Planning for Emergencies: Floods (Second of a Series)

People are the most important part of any business. When preparing or reviewing your business plan regularly, make sure you have emergency plans also in place for you, your people and your business.

In the second part of our series, we will continue to give you information on protecting yourself and others for different situations. Like our first blog, our second is a timely one for the Midwestern United States, this time covering the topic of floods.

Severe Weather Awareness: Preparing for Flooding

On May 6, 2015, a 20-mile wide corridor of southeast Nebraska was hit by a series of heavy rains, many following a multi-county tornado warning that included a dozen twister sightings. The accompanying rains ranged in depth from 3 to 7 inches in Lancaster County, closing US Highway 77 south of the state capital, Lincoln, and two major thoroughfares in town. Ten-inch rains in Hebron and Deshler in Thayer County blocked access to Hebron’s hospital and forced the evacuation of a Deshler nursing home.

Heavy rains forced Salt Creek to the limit of its banks and the Little Blue and Big Blue Rivers out of theirs, leading to flooded areas downstream from where the rains originally fell. DeWitt in Saline County and Fairbury in Thayer County were both evacuated, in whole or in part, even though Fairbury had received only half an inch of rain, as were portions of Lincoln, Steele City, and Deshler. Fairbury resident Betty McMullen, 86, was found dead in her basement Friday, May 8, after floodwaters had receded enough for emergency workers to reach her home and pump water out.

In contrast, 3 inches of rain in Sarpy County led to the temporary closure of 36th Street between Highway 370 and Cornhusker Road.

Damage estimates from the 2015 flood are not yet available, but a similarly devastating flood occurred along the Republican River on Memorial Day of 1935, killing 94 people and causing $26 million in 1935 dollars ($440 million in today’s dollars) worth of damage.

When Can Floods Form?

Floods are typically associated with heavy rainfall accompanying severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, as well as from tropical storms and hurricanes hitting coastal areas. Inland floods of this nature often occur from spring into early summer, while coastal areas subject to flooding associated with tropical storms can be hit from mid-May to the end of November. Heavy rainfall is not the only cause of flooding, however.

Floods can also be caused by the failure of a dam or levee to hold water back. The Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 was caused by the failure of the South Fork Dam, killing 2,200 people. The June 5, 1976 failure of Teton Dam in Idaho killed 11 people and caused over $1 billion in property damage. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, on its sweep through New Orleans, caused 50 levees to fail, flooding 100,000 homes and businesses in the city.

Floods can also occur during late winter and early spring when ice on rivers begins to break up. The ice pieces can form temporary dams, or jams, that trap water until its weight and pressure break up the jam, releasing the water suddenly and often catastrophically. (It’s sometimes possible for an ice jam to break, re-form downstream, and break again several times over.)

What Areas Are Prone to Flooding?

Smooth, low-lying areas near streams are especially prone to flooding. These areas are known as floodplains. Statistically, a given floodplain is flooded once every 2 1/3 years, although individual floodplains are rated according to their anticipated likelihood of being inundated by floodwaters. A 100-year floodplain is one that is expected to flood no more often than every 100 years; a flood capable of flooding such an area is dubbed a “100-year flood.” Other time increments commonly used include 5 years, 20 years, 50 years, and 500 years.

Man-made development in a floodplain can have an impact on how susceptible the area is to being flooded. Because water is important to agriculture and flat lands are easy to develop, many floodplains have been either plowed or built on, affecting the rates at which water covers the land and drains off afterward. Furthermore, wildfires in certain parts of the country have destroyed trees and grasses that absorb water and anchor the soil in place, so that when such areas are flooded, the loose soil is washed away in a mudflow.

To compensate for the increased risk of flooding, structures such as dams and levees may be erected to hold water back. Other methods for controlling runoff include diversion canals, which divert water to holding ponds or natural bodies of water that can better contain the floodwaters; tide gates, which close to block incoming high tides from flooding lowlands around the mouths of rivers; and self-closing flood barriers. Last-minute stopgaps include using sandbags to shore up levees and temporary perimeter barriers consisting of two water-filled tubes held within a larger third tube. These barriers can be filled with floodwaters on-site and were used in an attempt to prevent the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station from being flooded in 2011. (The effort ultimately failed when the barrier was punctured by a skid loader.)

