Turn Around, Don’t Drown

This is it. We are in the peak of hurricane season. So far, we have had 12 named storms. We all know to prepare for and be wary of strong hurricanes, but even “weak” tropical systems can wreak just as much havoc. It’s important to remember that a tropical system’s strength is categorized solely by wind speed, but that flooding associated with a system (regardless of winds) can cause catastrophic impacts as well.

We’ve discussed in previous blogs how the categorization of tropical systems could likely use an update because the deadliest threat from storms isn’t wind, it’s water. Flooding and surging coastal waters account for about 88 percent of deaths from hurricanes in the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. However, for now, they are categorized solely on winds, so let’s do a quick refresher on tropical vocab to get this blog started!

  • Tropical Cyclone– a low pressure system (not associated with a front) that develops over tropical and sometimes sub-tropical waters and has organized deep convection with a closed wind circulation about a well-defined center.
  • Tropical Depression – a tropical cyclone that has maximum sustained surface winds (one-minute average) of 38 miles per hour (mph) or less
  • Tropical Storm– a tropical cyclone that has maximum sustained surface winds ranging from 39-73 mph
  • Hurricane– a tropical cyclone that has maximum sustained surface winds of 74 mph or greater
Heavy rains from Tropical Depression Imelda caused severe flooding last week. Courtesy: USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week, southeast Texas was rocked by torrential rains and dangerous flash flooding associated with Tropical Depression Imelda. The National Weather Service has called Imelda the worst storm in Texas since Hurricane Harvey and one of the wettest tropical cyclones in the nation’s history…which is unsurprising considering the fact some areas of southeast Texas were drenched with 43 inches of rain. In comparison, Harvey dropped about 60 inches of rain. Over 900 flights were canceled into and out of Houston area airports due to the severe rain (fun fact: I was scheduled to be on one of those flights, but my airline emailed and asked if I would mind re-routing to avoid it. Thank goodness for that!) The town of Hamshire, Texas, saw six months’ worth of rain in 48 hours, with over 2 feet of that rainfall within 12 hours. Houston broke its record for the most rain in one day in the month of September with over 9 inches. Unfortunately, these rainfall rates were so excessive, that many people found themselves caught in a dangerous flooding situation that culminated very rapidly. Over 300 people were rescued from homes in Chambers County as the water rose, local officials said. Dump trucks and airboats were used to help residents to safety.

Although Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared a disaster in 13 counties, it does not qualify individuals for financial aid. That would have to come from a federal disaster declaration, which would release federal dollars for public assistance or individual assistance. Federal Emergency Management Agency agents began doing damage assessments Monday morning, although it’s unclear how long that will take. For individual assistance, paid out to individuals for housing and other disaster-related needs, there need to be 800 homes that took in 18 inches or more of water and are not covered by insurance, according to Seth Christensen, a representative for the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Hundreds of Texans have been displaced from their homes due to the tropical storm, and five people have died as a result of it. These deaths bring the Texas flood-related death toll to fifteen in 2019.

Fatalities related to flooding in 2019. Courtesy NWS La Platte.

Did you know that flooding is actually one of the deadliest weather-related natural hazards in the United States (second only to heat)? On average, floods claim the lives of 87 victims each year. So far in 2019, there have been 94 fatalities due to flooding – higher than last year and higher than the 30 year average with three months left in the year. Over half of those fatalities (59) were occurred when the victim was driving. In 2015, 129 people died while driving through flooded roadways. Since then, over fifty people have died each year trying to drive through flooded roadways.

If flooding occurs, get to higher ground. Get out of areas subject to flooding, such as dips, low spots, canyons, and normally dry washes. People tend to underestimate the force and power of water. Many of the deaths occur in cars swept downstream. Many of these drownings are preventable. Never drive around the barriers blocking a flooded road. The road may have collapsed under that water. A mere 6 inches of fast-moving flood water can knock over an adult. It takes just 12 inches of rushing water to carry away most cars and just 2 feet of rushing water can carry away SUVs and trucks. As always, stay up to date with the latest weather forecasts at weather.gov, and if you come to a flooded road, Turn Around, Don’t Drown!

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