The power of water

E010107Water is what makes our planet unique in the cosmos. Water is essential to life, and is used for everything from cooking to industry to recreation. Just like Goldie Locks we want our water to be just right. It’s bad enough when we have too little like last summer, but too much causes flooding. And flooding is deceptively powerful and sometimes deadly.

Whether we encounter ­prolonged, gradual flooding from creeks and ­rivers, or flash flooding from intense rains on roads and waterways, floods are a danger that too many people ignore each year. Many flood-related rescues, injuries and fatalities are avoidable by knowing a few key things about floods and following flood safety guidelines.

Knowing the terminology

The National Weather Service uses four different terms related to ­flooding events.

• A “Flood Watch” is issued when there is the potential for gradual flooding from rivers OR quick ­developing flash flooding.

• A “Flash Flood Warning” means that a flash flood is occurring or is imminent. Steep terrain is not necessary to produce a flash flood. Heavy rainfall in a short period of time can overwhelm sewer systems or drainage ditches causing deep water to quickly develop. The key word is “flash” because of how fast these types of floods can develop. A break in a dam or levee, as well as an ice jam on a river, can also ­produce a flash flood.

• A “Flood Warning” is posted when rivers are expected to reach a level known as the “flood stage.” This is the level of a river that causes water to spread out of its banks and impact surrounding land and property. A Flood Warning can also be issued for widespread flooding of roads, fields and communities caused by a long period, or periods, of heavy rain.

• A “Flood Advisory” is used for ­anticipated or imminent minor flooding of creeks, streams, low lying areas, streets and/or basements.

Staying safe

No matter what type of flood we experience, the critical thing to remember is what to do to stay safe. Nearly every year in the United States, more than 60 percent of all flood fatalities occur when people try to navigate flood waters in their vehicle.

Consider this — it only take 12 inches of water to lift 1,800 pounds! We call this buoyancy. It is the reason that heavy metal boats float on the water. Since many automobiles are in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 pounds, then buoyancy tells us that it only takes 18 to 24 inches of water to cause them to float. Add to that the forces due to flowing water and you have a recipe for disaster.

A number of years ago, the National Weather Service came up with a catchy phrase — “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” If you are not certain about the depth of the water on a roadway, especially if the water is flowing, then do NOT attempt to cross the road. NEVER drive around a barricade. It is there for your ­protection. Turn around and take a different route.

Following flood safety advice is very critical at night when it can be very difficult to determine the depth of the water. In fact, the peak time for flash flooding in Illinois is between midnight and 2:00 a.m.

Another cause of numerous flood-related injuries and fatalities is when people attempt to walk or swim through flooded areas — ­particularly children. Never let children play in or near ­floodwaters! Besides the tremen­dous danger of ­falling into the water or being swept off their feet, floodwaters often contain very harmful chemicals or bacteria.

While camping, fishing or taking part in other outdoor activities near rivers or creeks, keep an eye on the forecast and the water levels. Don’t get surprised by rapidly rising floodwaters. Stay far enough away from the water’s edge, particularly when thunder­storms are anticipated.

Chris Miller is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Lincoln, Ill.
Chris Miller is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Lincoln, Ill.

Never step into a flooded basement or other room if water may be in contact with electrical outlets, appliances or cords. Never attempt to turn off power at the breaker box if you must stand in water to do so.

Respect the forces of nature and the power of water. Someday your life, or the lives or your loved ones, may depend on it.

Flood Safety Awareness Week is March 18-22, 2013. To learn more about floods and flood safety, visit our web page at: