2016 saw the United States swamped in a record year of flooding, the most since record keeping began in 1980. Devastating flooding swept Louisiana, West Virginia, Texas and Maryland, costing billions in damage. In Canada, about half of all natural disaster costs are incurred from flooding, reaching into the billions of dollars in recent years.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, flooding is the “costliest and most common natural disaster in the U.S.” Pew cites federal flood insurance claims averaging $1.9 billion annually from 2006 to 2015, and estimates that just four of the 36 federal disaster declarations relating to flooding and hurricanes in 2016 will cost more than $1 billion each.
Being unprepared for flooding is a costly and dangerous risk to take. “The biggest mistake people make is not giving floodwaters the proper respect,” says Sonny Bass, technical director of training at Paul Davis, a leading restoration and reconstruction company with extensive experience with flood damage. “The waters can be deceptively forceful and strong. A little knowledge – and a lot of preparation – can help you minimize risk to yourself and your property.”
With that, let’s look at ways that you can prepare for a flood and reduce the risk to your community, family and property when one occurs.
Before a flood:
Evaluate your risk.
Is your neighborhood prone to flooding? What about routes you take to school or work every day? Research flood maps and find out the elevation of your home to be sure. Your local emergency management office is a great resource for this, as is your property insurance provider. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website also provides a list of companies that determine flood zones for properties.
Even if your home is not in a federally defined flood zone, you should consider flood insurance, especially if you live near a levee, dam or reservoir. Both Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina resulted in millions of dollars of flood damage outside flood zones, due to reservoir overflows, levee failures and rainfall in excess of what storm drain systems could handle. Consult with your insurance agent or broker for more details.
Audit your insurance.
It’s important to conduct an annual audit of your insurance coverage and make sure that all of your information and property valuations are current and complete. Have you made any upgrades to your home or community that may require a boost in insurance coverage? Don’t wait until after a disaster to find out. Remember that standard homeowner and property insurance policies typically do not cover damage from floods. It’s a good idea to purchase a separate National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policy through an insurance agent. If you’re in hurricane country, insurance experts warn that it’s important to know that water damage caused by your roof coming off or windows breaking results in a different claim than water damage from a canal overflowing, even if both happen as a result of the same storm.
Be prepared at all times.
Make a disaster supply kit now. It should include a flashlight and batteries, a battery-powered radio, first aid supplies, medicine, drinking water, food that won’t perish, extra clothes, cash, portable cell phone chargers and important paperwork (insurance documents, birth certificates, etc.). If your home is in a flood-prone area, keep plywood, lumber, plastic sheets, trash bags, shovels, work boots, gloves and sandbags on hand.
Your local emergency management professionals will be able to help you learn about the risks and prepare for flooding in your area. They will know specific information about the area you live in, such as how the ground in your area drains or absorbs water, how canals, rivers or other bodies of water in your area flood, etc.
It’s also a good idea to back up important paperwork to the cloud and/or in a second secure location such as a bank safety deposit box. Keep your kit in a water-tight container.
Create an evacuation plan.
If you live in a flood-prone area, have an evacuation plan prepared, along with a backup route. Make sure that every member of your family is familiar with your evacuation plan and route. If you live in an area prone to seasonal storms and flooding, take the time to check that your route still works at the beginning of the season and conduct a drill with your family so everyone is clear on your evacuation plan. Make sure that your emergency supply kit is easily accessible if you need to leave your home quickly.
Communication is key, too. If you serve on the board of your community association, ensure that the association communicates the importance of preparation and having an evacuation plan in place to residents. Send residents important information such as emergency contacts, an evacuation route for your community and directions and tips on how to submit insurance claims. A good property management company will provide a 24/7 communication platform for you and your management team to use to keep residents informed during emergencies. Ideally, that system will allow you to send important updates via email, text message or phone during times of crisis.
During a flood:
Do not go in the water.
Water as little as six inches deep can sweep a grown person off his or her feet if it’s running rapidly enough. It only takes a few feet of swift floodwater to carry away a full-sized SUV. Remember these words: “turn around, don’t drown.”
Seek higher ground.
If you’re walking, find a higher elevation. If your vehicle stalls, get out and find higher ground.
Keep your radio tuned to national weather for updated alerts and information. Install local weather and emergency information apps on your smart phone and allow them to send you alerts.
Avoid electrical equipment.
Downed power lines and submerged electrical equipment can kill you if you are wet or standing in water.
After a flood:
Don’t go home until it’s safe.
Your local emergency management officials will let you know when it’s safe to go back to your area after an evacuation.
Check your home visually before you go inside.
Examine your home for damage, loose power lines and broken gas lines before you enter. With every step, be sure to make sure you’re not placing your foot on broken glass or nails that may have been swept in by floodwaters. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for snakes and other wild animals that may have been carried in with the flood.
Drive with caution.
Even after flood waters have receded, roads may have been damaged to the point of collapse. Proceed with extreme care. If a route is barricaded, turn around. Crossing the barricade can cost you your life.
Clean up carefully.
Wear rubber gloves and boots during clean-up and recovery. If your food and water have come into contact with floodwater, discard it – it may have become contaminated. This goes for canned goods, water bottles, plastic utensils and baby bottle nipples. A good phrase to remember is “when in doubt, throw it out.”
Mold can be prevented in many cases if you are able to act within 48 hours to dry walls and flooring completely. If needed, look into mold mitigation services.
Prevent future risk.
Damage to septic tanks, cesspools, pits and leaching systems can pose a serious health risk if not repaired immediately. Get them evaluated, and repaired if necessary, by qualified professionals, right away. Your property management company may have a list of acceptable vendors in your area for those and other services in the wake of a flood.
Contact your insurance company.
Take photos of all damage, and get the insurance process started as soon as possible. If you are on the board of a community association, your property manager will be able to assist with this process and help get things going more quickly.
As we’ve seen across North America, flooding can pose a significant hazard. With proper preparation beforehand, good judgement during a flood, and responsive action afterward, you can help protect your property – and your life – should the worst occur.
For additional information about preparing for a flood, check out these organizations:
Resources in the United States
National Flood Insurance Program
Resources in Canada
Disaster Assistance Programs
Flood Preparedness Tips