G.I. Joe taught us that “knowing is half the battle” and the Boy Scouts followed up that lesson with “Be Prepared.” With those wise words echoing are you really prepared? Quick: Watch vs. warning. What’s the difference? Most folks don’t know. Read on for a full watch vs warning explanation and bonus flash flood safety tips.
Flash Flooding Happens in a Flash: Don’t Underestimate the Weather
Large swathes of the good ‘ol US of A are prone to flash flooding. Those who don’t live in flood regions may not fully appreciate the sheer gravity of flash flooding. Throw in a traveler in an unfamiliar environment and it gets real.
Texas is a great example. Growing up in New England, I believed most of Texas was relatively hot and arid and far more likely to be plagued by fires than floods. After relocating to Texas, I discovered that the state often experiences both fires and floods, each of which can occur with surprising ferocity.
Moral of this story: Don’t make assumptions because we all know what happens when we do that.
Watch this video (beware some bad words at the times of high stress) to see just how scary a flash flood can be.
Beware the Floods
Flash flooding is dangerous. If you have never seen a flash flooding phenomenon, count yourself lucky. Mother Nature is not to be trifled with. Dry riverbeds fill with raging rapids and more than 10 feet of water can collect in roadways! Texas storms can be quite intense, dropping several inches of rain in less than an hour. When the ground is dry, the instant saturation cannot be absorbed, causing flooding.
Major events that cause extensive flooding can occur with virtually no warning. One such storm occurred in Texas in May of 2016. The forecast called for 1-2 inches of rain over a few hours.
Surprise! That storm dropped 22-28 inches of rain (depending on location) in 24 hours. People were caught off guard. School buses could not complete their routes. All major roadways were flooded and closed. Multiple tornadoes occurred (also not in the forecast). People were left stranded and several lost their lives as vehicles were swept from the roadway or they drowned when they attempted to shelter themselves from the storm.
TravelingDad Tip: Be mindful of the weather. Don’t lull yourself into a false sense of security thinking modern technology has stripped Mother Nature of her ability to throw a good old fashioned curve ball.
Turn Around, Don’t Drown
Admittedly, when I first heard this slogan I thought it was a bit ridiculous. Paired with those roadside 15-foot flood measuring poles I thought the whole thing was a joke. My first time seeing a 15-foot pole with 10 feet of water measured? Well let’s just say that paying attention to the concept of watch vs warning became more important to me.
We’ve all watched footage of cars being swept away on the evening news and thought “now what idiot would drive into that…” But the simple fact of the matter is that it’s not always easy to tell how dangerous the water is.
Remember: If there is water over the roadway, DO NOT attempt to cross it. Every year people die because their car is swept off the roadway by water that they were very confident they could cross.
If there is water over the roadway you CANNOT tell:
- How deep the water is
- How fast the water is actually moving
- Whether the roadway has been completely washed out underneath the pavement.
In dark storm conditions, water can be misleading in its appearance. What looks like flat land could actually be a dip in the roadway filled in with roof-level water. Be safe, travel with the utmost caution.
TravelingDad Tip: It only takes a few inches of moving water to cause a car (or truck for that matter) to be swept downstream, so don’t risk it.
Drive With Your Lights on for Safety
Call me Captain Obvious, but it is amazing how many people think they don’t need their lights during a heavy rain. Rain intensity varies regionally. In some areas, rain can fall so hard that visibility turns to zero, much like “white out conditions” during a blizzard.
Have you ever seen rain go sideways? Wind can push the rain with great force from one direction, giving you visibility out of one side of your car but not the other. Now, imagine the rain is being blown horizontally into the windshields of oncoming traffic. Your lights may be the ONLY thing they can see.
If the rain is so torrential that you have low to no visibility you should:
- Use extreme caution and attempt to find a safe HIGH place to pull off. If you cannot find somewhere higher than the road DO NOT pull over.
- Put your emergency flashers on and double check that your lights are on.
- Stay in a visible location (don’t turn onto side streets).
