By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent
The rain had been coming down for days. By the early morning hours of November 6, 1977, an earthen dam near the North Georgia town of Toccoa couldn’t take it any longer and ruptured. The people at a tiny Bible College downstream were mostly asleep when the flood waters hit. Thirty-nine perished. Many were children.
At the time, I was working for a local Atlanta television station. I had only been in the business a couple of years. Now, nearly forty years later, Toccoa remains the deadliest flood event I was ever involved in covering.
Unless you had relatives there or were a journalist, Toccoa is one of those largely forgotten moments in history. But it is, and should be, a tragic reminder of how quickly inland flooding can change or even take your life.
At Toccoa the people never had a chance. But in most flooding events, people who die didn’t have to. That’s right, they didn’t have to! How many times have you heard this: “Some of these people on the highway trying to drive through this stuff—they’re very stupid.” That was a quote to CNN from a Missouri flood victim this past December.
If you look at federal statistics, more than half of all flood related deaths come when a car is driven into water. Bill Read is a former Director of the National Hurricane Center. Even in hurricanes, inland flooding is the number one killer. Read told me, “they don’t think it’s as bad as it really is and they drive into it and it’s too late when they finally figure out its going to float their car.”
People who survive always, Read says, have the same refrain, “The people that are rescued or made it out alive they almost invariable say ‘I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.’”
It’s not as if the “stay out of the water” messaging isn’t out there. The “Turn Around Don’t Drown” program by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the National Weather Service is exactly what it says. Don’t drive into that water! The yellow signs are in high risk, low lying areas around the country. Local meteorologists always get out that message to their audience whenever there’s a flood threat.
Over the course of forty years, Read has seen every kind of flooding imaginable – from hurricanes, flash floods, to riverine. “The most phenomenal thing to me was just the incredible rate of rainfall. We’ve had events where the hourly rainfall rates approach 4 to 6 inches in an hour. Almost nobody lives in an area that can be designed to handle the runoff from that kind of rain. So it almost invariably leads to rather severe flooding.”
Read’s takeaway from all he’s witnessed, we must be aware of our risk. And he adds, that risk is not is not isolated to one part of the country or another. “When you come right down to it there’s no place in the U.S. that’s not vulnerable to inland flooding.”
Just last year major flooding events occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida. If you know you are at risk, there are measures you can take to protect your home and property. The most import of which is to get a flood insurance policy. Consider elevating your air conditioning unit, water heater, and furnace. For more tips and information, go to the FLASH website.
Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason. Bad weather “stuff” just happens. It’s fickle, unpredictable, weird, and strange. You can attach all sorts of adjectives to it.
Back in 2008, Tropical Storm Fay set a record-making four landfalls in Florida. Unpredictable, weird, fickle, strange…you pick the adjective. As it meandered across the state, it just kept dumping water. In some places more than twenty inches fell. North of Melbourne the rain gauges swelled to a record twenty-seven inches.
We started chasing Fay on August 17 for CNN in Key West and Key Largo. The next three days, reporting from Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Melbourne required high water boots. At a place called Lamplighter Village, Florida Wildlife officers used swamp buggies to go in and rescue folks. As always, some wouldn’t leave. All the wildlife officials could say, “If you decide to get out, give us a call.”
In Port St. Lucie, a volunteer rescuer got people out in an airboat, again, those who would leave. His warning to the others, “Just try not to wait too late. It’s easier in the daylight than it is at night. Everything bad happens at night.”
Tropical Storm Fay is a poster child for all those adjectives, and how it can happen anywhere. And the message is clear, bad weather “stuff” happens. Know your risk.