When the systems function, they can prevent damage. Present estimates are that flood control structures in Jefferson, Saline, and Thayer Counties may have reduced the flood damage in southeast Nebraska by up to $3 million, according to a report from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

How Fast Can Flooding Occur?

How fast flooding occurs depends on how much water is released and how fast. Overland flooding can occur over the course of a day in a steady downpour, or a rapid rain or barrier break can cause flooding within minutes. A flood that occurs within 6 hours of the release of water is called a flash flood.

How Can I Prepare Beforehand?

Build smart. Avoid building in a floodplain unless you elevate and reinforce your structure. Furnaces, water heaters, and electric panels should all be elevated, and you may want to consider installing check valves to keep floodwaters from backing up through your drains and applying sealants to basement walls to waterproof them.

Consider flood insurance. Most homeowners’ insurance and standard business insurance policies do not include coverage for flood damage. You can assess your flooding risk with a flood-hazard map (located on the FEMA website at, and consider your need for flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program ( at .

Keep your vehicle well-maintained. If you should have to evacuate because of flooding, it’s important to keep your vehicle in top condition. Keep your gas tank filled, and make sure your tires have sufficient tread to grip the road and are rotated and balanced on a regular basis.

Monitor weather conditions closely. As conditions worsen, listen to either your local news or to a NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent organization of the National Weather Service) weather radio for more information. You can also receive weather information from commercial radio and television broadcasts from stations that are part of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Assemble an emergency kit. This kit should be kept in your designated safe room or shelter or kept near it so precious time is not lost. FEMA (, the American Red Cross ( and others recommend different supplies to be put in your emergency kit, including:

  • One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days (for both drinking and washing)
  • Food (non-perishable) for three days
  • Can opener for food
  • Mess kits (plates, cups and eating utensils)
  • Radio with extra batteries (or a hand-crank  radio)
  • Flashlight with extra batteries (or a hand-crank flashlight)
  • First aid kit, including antiseptics, medicine and bandages
  • Prescription medicines
  • Whistle (to use if you are unable to call loud enough for help)
  • Matches, in a waterproof container
  • Blankets
  • Change of clothes
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Bags, or other items, for makeshift toilets
  • Cell phone with charger, inverter or solar charger
  • Phone apps useful for emergencies, including weather alerts and social media to call for help
  • Phone numbers of friends and family on paper, in case your cell phone has no power
  • Phone numbers of the utilities and emergency assistance
  • A dust mask of at least rating N95 for each person, in case the air is too hard to breathe from dust or fire. You can find these at hardware or home improvement stores, as well as through online vendors.
  • Plastic sheeting to keep dry and make shelter
  • Duct tape to help make shelter with the plastic sheeting, if needed
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities or bang pipes for help
  • Paper, pens, pencils
  • Trash bags
  • Wipes
  • Extra cash

If you have children, include:

  • Infant formula and water for mix, if needed
  • Diapers, ointment and baby cleaning supplies
  • Water and food for children for at least three days
  • Books, games, amusements and toys that do not require electricity

If you have pets, include:

  • Pet food and water for at least three days
  • Pet carriers
  • Collars and leashes
  • Favorite toy
  • Litter box or newspapers

Putting your emergency supplies in backpacks or duffel bags is a good idea to keep them safe, easy to carry and close at hand. (This is especially helpful if you need to evacuate.) Most of these supplies work for other emergencies as well.

Note: The three-day supply is recommended for short-term survival conditions, if an evacuation is planned within 72 hours. If you anticipate longer emergency conditions, the American Red Cross recommends having a two-week supply of non-perishable food and water.

Other ways to plan ahead

Designate a friend or family member who lives in another state or area as a point of contact in an emergency if you should become displaced.

  • Instruct everyone on where to meet if they should somehow get separated as a result of the storm.
  • Take CPR classes so you can assist an injured person if necessary.
  • Contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross to learn more.

What to do if you have to evacuate

If you have to evacuate because of rising floodwaters, make sure your home is secure.

