Despite the dramatic images hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards offer, the costliest and deadliest U.S. weather phenomenon in an average year is flooding.
Last year, deadly floods in May impacted the Great Plain, and record rainfall in September caused devastating flooding in Colorado.
Ironically, flood deaths are some of the most readily prevented weather-related fatalities: Eighty-five people died in freshwater flooding in the United States in 2013 – more than half as a result of driving into floodwaters.
This week, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency have been partnering to urge Americans to be prepared for floods before they strike and to learn how to respond to a flooding situation.
Jim Britt, Oktibbeha County emergency management director, said a situation in Starkville a few years back illustrates how easily flooding turns dangerous.
“With severe storms you can get an astronomical amount of rain in localized areas,” he said. “Two or three years ago we had an incredibly heavy downpour. At the intersection of Martin Luther King and Jackson Street, the storm drains couldn’t take all the water, and it actually floated the cars off.”
Beyond the fact that as little as a foot of water can sweep away many cars, floodwaters can wash away roads altogether.
“Anytime you see water over a road,” Britt said, reciting the nationwide motto for flood safety, ‘Turn around! Don’t drown!’”
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said despite the obvious dangers, some drivers still risk driving in floodwaters.
“We worry about the folks who think they know their area and say, ‘Oh, this road never gets deep,” he said. “Our biggest fear is that there is no road there anymore, and they are killed when their car is swept into deeper water.”
Even in some tropical storms, Flynn said, more people may die in inland flooding than from the initial coastal impact.
“In Pearl River and Jackson counties after Hurricane Isaac, we had some 500 water rescues that were nowhere near the coast,” he said.
An NOAA statement says, “Following these simple steps year-round can help keep you and your loved ones safe when hazardous weather strikes: Keep tabs on the local forecast, create a disaster supplies kit, and alert others via texts and social media when a flood threat or other hazardous weather threat exists.”