The Federal Emergency Management Agency defines a flood or flooding by the temporary inundation of lands or places that are normally dry, by the overflow of water. Floodwater can come from a variety of sources, including inland or tidal waters, rapid accumulation or runoff of surface water, river water, lake water, or mudslide or mudflow.
A flood typically inundates a floodplain, though flooding may occur in a variety of places. Natural floods — floods that do not occur from residential or urban causes, typically fall into three main categories: riverine flooding, coastal flooding, and shallow flooding. Additionally, there can be alluvial flooding, which is more typical to western and mountainous states.
Floods represent the second number of the most common natural disasters in the U.S after thunderstorms, and can cause a variety of damage. Flood damage may include but is not limited to:
- Damage to people’s emotional and physical well being due to: fatalities, injuries, flood-borne illnesses, or loss of property;
- Building damage and damage other structures;
- Damage to industrial or municipal systems such as sewage and water treatment, roadways, power transmission or generation, farmlands, and canals;
- Economic and personal financial damages due to property damage, rebuilding costs, and food shortages.
Is My House in a Flood Zone?
There are a few ways to determine if your property (or even part of your property) is located in a flood zone.
- The FEMA Flood Map Service Center is a reliable source of information. You simply enter your address or coordinates into the search bar. The map at the bottom of the screen will generate a map of your residence location, and will be labeled by the flood risk associated with the key and its definitions.
- You can also check local property tax record databases, or perform title searches. Both should indicate if the property is in a flood zone area.
- You may also check with your insurer, who should be able to provide you with an accurate answer as to whether your property is at risk in a flood zone.
Buying a House in a Flood Zone
It is important to note that all state laws differ regarding property disclosure. Your state may not enforce the disclosure of previous or potential for flooding.
It is largely up to the buyer to ensure they are knowledgeable about the property they intend to purchase. If a property is found to be in a flood zone, the mortgage company will oftentimes require flood insurance, which is separate from homeowner’s insurance.
If you choose to purchase a home in a high-risk zone, you may also need to obtain an elevation certificate, which details the building’s location, characteristics, and elevation compared to the expected height of floodwaters. Some homes may only have sections of a property that are considered high risk of floods.
It is also important to note that flood zones may change over time and that a home that was originally built in a low-risk area, can be rezoned as a higher risk. Additionally, it is important to consider the vulnerability of a home to floods, and the associated higher insurance premiums that may be included in higher-risk locations.
Types of Flooding
Different types of flooding may range in severity, occurrences, risks, or alternative preparation actions for your home and family.
Natural flood types typically occur from severe weather and rising water levels, and they may include:
- River floods: When water levels rise above the river bank due to excessive precipitation, snowmelt, or ice jams.
- Coastal floods: Coastal floods occur from higher-than-average tides, or high tides worsened by heavy rainfall or onshore winds
- Storm surges: Storm surges cause abnormal rises of water in coastal areas caused by forces generated from a severe storm, such as wind, waves, and low atmospheric pressure.
- Inland or shallow flooding: Moderate precipitation accumulation over several days, or intense precipitation over a short period may cause inland flooding. Shallow flooding is defined by an average depth limited to 3 feet, where no defined channel for water flow exists.
- Flash flooding: Flash floods are caused by heavy or excessive rainfall for a short duration of time, typically less than 6 hours. A flash flood may also be caused by a failed levee or dam. Flash floods are characterized by the large and destructive torrents of water that sweep up debris in their path.
Severe Urban flooding is caused by excessive runoff or flooding in a developed area that lacks a drainage system, or has had its system overwhelmed. Urban flooding can be caused by a natural disaster, but it can also occur from routine circumstances, such as sewer backups or basement flooding.
In a nutshell, urban flooding is the result of excess water occurring on impervious (like concrete and asphalt) surfaces with nowhere to go. Heavy precipitation, increased urbanization, and insufficient or outdated water systems all pose threats that increase the possibility and complexity of urban flooding.
Urban flooding may cause loss of wages due to the inability to travel, time lost from traffic challenges or rerouting, and disruptions in local, regional, or national supply chains.
Those at the highest risk of the effects of urban flooding may include lower-income community residents who are more likely to live in flood-prone areas and are less likely to be covered by flood insurance. In addition to the loss of time and damage to property, urban flooding may result in stress and a deterioration of physical and mental well being.
Residential flooding can occur from water seeping into a home from ground or rainwater, or plumbing and appliance failures. Water damages from flooding to homes or properties can be covered by differing insurances, so it is important to know what is covered, and what isn’t, as well as having an inventory of your belongings.
