The recent catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey confirmed what weather researchers and climatologists have acknowledged for decades: the most common natural disaster worldwide, by far, is flooding.
As outlined by the World Economic Forum, flooding accounted for 43 percent of all recorded disasters during a 20-year span, 1995–2015—a period when more than 3,000 flood events were recorded. Harvey reinforced that pattern to the extreme.
A rain gauge in a community east of Houston collected more than 50 inches of rain, The Washington Post reported, meaning Harvey produced the largest amount of rain in a single storm in the Lower 48 states in U.S. history. The New York Times cited a meteorologist with a flood control agency who calculated that 25 to 30 percent of Harris County, which includes Houston and covers 1,800 square miles, was flooded.
As the early death toll rose above two dozen victims, perhaps the most heartbreaking story involved the death of two adults, ages 84 and 81, and their four grandchildren. As reported by CBS affiliate KHOU, they perished when their van was swept away by floodwaters and they were unable to escape before the vehicle flooded.
Harvey’s unrelenting force provided a sobering reminder of the unpredictability and life-changing power of storms and flooding. As National Preparedness Month (September) arrives, it seems an appropriate time to ask: How ready are you to cope with, even survive, such an unexpected event? Particularly in your vehicle?
The National Weather Service reports that in the United States the highest number of weather-related fatalities in 2016 were caused by floods—126. That’s a significant increase over the 10-year average (2007–2016) for flood-related deaths (91). Many of these deaths are attributable to people being trapped in their vehicles.
Just one week before Harvey roared into Houston, heavy rains pummeled Kansas City with up to nine inches of rain, resulting in raging floodwaters that caused at least one driver to be trapped in his vehicle and swept away to his death, as reported by CBS.
Does such flooding happen in only a few flood-prone areas within the country? Hardly, says The Dec Page, an online news outlet on insurance-related topics which points out that floods or flash floods have occurred in all 50 states in the past five years (2011–2016). Flooding, the site reports, remains the country’s No. 1 natural disaster.
When floodwaters rise, perhaps the worst place to be is inside a vehicle. According to Greg Forbes, severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, almost two of every three U.S. flash flood deaths from 1995-2010, excluding fatalities from Hurricane Katrina, occurred in vehicles.
People too often are simply unprepared to deal with flood waters in their vehicles. A study conducted by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that between 2008 and 2012, 49 people in Florida drowned inside their vehicles.
In 2017, floodwaters have repeatedly sent motorists scrambling for their lives. Near Pittsburgh in June, two motorists barely escaped with their lives after having their vehicles suddenly swamped by water. "I was just shocked, in disbelief," one of the survivors said. "It happened so fast."
In Victorville, Calif., in February, a driver was tragically found lifeless in a submerged car following a flash flood. In August, a six-inch deluge of rain in Houston spurred more than two dozen water rescues, the same storm that trapped numerous drivers in their vehicles in San Antonio.
It’s apparent that floods affect people and their vehicles more frequently than most people assume. So the question remains: How prepared are you to survive a sudden and extreme water emergency in your vehicle?
Simply adding a specialized self-rescue tool to your vehicle could be a lifesaving action on your part.
The American Red Cross reports that most cars can be swept away, surprisingly, by less than two feet of moving water. Greg Forbes of The Weather Channel calculates that water moving at 25 miles per hour has the pressure equivalent of wind blowing at 790 mph, faster than the speed of sound. To be suddenly caught in such traumatic act of nature is a harrowing, life-threatening experience.
It’s a common response to think such unexpected emergencies only happen to other people. But who can predict when and where flash floods occur? As National Preparedness Month aims to emphasize with its theme, “Disasters don’t plan ahead. You can,” wise drivers will use the occasion to prep for the unknown and the extreme.
What’s in your vehicle’s emergency kit? Beyond items typically regarded as core highway-travel components—jumper cables, flares (or a smoke-free alternative such as red LED strobes), a first-aid supplies, tools and a flashlight—forward-thinking drivers will carry a self-rescue tool designed to swiftly respond to a sudden and unexpected event such as water submersion.
In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, water-rescue consultant Gary Dworkin says the first action a person in a submerged vehicle should take is to not panic. Escaping the vehicle as quickly as possible is the essential goal.
If occupants cannot lower windows fast enough, the well-prepared vehicle will offer quick access to a window-shattering device to permit a rapid escape. A variety of tools designed for this purpose exist, from spring-loaded devices to tools that rely on more dependable blunt-force strikes.
Side windows should be the target, and the place to strike is in one of the window’s quadrants, not directly in the center. Windows break easier when struck nearer one of their corners. Blunt-force devices require only an emphatic arm swing, like a tennis backhand, to crack the glass.
More advanced self-rescue devices combine multiple tools in a single unit. Some flashlights, for example, have been engineered to include a seatbelt cutter and a window-breaking punch on or inside their handles. Should a vehicle’s seatbelt mechanism become jammed during an emergency, a seatbelt cutter can be a vital factor in surviving an extreme situation.
A seatbelt cutter and a window-breaking punch, ideally kept somewhere within easy reach inside a vehicle’s cabin, are both potential life-savers.
The forward-thinking driver might want to consider adding such self-rescue tools to their highway emergency kit. It’s National Preparedness Month. Use the opportunity wisely.
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