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)

5 Tips for Avoiding Extreme Weather While RVing

When severe weather strikes, there’s no time to think. That’s why you need to prepare for the worst NOW, before you’re faced with an emergency.

One of the best ways to spend a family vacation is by camping in an RV. After all, combining a vacation home and a vehicle makes for a rather convenient road trip mobile, complete with a full kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. But what does one do in case of inclement weather experienced while traveling?

After all, there seem to be extreme weather possibilities in most of the US states including forest fires in the west, tornadoes across the Midwestern states, extreme snow in the northern states, extreme heat and flash floods in the southwest, hurricanes in the south, and severe thunderstorms almost everywhere during the warmer months. Traveling to an area where you are unfamiliar with the weather may seem risky. However, if you keep these simple considerations in mind, you can successfully plan a fun and safe getaway for the entire family to enjoy.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Be aware of forecasts prior to and during your trip

This seems fairly self-explanatory but simple considerations can be completely forgotten when excitedly planning for a road trip. Checking the weather before leaving for a trip can help you to have an idea of what you may experience over the next few days. If it all looks sunny and clear, then you are in luck. If you see any potential warnings or thunderstorms coming up, make a mental note to keep an eye on the weather throughout your trip.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hurricanes are typically predicted days in advance and should be easy to avoid. If you know a hurricane is headed to an area where you plan to vacation, alter your plans and return when the weather is less risky.

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

In addition, be sure to check the weather on a daily basis in case the forecast changes. NOAA’s NWS, WeatherBug, Weather.com, and other online weather sites can give you a three- to ten-day forecast. In an area where you are not entirely familiar with the weather, it is better to over-prepare than to be surprised by a major weather event.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Avoid areas with inclement weather in peak season

To avoid dangerous weather altogether, it is best to avoid areas with extreme weather during their bad weather seasons. For instance, spring is tornado season across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Avoiding traveling to these states in the spring seems like the safest option. Hurricanes are most extreme in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and south Texas, so avoiding these states during the late summer and fall may be your safest option. During forest fire season out west, keep an eye on the current fires and their paths/containment when planning trips.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Have a plan in case of severe weather

Avoiding certain areas altogether may not be entirely possible. If this is the case, have an emergency plan in place before heading out in your RV. Extreme weather is usually more of a possibility than a definite, so your chances of missing a storm are high. Having a plan will serve to set you up for success in case the worst should happen. 

This plan can be as simple as moving into a shelter if a storm strikes. You may also want to plan to evacuate the entire area if conditions are severe enough. Whatever your plan is, make sure all family members know of it. It is best to ensure that everyone is on board before inclement weather even occurs.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Evacuate or hunker down during a “watch”

During tornado season, knowing the difference between a warning and a watch is important. A watch is when a tornado is possible but none have been sighted yet. These are often issued during the correct conditions for a storm in counties or areas where storms are frequent. A warning means that a tornado has been sighted and could potentially pass through your area.

More on severe weather: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

When a tornado watch has been issued, you can then choose to either evacuate or stay and wait out the storm. Playing the situation by ear may be your best bet if you don’t want to cancel your trip early. However, the safest option may be to move outside of the danger zone if a tornado watch has been issued. Whatever you choose, keep a close eye on the weather in case it worsens.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Move to a safer area during a “warning”

If you decide to stay after a watch has occurred and a warning is issued, you must then choose to evacuate or move somewhere safer. Evacuation to an area outside of the tornado range may be the safest option. However, when a warning is issued there may not be enough time to evacuate.

If this is the case, move somewhere safe indoors. Perhaps there are shelters nearby where you and your family could wait. If you are watching the weather and have planned accordingly, this situation is less likely. Still, it is best to have a few different plans and options if you are planning to vacation somewhere where storms are frequent.

Be aware of the potential for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Being in an RV during dangerous or even deadly weather does not sound fun. Only you know what is best for you and your family and planning can reduce the chances of surprise storms arising. All things considered, having a home on wheels is somewhat convenient in these situations because when a storm is brewing, you can simply gather your things and drive away. Missing out on your vacation would be a bummer, but it may sometimes be the safest decision. Watching the weather and having an emergency plan are very important. Plan accordingly to keep your family vacations safe, fun, and disaster-free.

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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