Residential flooding can cause electrical issues as well as serious and expensive water damage. Residual effects may include mold damage or foundational damage. Plumbing failures may also result in sewage backups that make residential flood waters extremely dangerous and toxic.
Flood Planning and Preparation
Floods may occur in any season and can happen in any U.S. state or territory. Even if you do not live in a high-risk area, there are opportunities for urban or residential floods. Flood planning and preparation can help you proactively deter financial, physical, and emotional damage.
Protecting Your Property
There are a variety of measures you may take to protect your property or investments.
- Purchase flood insurance;
- Pay attention to flood alerts;
- Move valuables to a safe place;
- Elevate the home, if possible;
- Elevate all electrical components 12 inches above the projected flood elevation;
- Get appliances to a dry place (counter tops or other high places)
- Install check valves and backflow valves in sewer lines;
- Waterproof the basement;
- Keep gutters and drains free of debris;
- Install a sump pump with backup power;
- Stockpile emergency building materials;
- Anchor down potentially dangerous items, such as fuel tanks.
Creating a Flood Plan
- Sign up for a community flood warning system;
- Know your local or community evacuation flood plan;
- Prepare an emergency transportation arrangement with family members;
- Designate relocation areas that you can stay during evacuation periods;
- Create a checklist for things to do in case of emergency or flooding, such as emergency contact lists, moving important items, turning off gas, water, and electricity, etc;
- Keep important documents in an easily accessible and mobile waterproof document container;
- Plan for care needed for pets;
- Prepare a communication plan with family members;
- Prepare an emergency kit with secured water, food, medications, and medical supplies.
Investing in Flood Insurance
Even if you have a homeowner’s insurance policy, most homeowner’s insurance does not cover flood damage. Only flood insurance covers flood-related damages the costs of rebuilding after a flood.
While those that live in high-risk areas for floods should certainly have flood insurance, it is also not a bad idea for those in lower-risk areas.
Floods can happen anywhere due to poor drainage systems, summer storms, broken water mains, and other types of urban flooding. Flood insurance policies typically cover two types of coverage — building coverage, and contents coverage.
Building coverage may include:
- Electrical and plumbing systems;
- Fuel tanks, well water tanks and pumps; and solar energy equipment;
- Furnaces and water heaters;
- Appliances such as refrigerators, cooking stoves, and built-in appliances such as dishwashers;
- Permanently installed carpet;
- Permanently installed cabinets, paneling, and bookcases;
- Foundation walls, anchorage systems, and staircases
- Window blinds;
- Detached garages.
Contents coverage may include:
- Personal belongings such as clothes, furniture, and electronic equipment;
- Washer and dryer appliances;
- Portable and window air conditioners;
- Non-permanent carpets, such as those installed over wood floors;
Flood Safety Tips
There are a variety of precautions and actions to take during a flood or flood warning. Flood safety tips may include:
- Following instructions given by public safety officials;
- Being alert to weather conditions and check the media for emergency information;
- Postponing outdoor activities during times of flood warning;
- Avoid camping or parking along streams or bodies of water;
- Tying down outdoor objects that could be damaged or swept away;
- Bring pets if told to evacuate;
- Do not touch, swim, or drink flood water as it may contain pathogens, or may be moving much faster than you are aware of.
Avoid Driving in Flood Waters
Floodwaters may carry infectious diseases from sewage systems, wild animals, or other contaminants. Do not stand, walk, or drink floodwaters. Don’t attempt to drive in flooded waters, as even 6 inches of water may cause accidents.
Do not drive around road barriers; they are there to direct traffic to the safest route as roads and bridges may be washed out. If your vehicle is trapped in rapidly moving water, stay in the vehicle. If the water level is rising inside the vehicle, climb onto the roof.
Listen for Evacuation
The National Weather Service (NWS) issues impact-based warnings (IBW) through wireless emergency alerts (WEA). WEA are authorized and sent by government authorities and partnering agencies, such as FEMA, the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the NWS through mobile carriers to phones during times of emergency.
They do not require an app to be downloaded. The various alerts that may be received include:
- Extreme weather and hydrologic warnings;
- Local emergencies that require immediate action or evacuation;
- Amber alerts;
- Blue alerts;
- Presidential alerts during a national emergency.
The different warning signs that inform the public on the severity of flooding or flood potential include:
- Flood Advisory – Be Aware! A flood advisory is issued when a weather event that is forecast may become a nuisance, but not bad enough to be considered a warning. However, the advisory is still important to be aware of as it may dictate or change traveling routes, or still be severe enough to cause personal damage or damage to property.
