Flash Floods: Safety Tips for RVers

TURN AROUND DON’T DROWN

Historic rainfall around St. Louis, Missouri on Tuesday (July 26, 2022) led to flash flooding that submerged cars in a river of water on Interstate 70 and trapped people inside their homes. Flash flooding led to numerous road closures across the St. Louis metropolitan area after a record-setting 6 to 10 inches of rainfall caused widespread flash flooding, the National Weather Service’s (NWS) office in St. Louis reported. St. Louis recorded 8.06 inches of rainfall in five hours since midnight shattering the city’s old daily rainfall record of 6.85 inches logged in August 1915, the NWS said.

Flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devastating flash floods throughout eastern Kentucky have left eight residents dead, dozens of homes submerged in water, and others completely swept away from their foundations. Multiple counties across Appalachia Kentucky have endured torrential rains since early Thursday morning (July 28, 2022) as floodwaters began rushing down the hillsides and completely swallowing up portions of the Kentucky River sending residents searching for high ground until rescue teams could save them.

Airports, parking lots, and the entire Las Vegas Strip which houses some of the world’s most famous casinos and hotels were also flooded Thursday. Heavy rain filled countless buildings as the city put a flash flood and severe thunderstorm warning in place.

Clean-up following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People often have a hard time envisioning the power of moving water. Each year when heavy rains pummel North America’s deserts or mountains, another camper endures a flash flood camping weather disaster. Those who live to tell about it are shocked to learn how these torrential storms can destroy everything in its path—including RVs.

The severity and speed of flash floods make them one of the most harrowing weather events adventurers might encounter. They occur when excessive water fills normally a dry canyon or wash and when creeks and rivers rise rapidly from rainfall within their watershed.

Clean-up following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a creek that’s only six inches deep in the mountains can swell to a ten-foot-deep raging river in less than an hour if a thunderstorm lingers over an area for an extended period of time.

More on severe weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), flash flooding can happen nationwide. It is also the number one weather-related killer in the U.S. On average, 86 people die each year because they attempted to drive through floodwaters—and unfortunately, that number is increasing.

It takes as little as six inches of water for a vehicle to be swept away.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to FEMA:

  • Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and potential stalling
  • One foot of water will float many vehicles
  • Two feet of rushing water will carry away most vehicles including SUVs and pickups
Clean-up following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, water one foot deep typically exerts 500 pounds of lateral force on a vehicle. Once your vehicle is floating, the floodwater becomes your steering wheel. If that water is moving, your vehicle could be swept away, tipped on its side or flipped.

Rising water can enter your vehicle in a manner of minutes, even seconds.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best advice is never to drive through flood waters of unknown depth. As the NWS has campaigned for years: TURN AROUND DON’T DROWN!

NEVER try to walk, swim, or drive through such swift water. If you come upon flood waters, STOP! TURN AROUND AND GO ANOTHER WAY.

More on severe weather: 5 Tips for Avoiding Extreme Weather While RVing

Some people risk destroying their vehicles and potentially losing their lives by driving through floodwaters. It’s a scary experience to come across rising water on the road during a rainstorm, not knowing if you’ll stall out. It is not worth the risk!

Flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Flash Flooding?

Flooding begins within six hours and often within three hours of heavy rainfall (or other cause). Flash Floods can be caused by several things but are most often due to extremely heavy rainfall from thunderstorms. Flash Floods can occur due to dam or levee breaks and/or mudslides (debris flow).

The intensity of the rainfall, the location, and distribution of the rainfall, the land use and topography, vegetation types and growth/density, soil type, and soil water content all determine how quickly the flash flooding may occur and influence where it may occur.

Flash Flooding occurs so quickly that people are caught off-guard. Their situation may become dangerous if they encounter high, fast-moving water while traveling.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do Flash Floods occur?

Several factors contribute to flash flooding. The two key elements are rainfall intensity and duration. Intensity is the rate of rainfall and duration is how long the rain lasts. Topography, soil conditions, and ground cover also play an important role.

Flooding along rivers often occur seasonally when spring rains coupled with melting snows fill river basins with too much water, too quickly. Torrential rains from hurricanes or tropical storms can also produce river flooding.

More on severe weather: Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Occasionally, floating debris or ice can accumulate at a natural or man-made obstruction and restrict the flow of water. Water held back by the ice jam or debris dam can cause flooding upstream. Subsequent flash flooding can occur downstream if the obstruction should suddenly release.

