2012-06-22 / In the Know

News flash: Flooding can kill

By David Feeney
Special contributor

In addition to lightning, high winds, hail and tornadoes, summertime thunderstorms also bring the threat of flooding and flash flooding to northern New England.

In the summertime, most flash floods are caused by heavy, slowly moving thunderstorms which can produce excessive rainfall in an area in a short period of time.

Along with the rainfall, topography, soil conditions, and ground cover help determine how much of the rainfall soaks into the ground and how much of the rainfall runs off into streams and rivers.

Floods kill. Nationwide, floods and flash floods are the greatest storm-related killers, claiming the lives of about 90 people annually. They are also the number one storm-related killer in New England.

Additionally, floods and flash floods are responsible for a considerable amount of public and private property damage.

Last year, 63 percent of the flood fatalities were caused by people attempting to drive through flooded areas. Another 22 percent were caused as people attempted to run, walk, swim, or just fell into a flooded area.

As little as two feet of water will float most cars and small trucks. If your vehicle begins to float, you lose complete control over the vehicle. If your vehicle stalls in a flooded roadway, abandon it immediately and seek higher ground.

The water may sweep the vehicle and its occupants away. Dam failures can also lead to floods or flash floods. While not always caused by the weather, dam failures can lead to extremely fast rises in river and stream levels.

Here are some examples of fatal flood and flash flood events that occurred in Maine and New Hampshire since 1996.

• July 13, 1996, Bristol, N.H.: Three to four inches of rain from the remnants of hurricane Bertha caused many small rivers and streams to flood. A 10- year-old boy playing in the rain-swollen Newfound River was swept to his death.

• Oct. 21, 1996, Scarborough: 18 inches of rain caused very serious flooding here in Scarborough. Local lobsterman Bob Snow drowned when he drove his truck into a flooded roadway on Old Blue Point Road just as the roadway washed away.

He was on his way to help a friend with a flooded basement problem.

• March 31, 1998, Franklin County: Snowmelt, caused by record-breaking warmth, combined with recent rainfall to cause many rivers and streams to rise.

One man drowned when he drove his truck into a flooded roadway.

• June 27, 1998 Bridgewater, N.H.: Heavy, slowmoving thunderstorms caused the Baker River and its tributaries to rise rapidly. One man drowned when he was sucked into a culvert while attempting to clear debris from the culvert. A second man was injured.

• April 16, 2007, Lebanon, Maine: A woman and her 4-year-old granddaughter she was carrying were swept to their death as they attempted to cross a flooded roadway on foot.

• Aug. 7, 2008, Ashland, N.H.: A 7-year-old girl drowned when a bridge washed away as her family tried to drive out of a flooded campground.

The message is simple. Pay attention to alerts, and be safe. To alert the public to the threat of flooding, the National Weather Service issues flood and flash flood watches and warnings.

A flood watch indicates flooding or flash flooding is possible and is usually issued in anticipation of heavy rainfall. A flood or flash flood warning indicates that flooding is imminent or is already occurring.

If you hear that a flood or flash flood warning has been issued for your area, move immediately to higher ground if flood waters threaten.

Here are some flood and flash flood facts and safety tips:

Never drive a car into a flooded roadway. More than half of all flash flood fatalities are vehicle related. Keep away from streams during heavy rainfall events.

Swiftly moving water is extremely powerful and can easily overpower a person.

Keep children (and pets) inside and away from flooded streets, culverts and streams. Report any flooding to the appropriate authorities. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Obey all roadblocks and barriers, even if the flooding has receded.

Floodwaters may have undercut the road surface or left dangerous debris in the roadway. If you live in a flood-prone area, have a plan in case the water starts rising quickly.

If you have any questions about his article or any fire department issue, contact Chief Thurlow at mthurl@ci.scarborough. me.us or call 730-4201.

David Feeney works for the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency.

The National Weather Service and Maine Emergency Management contributed to this column.

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