- Flood Watch – Be Prepared! A flood watch is issued when weather conditions are favorable for a hazardous weather event to occur, such as flooding. Though a flood watch does not mean a flood will happen, it is a warning that a flood is possible and preparations should be considered and put to action.
- Flood Warning – Take Action! A flood warning is issued when hazardous weather or a flood is imminent or already occurring. Take immediate action with your flood preparation plan.
- Flash Flood Warning – Take Action! A flash flood warning is issued when a flash flood is imminent or occurring. If you are in a flood risk area, move immediately to high ground. A flash flood may take hours or only mere minutes to develop, and may not even occur in an area that is receiving precipitation.
Move to Higher Ground
If it is not possible to relocate or evacuate to higher ground and you find yourself trapped in a building, go to it’s highest level. Do not climb into an enclosed space such as an attic, as you may become trapped by rising water.
Go to the roof only if necessary. Once you are at the highest level, signal for help so first responders may see you.
The dangers of a flood do not only occur during the time of the emergency, but also after. The recovery stage of a flood still poses a great number of threats. There is an array of protective measures and steps that need to be taken when cleaning up a post-flood environment.
How to Clean Up After a Flood
Cleaning up after a flood can be a mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting endeavor. It is important to recognize feelings of being overwhelmed and to allow yourself to grieve, breathe, and to analyze the situation with caution.
Before entering any structure, it is important to consider the hazards, such as structural soundness, or any electrical or utility issues. If either is suspected, do not enter the building, but contact your local utility, water, gas, electrical, or sewage.
Next, if it is safe, dry, and possible, find your fuse box and turn off the main breaker as well as any individual fuse switches. If the water is coming from a burst pipe or broken appliance, immediately turn off the water supply to your home. Always follow any instructions given by public safety officials.
Entering Your Home
Upon entering a home or structure, ensure that you are wearing watertight protective clothing, such as boots and gloves. Floodwaters often carry waterborne pathogens or chemicals from sewage, garbage, mold, and debris.
Do not touch your face — mouth, nose, or eyes — with anything that has come in contact with floodwater. Be aware that there may be wild animals or insects that may have been displaced during the flood and are currently seeking safety in your home.
Before you begin any restoration or cleanup, you should first assess the damages and call your insurance company. Be sure to follow any instructions given by your insurance company and do not begin demolition or repairs until they have authorized you to move forward. You may need to document all the damage and make a report with your insurer as you move through the process.
Important Item Assessments
Items you may need to assess may include:
- The integrity of the structure such as foundation, anchorage systems, garages, or staircases;
- Utilities such as electrical and plumbing systems;
- Fuel, well water, septic, and solar equipment;
- Window coverings;
- Personal belongings such as clothing or electronics;
- Items of value such as art.
It is extremely important to dispose of or remove any items that have been contaminated with floodwater, and to use a moisture meter to determine if wooden studs and framing are dry before replacing drywall. Mold growth can result in significant health hazards, and post-flood moisture may create an environment to culture hazardous mold.
Consider hiring a professional cleaner or contractor to ensure that proper steps and safety precautions are taken during flood repair. Again, be sure to get approval from your insurance company before beginning any repair work or signing with a contractor or restoration company.
Many communities that are in high-risk areas for natural disasters have debris management programs for the high number of homes and buildings that may be affected. If your community does not have a debris management plan, it may be valuable to consider developing one.
Cleaning up and managing debris can be extremely hazardous due to exposure to life-threatening situations including leaking natural gas lines, carbon monoxide poisoning from using restoration equipment indoors, and contaminated materials with chemicals, pathogens, bacteria, and mold.
Consider the following safety precautions:
- Avoid contact with floodwater.
- Keep children and pets away from floodwater, spilled or leaked chemicals, or wet and damaged materials.
- Watch your step and be aware that muddy surfaces may be slippery and have invisible sharp objects such as nails.
- Do not combine cleaning chemicals, discard chemicals separately to avoid hazardous chemical reactions.
- Don’t dump cleaners, paints, or other chemicals down storm drains or sewers.
- Do not burn household cleaners or other chemical wastes.
- Clearly mark and set aside all unbroken containers until they can be properly disposed of.
- Leave chemicals with broken or damaged containers undisturbed if possible.
- Do not turn on water or utility systems.
- Be cautious of items that could be contaminated with asbestos, such as; boiler or pipe insulation, fireproofing materials, floor tiles, asbestos roofing, boards.
- Beware of any substances that could contain lead-based paint.