Flash floods occur within a few minutes or hours of excessive rainfall, a dam or levee failure, or a sudden release of water held by an ice jam. Flash floods can roll boulders, tear out trees, destroy buildings and bridges, and scour out new channels. Rapidly rising water can reach heights of 30 feet or more. Furthermore, flash flood-producing rains can also trigger catastrophic mud slides. You will not always have a warning that these deadly, sudden floods are coming. Flash flooding occurs within six hours of the rain event. Flooding is a longer term event and may last a week or more.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where do Flash Floods occur?

Flash Flooding is possible anywhere and everywhere. The normally tranquil streams and creeks in your area can become raging torrents if heavy rain falls overhead or even upstream of your location. Flash Flooding can also occur on city streets and highway underpasses.

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Do not attempt to cross any water higher than your ankles
  • As little as six inches of water flowing quickly can knock an adult down
  • Less than two feet of water can sweep a car away or stall it out with you stuck inside
  • You rarely have time to move your RV; get to higher ground and stay safe

TURN AROUND DON’T DROWN

Flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some historical data

Dam break: May 31, 1889, Johnstown, Pennsylvania; the worst flood in United States history; 36-40 foot wall of water; 2,200 died

River flood: December 1991-January 1992, south-central Texas; wide-spread river flooding on the Guadalupe, Brazos, Trinity, and Colorado River basins; up to 17 inches of rain; 15 died; $100 million in damages

Flash flood: June 14, 1990, Shadyside, Ohio; four inches of rain in less than two hours produced a 30-foot high wall of water; 26 died; $6-8 million in damages

Flash flood: August 1, 1985, Cheyenne, Wyoming; six inches of rain in three hours; 12 died; $61 million in damages

Flash flood: June 9, 1972 Black Hills, South Dakota; 15 inches of rain in five hours; 238 died; $164M in damages

Plan ahead: Identify where to go if told to evacuate.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose campsites carefully to avoid flash flood camping disasters

Flash floods are especially common in the desert. But according to Scientific American, flash floods can happen in both urban and remote settings. Pretty mountain areas are especially vulnerable if the snow melts quickly after a rain storm. Other susceptible areas to worry about are recently burned hillsides.

More on severe weather: Excessive Heat Warnings: Safety Tips for RVers

Weather experts also say that fast-moving water can take out everything in its path—even the largest RVs. The risk is there but don’t let it keep you at home. If you know how to avoid a flash flood camping weather disaster in the first place, you can stay safe. The campsite you choose to park in is the best place to begin.

Evacuation following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disaster-proof your campsite

Many RVers love the adventure of wilderness camping. When wilderness RV camping, safety is very important. Don’t park your rig until you find a safe-looking site with a low risk of flooding.

Use common sense and pay attention to your local surroundings. Assess the area. If there’s even a small chance of rain, don’t camp in a canyon or near low spots or anywhere with steep mountain walls closing in on you.

Clean-up following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep a weather band radio available especially when camping in storm-prone areas. Leave before a major storm is forecast to strike.

Check weather reports. Flash floods can strike miles from the origin of a storm. Don’t assume that blue skies overhead mean it is safe. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for your region.

Know your escape route. If rain starts falling and your gut instinct is telling you to leave, take a look around to find the fastest way out to safety.

If hazardous weather prompts evacuation warnings by officials, do what is requested. If you’re lucky enough to drive your RV out of the campground, don’t waste time taking your hoses, chairs, etc. Your sewer hose isn’t worth your life.

Flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In conclusion

Preparing for weather oddities and calamities is part of the RV lifestyle. Nobody expects a flash flood camping disaster but things happen fast when the water rises and it only takes minutes for a deadly catastrophe. If all else fails and you still get trapped in a campground during a flash flood, don’t try to drive your way out of it. Run for the highest ground you can find and you just might live to tell about your dramatic flash flood campground evacuation.

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

Do you know what to do during a dust storm?

Don’t drive into a DUST STORM! Pull aside and stay safe. Stay Alive!

Dust storms (also called Haboobs) are unexpected, unpredictable, and can sweep across the desert landscape at any time. Dust storms can be miles long and thousands of feet high. You can endure these brief but powerful windstorms if you know how to react. 

Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dust storms can occur anywhere in the United States but are most common in the Southwest.

