Floods are one of the most common hazards in the United States, including in Massachusetts. However, not all floods are alike. Floods can develop slowly or in just a few minutes and without visible signs of rain. Additionally, floods can be local, impacting a neighborhood or community, or very large, affecting entire river basins and multiple states.
Flooding is most frequently caused by heavy or persistent rainfall, but can also be caused by naturally melting snow and ice. Improper or blocked drainage systems, as well as ruptured dams and levees, or the release of an ice jam, can cause flooding. Coastal flooding is caused by offshore storms, which drive ocean water further inland than normal tides. Flooding most often occurs in a floodplain, which is the lowland adjacent to a river, stream, lake, or ocean. However, flooding can happen anywhere. Floodplains are designated by how often flooding occurs which is large enough to inundate them. To find out your community’s flooding risk, contact your local Emergency Management Office.
Before a Flood:
- Terms used to describe flooding: Ask local officials whether your property is in a flood-prone or high-risk area.
- Flood Watch – Flooding is possible. Watches are issued 12 to 36 hours in advance of a possible event.
- Flash Flood Watch – Flash Flooding is possible. Be prepared to move to higher ground. A Flash Flood could occur without warning.
- Flood Warning – Flooding is occurring, or will occur soon. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.
- Flash Flood Warning – A flash flood is occurring. Seek higher ground immediately.
- Identify dams in your area and determine if they pose a hazard to you.
- Purchase a NOAA Weather Radio with battery backup and a tone-alert feature.
- Elevate your furnace, water heater, and electric panel to higher floors if they are susceptible to flooding.
- Install ‘check valves’ in sewer traps to prevent floodwater from backing up into the drains in your home.
- Monitor Media reports.
- Ensure your home is ready. Minimize damage from basement flooding by elevating utilities, and materials that could be damaged by limited basement flooding.
- Bring children’s toys, patio and lawn furniture indoors.
During a Flood:
- Monitor stream and urban street flooding. For those living in areas that are prone to localized flooding, closely watch small streams and low-lying areas for early flooding. Make sure street catch basins are cleared.
- Heed evacuation requests. Follow recommended evacuation routes, shortcuts may be blocked or dangerous. (See Evacuation)
- Do not walk through flowing water. Drowning is the number one cause of flood deaths. Most of these drownings occur during flash floods. Flash flood waters move at very fast speeds and can roll boulders, sweep away cars, tear out trees, destroy buildings, and obliterate bridges. Six inches of swiftly moving water can knock you off of your feet. If you must walk through a flooded area, use a pole or stick to ensure that the ground is still there and solid, even where the water is not flowing.
- Do not drive through flooded areas. More people drown in their cars than anywhere else. Cars can be swept away in just 2 feet of moving water. Do not drive around road barriers. They are there for a reason. The road or bridge may be washed out or structurally unsound. If your car becomes trapped in floodwaters, abandon it immediately and climb to higher ground. Many deaths have resulted from attempts to move stalled vehicles.
- Avoid powerlines and electrical wires. Electrocution is also a major killer in floods. Electrical current can travel through water. Report downed power lines to your utility company or local Emergency Manager.
- Watch for animals, especially snakes. Small wild animals that have been flooded out of their homes may seek shelter in yours. Use a pole or stick to poke and turn items over and scare away small creatures.
- Look before you step. After a flood, the ground and floors are covered with debris, including broken bottles and nails. Floors and stairs that have been covered with mud can be very slippery.
- Be alert for gas leaks. Use a flashlight to inspect for damage. Do not smoke or use candles, lanterns or open flames unless you are sure that the gas has been turned off and the area has been aired out.
- Carbon Monoxide exhaust kills. Only use camping stoves, generators or other gasoline-powered machines outdoors. Fumes from charcoal are especially deadly, so only use outdoors.
After a Flood:
- Flood dangers do not end when the water begins to recede. Listen to the media and do not return home until authorities indicate that it is safe to do so.
- Avoid floodwaters. The water may be contaminated by oil, gasoline or raw sewerage.
- Wash hands frequently with soap and clean water if you come in contact with floodwaters.
- Be aware of areas where floodwaters have receded. Roads may have weakened and could collapse under the weight of a car.
- Before returning to a building, inspect for cracks or other damage. When entering, use extreme caution, making sure that the building is not in danger of collapsing.
- Take pictures/video of the damage, both to the house and its contents for insurance claims.
- Look for hazards such as broken or leaking gas lines, flooded electrical circuits, submerged furnaces or electrical appliances and damaged sewage systems.
- Until local authorities proclaim your water supply safe, boil water for drinking and food preparation vigorously for five minutes before using.
- Flooded buildings should be pumped out and disinfected. Pump out basements gradually, about 1/3 per day, to avoid structural damage. After the water is pumped out, solid wastes should be disposed of in a functioning sewage disposal system or sealed in plastic bags for disposal in an approved landfill. All flooded floor and wall surfaces should be washed with a solution of two capfuls of household bleach for each gallon of water. Carpeting, mattresses and upholstered furniture should be disposed of or cleaned and disinfected by a professional cleaner.
- Throw away food that has come in contact with floodwaters.
- Listen to news reports to learn whether the community’s water supply is safe to drink.
- Yards that have been contaminated by flooded sewage systems should be disinfected by a liberal application of lime. Children and animals should be kept away from limed areas until the lime is no longer visible.
- If your home, apartment or business has suffered damage, call your insurance company or agent who handles your flood insurance right away to file a claim. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers the National Flood Insurance Plan (NFIP) through the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA). The NFIP makes flood insurance available in communities that adopt and enforce ordinances to reduce flood damage.
- Be prepared for a rough time. Recovering from a flood is a big job. It is rough on the body and the spirit. The aftereffects of this type of disaster on you and your family may last a long time. Consult a health professional on how to recognize and care for anxiety, stress and fatigue.