CATES: Flash flooding dangers need to be taken seriously

We have had more rain this year than I remember since my parents moved here in the mid 80’s. It is a little mind boggling to me that the grass in my yard at home is green in July when we aren’t running the sprinklers. While the rain and green are much needed and wanted luxuries for us here in West Texas, our rains generally come with a price. That price is flash flooding. I don’t know if you saw the news, but we lost a member of our Permian Basin family in late June because of flash flooding. A gentleman in Marfa died when his car was washed away in a flood zone. I speak to Chief Huber at Odessa Fire Rescue (OFR) regularly. One day a couple of weeks ago, he told me the brave people at OFR had pulled 20 people out of cars in high water already that day, it was still raining when we spoke. I have no data to back this up other than my own observations, but I would imagine OFR has pulled dozens of people from cars in high water so far this year. Every single one of those people could have died in those flood waters—the danger is that great. High water rescues are one of the more dangerous things first responders do, and those rescuers literally put their lives on the line with every rescue. If you think about it that way, it’s miraculous we haven’t lost more people in this area to flash flooding. Flash flood waters are incredibly dangerous and need to be taken seriously.

According to, flash flooding is the leading cause of weather-related death in the US. Nearly 200 people die every year related to flash flooding. The number two cause for weather related deaths is tornados. 39 people a year die in tornadoes. If you do the math, 8 times as many people die in flash floods than tornadoes each year. Texas does not have a good record when it comes to flash flooding statistics. Texas has more flash-flood related deaths than any other state, and we have double the number of flash flood deaths of the number two state, California. 76% of the flash flood related deaths in Texas are related to vehicles, nationally the death rate from flash floods and vehicles is 50%.

A flash flood is defined by the US National Weather Service as “a rapid and extreme flow of high water into a normally dry area, or a rapid water level rise in a stream or creek above the predetermined flood level (the point at which the water spills over the banks)”. Flash flood generally break out in less than 6 hours. That certainly fits what happens here in Odessa. The rain starts and many of our streets in a matter of minutes to hours become rivers. For instance, in a recent rainstorm, there was a section of Business 20 out near Faudree road where the water was so deep it nearly covered the cabs of pick-ups that attempted to drive through those waters. It only took a few hours of rain for that to happen. The currents on our streets can become incredibly strong. The car of the gentleman in Marfa was literally swept away by flash flood waters. If those currents can sweep away a car that weighs about a ton, that it can sweep away a person is not at all hard to imagine.

Yet, people still try to cross flash flood waters in their cars. It only takes 6 inches of water to stall most cars, 3-5 inches of water can cause damage to the car even if it doesn’t stall. Water a foot deep can cause a car to float. Water two feet deep can cause a car to turn over. I’m sure you see people try to drive quickly through flood waters thinking that will save them from stalling. That tactic doesn’t make it better, it can make it worse. Fast driving through water splashes water higher up on the engine increasing the chances that water will enter the engine and damage your car. They way water damages cars is by getting spark plugs wet and causing shorts in the electrical system, by getting water in the fuel system through the exhaust or air intake, by damaging the connection rods in an engine because water doesn’t compress, and by cracking catalytic converters because of rapid shifts in temperature with the water contact. Any of those repairs is going to be costly.

We will have more flash floods here in West Texas. Please remember to protect your life, the lives of the ones you love, and the lives of our brave first responders by never driving into water—even if you think its only a couple of inches deep. If you do get stuck in your car in water, get out of the car, away from the car and out of the water as quickly as you can. Take a route out of the water that keeps the water below your ankles, so you don’t get pushed off your feet by currents. If you can’t get out of the car, call 911. With flash flooding, the best motto to remember is “turn around, don’t drown”. We turn around with tornadoes, the number two cause of weather-related death, we need to treat flash flooding the same way.