In Arizona, dust storms most frequently occur during monsoon season (June-September) but they can pop up at any time of the year. If you’re in a vehicle and a dust storm is approaching, the most important thing to do is to not drive into the dust storm. That’s because visibility can drop to zero, leaving you and others driving blind and making for a dangerous situation.

If you encounter a dust storm and don’t have time to exit the highway, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) has developed these “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” tips to help you know what to do.

More on severe weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

BEFORE

Know Your Risk and Be Informed:

  • Dust storms are more common near agricultural areas and near Willcox Playa in Cochise County
  • Dust storms are more frequent in July and August and between 4:00 pm. and 6:00 pm
  • Dust storms can reduce visibility to near zero in seconds resulting in deadly, multi-vehicle accidents on roadways
  • Drivers of high-profile recreation vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds
Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a dust storm hazard:

  • Dust Storm Watch: Tells you when and where dust storms are likely to occur. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio or commercial radio for information.
  • Dust Storm Warning: Issued when visibility is ½-mile or less due to blowing dust or sand and wind speeds of 30 miles an hour or more.
Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DURING

Take action in a vehicle:

  • DO NOT drive into or through a dust storm. PULL ASIDE. STAY ALIVE.
  • Immediately check traffic around your vehicle (front, back, and to the side) and begin slowing down.
  • Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway—do it as soon as possible. Completely exit the highway if you can.
  • Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Turn off all vehicle lights including your emergency flashers. You do not want other vehicles approaching from behind to use your lights as a guide possibly crashing into your parked vehicle.
  • Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.
  • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.

More on severe weather: Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Dust storms can be scary but they usually pass fairly quickly and you can be on your way again.

Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PULL OFF! LIGHTS OFF! FOOT OFF!

Take action indoors:

  • Close your doors and windows.
  • Consider turning off air conditioning until the dust storm passes.
  • Check your camping site for chairs, tables, toys, BBQs, and other objects that can become projectiles in high winds. Bring them inside, tie them down, or secure them in some other way.
  • Make sure your outside storage doors are closed and locked.
  • Retract any awnings and ensure they’re securely fastened.
  • Bring pets indoors.
Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take action outdoors:

  • Get as low to the ground as possible far away from roads and freeways
  • Dust Storms often accompany severe winds and thunderstorms which could lead to flash flooding
  • Avoid trees and low lying areas
  • Protect your face and any exposed skin
  • Cover your nose and mouth.
Dust storms can occur anywhere at anytime © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

AFTER 

Stay safe, healthy, and alert:

  • If you are pulled over in a vehicle, check traffic, and carefully return to the roadway
  • Drive with caution
  • Anticipate traffic light outages and obstacles on the road
  • Report broken utility lines and damaged roadways/railways to appropriate authorities as soon as possible
  • Follow instructions from the National Weather Service about additional hazardous conditions that may be expected

Worth Pondering…

On the fourteenth day of April in 1935
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky…
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona Line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom…

—Woody Guthrie, from his song, The Great Dust Storm

Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

If you can hear thunder, lightning is not far away

We don’t usually plan our RV trips around thunderstorms or other severe weather. If we knew we’d be spending our vacations taking cover, most likely we’d reschedule our trips. But storms occur throughout the year in just about every place in the world, so they are a fact we simply have to accept. And accepting the reality of storms should prompt us to prepare for how storms can affect us when we’re traveling in our RVs.

The most basic preparation is an emergency preparedness kit that includes a first aid kit. Make sure you check it regularly to ensure that any used supplies have been replaced and that nothing has passed its expiration date.

Be alert to threatening weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat lightning

The term heat lightning is commonly used to describe lightning from a distant thunderstorm just too far away to see the actual cloud-to-ground flash or to hear the accompanying thunder. While many people incorrectly think that heat lightning is a specific type of lightning, it is simply the light produced by a distant thunderstorm.

An old term to describe summertime storms! After all, all lightning is “hot”—the typical bolt of lightning has a temperature of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Ouch!

Flash flood in the Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thunderstorm facts

The definition of a severe thunderstorm is one producing hail one inch in diameter (size of a quarter) or winds of 58 mph or more.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), “Each year across America there are on average 10,000 thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, 1,000 tornadoes, and six named hurricanes.” The NWS pointed out that weather disasters lead to about 500 deaths annually.

Every thunderstorm produces lightning.

Thunderstorms can produce high winds that can damage property.

