Widespread flooding in the Midwest will continue, and possibly worsen, through May, The New York Times reported. While the region is already prone to flooding, leaky levees and the recent “bomb cyclone” that struck the United States have exacerbated the situation. How can Midwesterners stay safe in flood-prone areas?
A rising death toll and billions in damages have left their mark on an unprecedented flood season in the United States, especially in Midwestern states like Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Illinois. Flooding is expected to continue at least until May, if not later, leaving millions of Midwesterners asking how these floods happened and what they can do to prepare and stay safe during extreme wet weather.
Common Causes of Floods
Coastal flooding is a frequent kind of flooding, especially due to tropical storms and hurricanes. In 2008, Hurricane Ike came to Houston, Texas. “Upon landfall, Ike dropped over a foot of rain in a single day,” said Professor Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Unfortunately, the remnants of this deadly hurricane blew into the Midwest before entering Canada. “What started out to be a massive flooding event due to a landfalling hurricane spread dangerous floodwaters thousands of miles inland,” Dr. Snodgrass said. When air moisture from Ike met a stalled cold front in the Midwest, Chicago bore the brunt of the storm, drenched in a foot of rain in a day’s time.
Rising rivers also contribute to flooding every year. In 1993, a semi-permanent high pressure system over the Atlantic Ocean had shifted West to the southeastern United States. “Clockwise airflow around this high ‘opened the gulf,'” Professor Snodgrass said. “This phrase refers to the strong southerly winds that transport high moisture content from the Gulf of Mexico into the Great Plains and the Midwest. This moisture was fed into the region of converging surface winds along a stationary front that had parked itself along the Northern Plains for several weeks.” The unstable, colliding winds had nowhere to go but straight up, repeatedly pummeling the north tributaries to the Mississippi River in the spring and summer of 1993 and devastating Iowa. Flood waters then drained down the Mississippi in droves, causing the river to rise, which in turn put excessive strain on its levees and nearby land, doing $20 billion in damages and costing 50 lives.
Staying Safe in a Flood
The most important question regarding flooding is how to save lives, and Midwesterners know the key to safety is preparation and monitoring weather conditions. “Flood fatalities are frequently associated with people driving their cars through flooded roadways,” Professor Snodgrass said. “The National Weather Service launched a slogan, ‘Turn around Don’t Drown,’ years ago to remind people of the dangers of driving over flooded roadways. Obeying this rule will save your life.”
Why are flooded roadways so important to avoid? Even the most familiar road to you may harbor unseen dangers. Beneath the floodwaters, the road’s structure may have been compromised. Driving a heavy vehicle across it may cause it to crumble beneath your tires.
Another proven survival tip comes from flash flooding in areas like the Rocky Mountains. “In 1976, six inches of rain fell on the slopes [of the Rockies] and rushed into the valley to form a wall of water 19 feet deep that spilled out of the canyon,” Professor Snodgrass said. Tragically, hundreds tried to outrun the rush of water in their cars only to be swept away. “One hundred forty-four people died in just a few minutes,” Professor Snodgrass said. “An important lesson was re-learned on that day. When flash flooding hits mountainous areas, climb to safety. Never try to outrun the water.”
Professor Eric R. Snodgrass contributed to this article. Professor Snodgrass is the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also received his master’s degree. Previously, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Geography from Western Illinois University.