  • Move essential items to upper floors.
  • Turn off utilities at their main switches or valves.
  • Disconnect electrical appliances. (Do not touch electrical appliances, however, if you’re wet or standing in water.)

On leaving, be sure to avoid walking or driving through flowing water. Some factors to consider:

  • Six inches of fast-moving water are enough to knock you off your feet. If the water is deeper than ankle height and moving, avoid it. If the water is standing, use a walking stick to verify that the ground underneath the water is safe to walk on.
  • A few inches of water are enough to cause your vehicle to hydroplane (lose contact with the road surface). If there is standing water on the road, slow your vehicle to 35mph or less. Do not drive with your cruise control engaged. If your car should hydroplane, immediately take your foot off the accelerator and gently turn your steering wheel in the direction your vehicle is skidding until you feel the tires reconnect with the pavement.
  • Two feet of running water are enough to sweep away most vehicles. If you see moving water ahead of you, turn around and find another route of escape. Remember, “Turn around; don’t drown.”
  • If you’re caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, leave the vehicle for higher ground. If your vehicle is caught in running water before you can safely exit it, stay with it; if water should enter the vehicle, take refuge on the vehicle roof.

What Is The Difference Between a Flood Watch and a Flood Warning?

Severe weather alerts are divided into watches and warnings. A watch is issued when severe weather conditions are predicted to occur. A flood watch is issued when conditions for flooding are favorable. If flooding is particularly likely, but considered to be more of a nuisance than a hardship, a flood advisory is issued.

A warning is occurred when severe weather is occurring or imminent. A flood warning is issued for an area where flooding is already happening or will happen very soon. You should be ready to evacuate the area if called upon to do so.

If the anticipated flooding has the potential be especially sudden or violent, the alert is issued as a flash flood watch or warning. In the event of a flash flood warning, you must evacuate to higher ground immediately. Do NOT wait for instructions to do so.

If either a watch or warning is issued, keep abreast of developments through a NOAA weather radio or through commercial radio or television.

What Do I Do Once the Floodwaters Subside?

  • Don’t return home until authorities have declared the area safe.
  • Look for damaged utility lines and structural damage before re-entering your house. Even if you don’t see any damage, be careful on approaching any entrance.
  • If you smell gas or hear a hissing noise, leave at once and contact your local fire department.
  • If power lines are downed, avoid standing water.
  • Keep your children and pets away from floodwaters and other hazards.
  • Treat any water-damaged or contaminated batteries, cleaning products, paint, and fuels or fuel containers as hazardous materials. Contact local authorities for instructions on how to dispose of them properly, and wear rubber gloves and rubber boots when cleaning up.
  • Discard food and drink items that have been in contact with floodwaters, including canned foods, bottled water, eating utensils, and baby bottle nipples.
  • Use only flashlights, not candles, for light.
  • Watch for, and avoid, any snakes or other stray animals that may appear after flooding. Do not kill them, as they will help prevent problems from displaced rodents.
  • Check with your local or state health department to see if your water supply is safe to drink, wash, and bathe with. You may have to boil or chemically treat the water to make it safe.
  • Notify family members that you’re safe. You may have to do so through the American Red Cross’ Safe and Well website or register through 1-866-GET-INFO.

Flooding can strike suddenly and be deadly. While taking the above steps will not guarantee your survival, they will greatly improve your chances of living to tell about it later. As always, use your best judgment.

Resources and References

Weather alerts

National Weather Service active weather alert map:

Dam and levee safety
(The Association of State Dam Safety Officials)

Dam safety:

Living Near Dams: A booklet available from the ASDSO at

Levee safety:

Flood insurance resources

National Flood Insurance Program (

Understanding the cost of flooding:

The FEMA Flood Map Service Center:

How to read flood maps:

Government disaster programs (FEMA)

State Directory of CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) Programs:

Disaster Emergency Communications:

Equipment and training

The American Red Cross Store:

Finding Your Local American Red Cross Chapter:

Choosing a dust mask:

Emergency communications

FEMA Family Communications Plan:

The American Red Cross Safe and Well Registry:



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