‘Flooding Can Happen Anywhere’: Here’s How to Stay Safe

Urban street flooded.

Byba Sepit / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Experts say flooding will likely only become more common in the coming years.
  • Flooding poses safety and health concerns, including drowning, injuries, hypothermia, and animal bites. 
  • In order to mitigate flooding in urban areas, experts say that there needs to be an investment in green spaces so that rainwater can be better absorbed.

Last week, Hurricane Ida wrecked the South and Northeast, flooding and damaging thousands of homes and businesses. Videos circulated widely of the destruction in cities like New Orleans and New York. Unfortunately, experts say these instances of dangerous flooding may only become more frequent in the coming years.

According to Brett Sanders, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering, urban planning, and public policy at the University of California, Irvine, flooding, especially urban flooding, has become a growing problem.

“We have seen a major uptick in floods over the past decade," Sanders tells Verywell. "We have a history of hurricanes in the U.S. from Katrina, to Harvey, to Sandy."

By the year 2100, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that floodplains are projected to be 45% across the U.S., based on their Climate Change Report. Coastal flooding is projected to reach 55% by the year 2100.

Why Are Cities Flooding?

The flooding seen in New York was an example of urban flooding—or when rainfall overwhelms the drainage capacity of a densely populated area.

Sanders says that urban areas flood because of the overwhelming amount of precipitation that comes from the storms. When rainwater isn’t absorbed into the ground, it becomes excess, also known as runoff. 

Many urban areas built their cities using concrete and asphalt that has little water absorbency. Once rainwater hits the concrete, it typically runs into the sewage. When it storms, the rainwater can overwhelm the sewage system, causing major floods. 

“Having a lot of concrete, pavement, and impervious areas contribute to flooding in cities like New York City and even Nashville where I’m at,” Janey Vanessa Camp, PhD, research associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, tells Verywell. 

Additionally, the lack of green spaces can make urban areas especially flood-prone, Camp says. One report found that New York was ranked last among major U.S. cities in terms of green space per resident. Each resident receives 146 square feet of greenery compared to a whopping 1,023 square footage per dweller in Atlanta, Georgia.

Therefore, increasing and “creating green space can help mitigate flooding, especially in low-lying areas using green infrastructure,” Camp says. 

What Makes Flooding A Safety And Health Hazard?

Trying to wade through fast-moving water can lead to drowning, Sanders says. “You can have a risk of being taken off your feet and losing your balance," Sanders adds.

There are also additional health risks associated with floods like potential injuries, hypothermia, and animal bites.

During a flood, sewage mixes with floodwaters, according to Sanders.

“All that raw sewage sits in our sewer lines," Sanders says. "So that means that anyone that’s coming in contact with the water is risking exposure to possibly toxic chemicals or pathogens that could make them sick."

Flooding also destroys properties, causing water damage to the infrastructure of houses and businesses. As a result of the water damage, “you could have mold or mildew in your home,” Camp explains. 

Exposure to indoor mold growth can lead to upper respiratory tract symptoms, such as a cough and wheezing. Ear, nose, and throat infections are also common.

Beyond the physical impact, there can be a mental one too. One research study found that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was a small increase in mental health problems among evacuees and rescue workers, underscoring a flood’s adverse impact on mental health.

Preparing For A Flood 

The Federal Government launched the Ready Campaign in February 2003 to help the American people prepare for, respond to, and mitigate emergencies, including natural disasters. To prepare for a flood, they recommend: 

  • Making an evacuation plan for members of your household, including your pets
  • Learn and practice evacuation routes, shelter plans, and flash flood response
  • Gather supplies such as non-perishable foods, cleaning supplies, and water to last several days 

What This Means For You

To learn about the type of flood risk in your area, enter your address in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Flood Map Service Center

How to Stay Safe During A Flood 

Rozane Keppner, the owner of PuroClean Water and Fire Restoration, tells Verywell that when your home or business is flooding, the best thing to do is seek the highest ground. When seeking higher ground, Keppner says to avoid a closed attic.

“If you’re trapped in a building that’s flooding, go to the highest level," Keppner says. "Don’t climb into a closed attic, as rising floodwater may trap you."

She also recommends turning off the electricity at the main circuit breaker to prevent electrocution. “Do not turn on electricity until local authorities have advised you to do so,” Keppner says. 

“A lot of people don’t understand the force of water," Camp says. "When flooding occurs, people don’t heed the warnings. And then they travel across flooded roadways, and they have their vehicle swept away."

Therefore, Camp recommends following health officials' recommended precautions in order to stay safe.

Navigating the Aftermath 

If your home has flooded, there is a likelihood that the floods caused water damage, Keppner says. She recommends calling a specialized restoration company to assess the damage and its severity.

“You should immediately contact a specialized restoration company as water can cause mold and irremediable damage to the wood, walls, and carpet in your home,” Keppner says. After contacting a restoration company, contact your insurance company to file a claim.

“Flooding can happen anywhere, even in desert areas, or drier terrain,” Camp adds. “You don’t have to live next to a river or stream to have flood damages. Understand your risk, and know what your options are so we can all be safe.”  

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. AECOM. FEMA Climate Change Report. 

  2. Geotab. Urban Footprints. The Allocation Of Space In U.S. Cities

  3. Zhong S, Yang L, Toloo S et al. The long-term physical and psychological health impacts of flooding: A systematic mappingScience of The Total Environment. 2018;626:165-194. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.01.041

  4. Ready. Floods.

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.