, tear out trees, destroy buildings and bridges, and scour out new channels. Rapidly rising water can reach heights of 30 feet or more. Furthermore, flash flood-producing rains can also trigger catastrophic mud slides.

Occasionally, floating debris or ice can accumulate at a natural or man-made obstruction and restrict the flow of water. Water held back by the ice jam or debris dam can cause flooding upstream. Subsequent flash flooding can occur downstream if the obstruction should suddenly release.


Turn Around, Don't Drown

Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other thunderstorm related hazard. Why? The main reason is people underestimate the force and power of water. Many of the deaths occur in automobiles as they are swept downstream. Of these deaths, many are preventable, but foolish people drive around the barriers in place that warn you the road is flooded.

Whether you are driving or walking, if you come to a flooded road, Turn Around Don't Drown! You will not know the depth of the water nor will you know the condition of the road under the water.

Of the three deaths which occurred as a result of the Fort Worth tornado, March 28, 2000, one death was due to flooding. The man who drowned was a passenger in a car with his girlfriend, the driver. They approached a low spot with water flowing over the road due to very heavy rain. Flooding was a common occurrence at this location with heavy rains and the danger was well marked.

As the driver drove her car into the water she became frightened as the water rose higher and higher around her vehicle. She backed out to higher ground. The passenger said the water was NOT too deep and he would prove it by walking across to the other side. He never made it.

Follow these safety rules.

  • Monitor the NOAA Weather Radio, or your favorite news source for vital weather-related information.
  • If flooding occurs, get to higher ground. Get out of areas subject to flooding. This includes dips, low spots, canyons, washes etc.
  • Avoid already flooded and high velocity flow areas. Do not attempt to cross flowing streams. If you enter a flowing stream and the water gets above you knee, TURN AROUND DON'T DROWN.
  • If driving be aware that the road bed may not be intact under flood waters. Turn around and go another way. NEVER drive through flooded roadways! If your vehicle stalls, leave it immediately and seek higher ground. Rapidly rising water may engulf the vehicle and sweep you and your occupants away.
  • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams and washes, particularly during threatening conditions.
  • Be especially cautious at night when it is harder to recognize flood dangers.

We say "Follow these safety rules" and most folks say "Yeah, yeah, whatever. It's not going to happen to me." A simple Internet search of flash flood victims (and some seen from inside the vehicle) will show you the reason to just TURN AROUND DON'T DROWN. Learn more about flash flooding.