- All large scale demolition should be done with heavy equipment and knocked down wall by wall inwards towards the center of the structure.
- All other debris not containing harmful substances should be disposed of in an appropriate landfill, or burned pursuant to the Emergency Hurricane Debris Burning Guidance, issued by the EPA in accordance with dealing with debris and damaged buildings.
Fixing Flood and Water Damage
Before beginning demolition or rebuilding, it is important to file a claim with your insurance and create any documentation of the property for any necessary claims.
This means taking photos before your adjuster arrives and following any instructions they may give you. The adjuster should provide an assessment of damages and a proof of loss statement that the owner will sign.
Consider the following ways to deal with water damage:
- Strain water through a clean cloth or filter and boil vigorously for at least one minute.
- All food that has come into contact with floodwater, including commercially-prepared foods in metal cans, should be discarded.
- Food that has been stored in refrigerators that have gone without power for more than two hours should be discarded.
- All utensils made of plastic or wood should be discarded. Metal and ceramic utensils and dishes should be boiled for at least one minute, or submerged for 15 minutes in 1tsp of chlorine bleach and a quart of water.
- All furniture, bedding, carpeting, and other similar materials should be placed outdoors to be cleaned and dried, or discarded.
- All upholstered furniture and mattresses, or sections thereof, should be discarded.
- All walls, including ones that appear to be undamaged, should be opened, or have holes cut into them, to expose any potential moisture and prevent mold.
- Remove the interior surface of insulated walls to above flood water level.
- Discard all drywall that has been contaminated with floodwater.
- Undamaged sections or paneling may be cleaned and reinstalled.
- Discard any wet fibrous insulation.
- Clean out all mud with disinfectant.
- Speed dry the interior of the building with fans and dehumidifiers.
- Always discard flood contaminated carpet pads.
- Subfloor layers made of plywood or OSB that have been submerged will need replacement.
- All subfloors need to be completely dry before installing new flooring.
- Wood floors may need special care, consult a carpenter or flooring professional.
- Asbestos tiles should be removed only by a professional.
- If the subfloor is concrete, the removal of the flooring may decrease drying time.
Mold can be a danger after flooding, as it can easily occur in damp environments. Discoloration due to mold may include white to orange, or green, brown, or black. It typically gives off a musty or earthy smell.
Mold has the most potential to affect infants, children, immune-compromised people, pregnant women, or individuals with existing respiratory conditions, as well as the elderly. Symptoms from mold exposure may include nose and throat irritation, coughing, asthma attacks, and lower respiratory infections.
Those predisposed, such as those listed above, may be susceptible to more serious lung infections. Utilizing an air purifier in a space that you are cleaning may help improve air quality and eliminate airborne mold particles, lowering the chance of mold-induced symptoms.
Eliminating Mold & Mold Damage
Eliminating mold and mold damage is of the utmost importance when fixing flood and water damage. Clean and dry all items you wish to keep as soon as possible after the floodwaters recede. Use phosphate-free, all-purpose, or disinfectant cleaners. Always wash from top to bottom, and rinse with clean water.
Mold is easily transferred from one surface to another during clean up, so utilizing a high-efficiency particulate absorber or HEPA filter may help reduce airborne mobile mold particles and the spread of mold. Utilizing a dehumidifier may help curb the spread of mold by reducing the amount of moisture needed for it to grow.
There are many organizations that provide resources for those affected by and recovering from flood damage. If you are in need of assistance, consider the following resources:
- DisasterAssistance.gov: You can find local resources and provide disaster survivors with information, support, and services through shared efforts between federal, tribal, state, local, and private sector partners.
- The American Red Cross: Assists in providing disaster relief and recovery to prepare for an emergency, during an emergency, as well as post-emergency.
- FEMA: the federal emergency management agency offers a variety of disaster programs including; disaster emergency communications, disaster recovery centers, and individual disaster assistance.
- Ready.gov: Plan ahead to ready children, or prepare for floods, with resources and information.
- National Emergency Response Team: This volunteer-driven organization coordinates with publicly available resources during a crisis and provides disaster response services for medical needs, food, clothing, and educational programs.
- Volunteers of America: Volunteers of America offers assistance in finding programs and support for those recovering from crisis or disasters.
- UNICEF: The United Nations Children’s Fund is a humanitarian organization that provides developmental or crisis aid to children worldwide.
- The Salvation Army: The Salvation Army seeks to assess the needs of each community to understand the hardships and challenges to each crisis, and builds programs designed for immediate, short-term, and long-term care and growth.