Picture from NOAA
We have had our fair share of severe weather near misses. Some of those near misses have just been due to our own dumb luck. Most have been because we have been aware and alert and reacted quickly. There are three hazards I will cover in the next three posts. They are fire, flood and fog.
I will share my own experience with a flash flood while camping with my parents in a tent trailer. The campground was one of the most stunningly lovely I ever seen set in rural Vermont on a hillside in the green mountains. There was a particularly pretty shallow creek that came down out of a narrow rock walled gully and then it turned and bent almost back on itself before carrying down the hillside out of sight. It was not even five centimetres deep at it’s deepest point though about five metres wide. The campground was located in the bend of the creek with the campground following the inner bank. There were no services and no assigned sites for the “no services rate” to camp. You found an open spot and set up. We were delighted to find a level open spot near the edge of the creek on packed gravel. We fell asleep to the sweet sounds of a babbling brook tinkling over rocks.
In the late evening there was a heavy downpour with thunder and lightening. We fell deeply asleep, exhausted after a long drive. We awoke at 2:00am because the trailer was rocking and there was a loud roaring sound. Peeking outside, we found ourselves in the middle of a torrent. The creek has risen until the entire lower half of the no services area of the campground inside that bend of the creek was under about 10 centimetres of fast running water. Moving quickly, my father ran to the car, backed up and hitched the trailer. By now the water up halfway up his calves and flowing even more quickly. The roaring was deafening and even more frighting was the sound of large boulders shifting in the water. He grabbed everything in the dining tent and just threw stuff into the centre of the tent trailer and then pulled up the stakes dragging the corners behind him until the tent was loose on the bottom. The wet tent then got half shoved into the open doorway with shouts at us to hold on to it. He ran off into the dark. We heard when he started the car. Ever so slowly, he pulled the tent trailer, with all of us still in it clinging to the dining tent, out of the raging waters and up to drier land. Other campers were also awake and several came to help us. Two other families in tents above us decided to move further up from the lower bend area in case the water came even higher. It did. Soon after we were safely out of the way our campsite ended up three metres underwater. The next morning we counted ourselves lucky even as we found the torrent had returned to being a charming little gurgling creek barely deep enough to cool our feet. We stayed in our new higher place for rest of our vacation.
We made several mistakes in choosing our campsite. We did not take into account the weather forecast, which called for heavy rain. We did not consider that the creek came out of a narrow rocky channel with nowhere else for heavy rain to go. We did not carefully examine our surroundings. If we had, we would have seen past signs that when the creek was high, it filled the area we chose to camp in. It was lovely, flat and open gravel precisely because it was a small flood plain. And we did not check with the locals and the campground owner about the lovely spot. The others campers, the ones who had not made camp near the creek, were all locals who knew the way that creek flooded in a storm. The owner also knew the lower areas were subject to flooding but he was not there at check in and we didn’t bother to try to find him as we had paid in advance. Dealing with the flood and the near disaster has left me acutely aware of the dangers of flooding.
We were lucky. On June 11, 2010 there was a flash flood of the Caddo and Little Missouri River in the Ouachita National Forest’s Albert Pike Recreation area near Langley Arkansas. This was no flood of an otherwise small creek. This was a full sized river. The river rose an astonishing 2.4m/s (8ft/s). The flood hit in the middle of the night while campers slept at the campground. Twenty people died including eight children. The culprit was combination of geography, combined with a series of thunderstorms, in particular one that dumped 10 inches of rain in minutes. The area was known to flood but the kind of flood that hit that day occurred only once in fifty years and no one had been there for fifty years. Ignorance was compounded by the fact that being in isolated area, there was no cell phone service and the campground was miles from a ranger station. There were warnings about the potential for flash floods and warnings issued by NOAA. People just didn’t react. Many of them were sound asleep when the warnings were raised.
You simply can’t swim in a flash flood. The water carries you along and debris in the water smashes into you as you travel. You can’t hang onto your children. They will be swept from your arms. The water will pull you down under and then spit you up randomly as you go and if you aren’t knocked unconscious by flying debris, you could well be sucked under long enough to be drowned. You will also have broken bones, cuts, bruises and scrapes if you do survive. In accounts of the few people who do survive being in a flash flood a few things are consistent. If they couldn’t escape their RVs or automobiles, they stayed in their vehicles as long as possible. The vehicles provide protection from debris. If they don’t fill with water, that protection may carry you to safety. If people had an opportunity to do so, survivors also donned lifejackets and tied their children to themselves. Some people have survived by climbing high up into large trees and tying themselves and their children to the trees. This will work if the tree is not uprooted and swept away with the flood waters. However for most people caught in the flood, rushing water meant death. What was the worst of the tragedy in Arkansas was that if those in authority had listened to the warnings of the scientists, no campsite would have been built in that area. If someone had reacted to the warnings from NOAA, most or even all of the people would have survived.