- Note the address and visual landmarks if possible.
- Use your emergency radio to determine whether it is a watch vs. warning.
TravelingDad Tip: During travel (or every day commuting) you never know what will come up. Always keep a basic kit of supplies in your car. Wait for the rain to pass while you eat a granola bar.
Be Prepared for an Emergency: Have an Emergency Radio
No car emergency kit is complete without an emergency radio. You can find battery powered radios that have a backup hand crank fairly inexpensively. The also can keep small children occupied during emergencies.
Remember how much FUN walkie talkies were when you were little? It’s kind of like that. Plus it gives them a job, which is a great distraction when tensions start to rise during emergencies. Radios will allow you to track storm progress. That means you will know whether it’s a watch vs warning so you can make informed decisions.
TravelingDad Tip: See radios on sale? Buy several! Keep one in your suitcase for travel to areas that are susceptible to extreme weather (hurricanes, blizzards, flooding, tornadoes, etc…).
Watch Vs Warning: What is the difference between a Watch and a Warning?
Watch vs. Warning, which is worse? Lots of people get “watches” and “warnings” confused. It may not be a clear system but it is the system we have and everyone living or traveling in the US should have a working knowledge of what each of these terms means. We’ll use flooding as our example, but know that this applies for all times of inclement weather.
This is the lowest threat level that is likely to be broadcast before or during a storm. It simply means that current or future weather conditions could cause “nuisance flooding” (as termed by the National Weather Service). Basically, current conditions have the potential to evolve into something of note in the near future. Check with your favorite weather source a couple times throughout the day and monitor the situation so that you can plan accordingly.
This is your cue to pay attention. This means that “conditions are favorable” for flooding to occur. It does not mean flooding will occur, but the likelihood of it occurring just got a whole lot higher. Check the weather often and take it seriously. This is your chance to get prepared and plan accordingly. Make sure you have basic items in your car and home.
This means flooding is “imminent, or already occurring.” So you really need to get your rear in gear. If you are in a flood-prone area, you need to find a better place to hang out and wait for the storm to pass. This is an ACTION warning. It means that you now need to CLOSELY monitor the situation. Don’t go out unless you absolutely must. Running out of beer and Cheetos is NOT an appropriate excuse to be out gallivanting around in this type of weather.
FLASH FLOOD WARNING
If you are still in a flood-prone area, you need to move to higher ground IMMEDIATELY. Do not screw around. Extreme conditions can occur VERY fast.
In flash floods, water has the potential to rise by several feet in minutes. This is when you may wish you had taken appropriate measures a whole lot earlier because now you are squarely in the danger zone (and unlike Hollywood there will not be an ominous soundtrack to tell you that things just got “real”).
DO NOT go out and drive around. Find appropriate shelter and STAY there. If you’re traveling and unfamiliar with what areas flood driving around in this weather is the equivalent of saying “hey man, hold my beer and watch THIS!”. Please listen to the robot voice on your emergency band radio telling you to not go out, shelter in place, or seek high ground. Emergency Services will thank you.
BUT IT ISN’T EVEN RAINING
A flash flood warning can be issued for areas that are not currently receiving any rain at all. Take it seriously. You could be downstream from some serious downpours.
You would be amazed by how many Swift Water Rescue Technicians have heard that phrase while pulling someone out of a tree while their car swirls downstream. Trust me, while these folks may be nice you don’t want to meet them while they are at work. They tend to get a lot of real world practice on people whose last thought before calling 911 was “it isn’t THAT bad.”
TRAVEL, BUT TRAVEL SAFE
With all this being said, don’t let the chance of inclement weather scare you out of your travel plans. Go in with eyes wide open knowing you are well prepared. Remember to obey the warning signs and your success and safety is all but guaranteed.
Keep the National Weather Service’s state by state warning URL saved. In future posts I will outline some Car Emergency Kit Essentials, as well as some basic things that every man should have on their person when traveling to be reasonably prepared for whatever may come down the pipe. Until then, Turn Around Don’t Drown.