More on severe weather: Hurricane Season: Staying Safe in your RV

Park led evacuation following a flash flood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thunderstorms can cause flash flooding.

Lightning kills more people annually than tornadoes or hurricanes.

A thunderstorm WATCH means that conditions are right for a thunderstorm to develop in the watch area. Be ready to take cover or evacuate.

A thunderstorm WARNING means that a severe thunderstorm has been reported or detected on radar threatening danger to property or life. Take cover or evacuate if there is time and a safe escape route.

Cleanup following a flash flood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you hear it—clear it

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), if you can hear thunder, the storm is close enough that lightning could strike your location at any moment! NWS strongly urges that “If you hear it—clear it!”

All RVers need to remember the Flash to Bang or 30/30 Lightning Rule. If a thunderstorm develops, count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the bang of the thunder to estimate the distance between you and the lightning strike. Because sound travels at about one mile in five seconds, you can determine how far away the lightning is by using this ‘flash-to-bang’ method.

It’s recommended you seek shelter if the time between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder is 30 seconds or less, or six miles away. Once you’re an inside shelter, you should not resume activities until 30 minutes after the last audible thunder.

Be alert to threatening weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay informed with local weather forecasts

Unless you’ve RVing in the wilderness, there will be a way to monitor the weather and learn about impending thunderstorms. Cell phones, Internet weather reports, NOAA radios, TV news, weather stations, and local warning systems are some of the ways to be aware of weather threats.

If you’re staying at an RV Park the manager may alert park guests when severe weather is approaching. But it’s advisable to enquire about storm or tornado shelters and local warning systems when registering at the campground.

More on severe weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

NOAA’s NWS, WeatherBug, Weather.com, and other online weather sites can give you a three- to ten-day forecast.

Camping under trees can be hazardous in severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your RV and site for safety

Most RVers like shady sites on hot summer days. But shade usually comes from trees. Check the trees and shrubs at your site for sturdy branches or ones that might break under high wind conditions. Large branches can cause severe damage to your RV and toad/tow vehicle if not injuries to people. If you notice weak branches ask your park owner to trim them.

>>Check your site for chairs, tables, toys, BBQs, and other objects that can become projectiles in high winds. Bring them inside, tie them down, or secure them in some other way.

Bring your pets inside during inclement weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

>>Bring your animals inside during threatening weather.

>>Get your emergency preparedness kit out.

>>Make sure your outside storage doors are closed and locked.

>>Retract any awnings and ensure they’re securely fastened.

>>Close and latch your windows.

>>If you are going to evacuate, leave early, and make sure you are not heading into the storm.

Rockport-Fulton (Texas) following major hurricane destruction © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take cover before the storm arrives

The safest place to locate during a thunderstorm—if you choose not to evacuate­—is in the basement of a sturdy building. This area will give you the greatest protection from lightning, winds, tornados, and flying objects. The next safest area is an inside room with no windows and plenty of walls between you and the storm.

More on severe weather: Hail Can Be a Killer Especially For Your RV

Like mobile homes, RVs can be blown over in high winds. They’re not the safest place to be. But if you have no alternative, stay in a hallway away from windows and cabinets that can fly open turning their contents into projectiles.

Hurricane damage on the Texas Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you see lightning or hear thunder, stay inside.

Stay inside for about 30 minutes after you hear the last thunderclap.

Unplug electronics like TVs, DVDs, computers, coffee pots, and so forth. Use cell phones and battery-powered devices. A battery-powered NOAA radio would be very useful at a time like this.

Cleaning up following a flash flood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Dangers

Both during and after a severe thunderstorm flooding may be a problem. If you are in a low area, move to higher ground. Some RV parks have a flood gauge showing five or six feet above their entry driveway.

If you are traveling and come across a flooded roadway, don’t try to drive through it. You could get washed away if the water is moving rapidly. Or, if there are downed power lines in that water, you could be electrocuted.

Park directed evacuation following a flash flood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lightning strikes can split trees, breaking large branches off, and start wildfires.

More on severe weather: Arrival of Summer: On Dehydration, Hurricane Season & RVs

If someone has been struck by lightning, call 911 and start CPR immediately. The American Heart Association has a “learn CPR in one minute eight seconds” course that teaches CPR well enough that anyone can deliver effective CPR in such an emergency.

Worth Pondering…

If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.

—Khalil Gibran