Across the river, in another campground, individuals there did not go to sleep. Feeling uneasy about the thunderstorms and water, and noticing the flood rising, the watchers sounded the alarm. They rushed about the campground rousing everyone and getting them out of the flood waters. Where the warning came, no one died. The lesson here is that when you are in the wilderness, you are responsible for yourself. Have and use your own weather radio. The slow moving thunderstorm that dumps inches of water in minutes is the very worst flash flood maker. Keep track of thunderstorms and be wary, especially if it stays in one place. There are usually warning sign if you pay attention. One of the lessons of the Arkansas tragedy is you can’t count on others to pass along the warning from NOAA. If there is a flash flood watch, react accordingly. Move out of the flash flood area or have someone stay awake watching the water and the weather and be ready to move, and move fast.
Always be aware of the potential for flooding. Each season has it’s own set of risks. In spring, be aware of flooding on rivers. Many campgrounds and municipal parks are located on river banks specifically because the area is a flood prone zone and cannot be used for regular housing. Spring floods can happen in a number of ways along rivers. Late winter and spring flooding is common in regions that have snow. Ice jams can cause dangerous flooding in a matter of minutes to hours. If you camp near a river during the spring break up, be ready to move out quickly in the event of an ice jam upstream from your position. Downstream of a dam, water levels can change rapidly if sluices are opened and closed. Sometimes a surge of floodwater upstream means the dam must release large amount of water with little warning. Rarely, dams can collapse. In spring, on lakeside campgrounds, be aware of the possibility of pack ice that can plow up on the shore and destroy anything in its path in minutes with a high in-shore wind.
If it can rain, it can flood. Deserts are particularly bad for sudden flash floods of real ferocity. Flash flooding is a possibility with any rain in the desert. Make sure you have not picked a wash to set up camp in the desert. Heavy rain, even miles away which you can’t see or hear, can turn lovely dry gulch into a raging killer.
Check your map before choose your campground. Do several creeks converge near you, especially just up stream of your location? If the water upstream suddenly rises to the height of your camper where will it go? If there is heavy rain and a large amount of water has to pass through in a short period of time, is there room for the water to spread out, or will it be trapped in a small space with you in the midst? Before you stop and set up camp, look around and check for signs of flooding such as banks cut deeply to vertical and piles of debris. Look for watermarks on tree trunks and hanging debris in the branches. Examine the vegetation around you. Is it plants such as sedges that are accustomed to being flooded? Are you above or below the apparent high waterline? Keep in mind that the apparent high water mark may be much higher in rare events. Ask a local old timer if that river is well behaved or does it act up?
Sea shore camping is great too, but high tides and storm surges can arrive with little warning. So called sneaker waves can reach up without warning and rearrange everything on the beach, including your camper and your life. Tsunamis are always a low but not zero probability risk. The large tsunami crossing the ocean will trigger coastal warning systems that will give you time to move but tsunamis can come within minutes of a local earthquake or an offshore landslide. Look for tsunami warning signs at the coast. If you are within a tsunami zone make you sure you know the evacuation path and how to travel to it and if there is an earthquake don’t wait for a warning. Head for higher land immediately. Your higher caution will also save lives. In the horrific Japanese tsunami of 2011 people milled about uncertain what to do. In places where someone started to higher ground, others began following and people did not die. One entire school was saved by children in one class who just started moving upward because a recent guest speaker had told them about earthquakes tsunamis. The adults and the other children followed them.
Choose a camping spot that is set back from the waterline if you have any doubts about your location. Always take a few minutes during set up to plan your escape if you need to. Have three modes of escape in mind. Where will you run on foot? Where will you drive in your pull vehicle or bike while abandoning most of your gear? Where will you go, and how will you get there, if you have enough warning time to pack up everything and move? Take the time to look around during set up and you will be less likely to panic if an emergency arises. Be a little paranoid in a planned and considered way to avoid being surprised by rising water.
If you are on the road and hit heavy rain, slow down. Here is where the correct tires can make a big difference. Poor tires will hydroplane and you will be in danger of being swept sideways or skidding. Good tires will channel water safely so your tires don’t lose contact with the road as quickly and you have time to get off the road before the water is too deep. Do so safely, keeping in mind traffic coming behind you. Watch for a safe place to pull off the road but be aware that water may choose the same path. In the mountains, that roadside niche may be where mudslides come through and you don’t want to take a ride with one of them. An underpass might seem like a good place to stop in a hailstorm, but you could quickly find yourself in several feet of water from the downpour that accompanies the hail if the underpass drops below ground level.
There is only one safe way to cross roads that are under water. Don’t. Water over roads, especially moving water, is very dangerous even if it only looks a few inches deep. The reasons are that just because the edge is a few inches deep, doesn’t mean the middle is. The road may have a dip hidden by the water. Flood water is generally not swimming pool clean and so you can’t see how deep it is away from the edge. Flowing water also packs a lot of power and only a few inches of fast moving water can sweep a vehicle sideways and off the road, over a bank, and into main part of a river into a full flood. Running water also eats roads. There could be a huge crack washed out in the road or a six foot pot hole just out of sight under that dirty water. As NOAA says “Turn around, don’t drown.” Water, like fire, is not just pretty. It has the potential to be deadly. There is a charming saying I have heard several times in the Deep South, especially in the back hills, off the beaten tracks. “I’ll be there, God willing and the crick don’t rise.” It’s a quaint and lovely phrase. It is also a warning.