Coastal or Inland: Where it Rains – It Can Flood

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 hatoccoa03d 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.

Safe Rooms Save Lives

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

I had been in Oklahoma City (OKC) for just over a week. It was 1995. Spring, a time for rebirth, was put on hold and buried beneath crumbled concrete and shattered lives. Many of us had gone in to cover the aftermath of the bombing at the Murray Federal Building. Crews and reporters had been rotating in and out since the horrific April 19th attack.

By now, April had turned to May. The seventh was a quiet Sunday. We were staffing the CNN workspace in case there were any developments on the bombing. But the story that day centered more on the weather. The local stations were reporting that the atmosphere was ripe for supercells. They were right.

By midafternoon, bulletins were coming in of a half-mile-wide tornado on the ground west of Ardmore, a city one hundred miles to the south of OKC. This tornado dissipated after killing an elderly man and injuring several other people.  But this supercell wasn’t done. It recycled and a second tornado, just as big, dropped out of the sky crossing the Red River and heading toward Ardmore.

We were nearly two hours away, but there was no question we had to go. This could be really bad. I had chased plenty of hurricanes over the years but never a tornado. I kept scanning the landscape around us, half believing that I’d see one suddenly appear. I remember as we drove south thinking just how strange the clouds looked and that the colors were an eerie cotton candy—unlike any I’d seen in Florida.  A Michelin tire factory had reportedly been hit hard, and we headed there first. Of course, by the time we arrived, the tornado was gone. The tornado also damaged some nearby buildings on the outskirts of Ardmore but lifted up just before it reached the heart of the city. They were fortunate that day. Combined the two tornadoes were on the ground for about a combined sixty miles.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m suddenly connected back to that Spring in OKC. Pataya Scott, a PHD candidate at Texas Tech University told me growing up in Oklahoma City she had spent, “lots of time in a closet under the stairs.” Pataya was one of several brilliant University students at the FLASH Annual Conference giving presentations on their work in various fields of disaster mitigation.

These students were studying roofing systems, human behavior and response before and after disasters, communications, and hurricane winds. Pataya is studying the devastating 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. She explained, “I’ll be looking at remote sensing data on damage from the Joplin tornado so things like aerial photos, drive by photos, and Google street views seeing the level of damage for each building. So, it’s going to take a lot of time analyzing all those six thousand documented damaged buildings.”

On the ground for twenty-two miles and thirty-eight minutes, the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed nearly 160 people. Pataya is focusing on construction, wind direction, materials, and architecture; and is determining what kind of buildings hold up better, for instance homes with attached garages and those without.

“Two story buildings area usually more robust so they’re going to do a little better than one story, but how much better is what I’m going to see,” she says. Pataya is just now finishing up the database. Time to start answering the questions!

In listening to Pataya’s work, I was immediately struck by how far the disaster mitigation movement has come in twenty years. Sure, there was talk about it back in 1995, three years after Hurricane Andrew. That storm was the wake-up call. But today, mitigation addresses all perils.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling has spent a lifetime studying tornado mitigation. Shelters are his expertise. “I would have thought in terms of storm shelters we’d be a little further along,” he says, “But overall, I’m grateful for the progress.  We’ve taken a lot of steps, lots of small steps.  We’re getting there.”

As we ramp up toward the height of tornado season, Kiesling says it’s a double edged sword. “We worry about the vulnerability of communities, but also take heart that there is an increase in interest in tornado shelters and improved construction. So, there’s good news and bad news with that because we certainly see with every major tornado an uptick in public consciousness of safety and increased sales in storm shelters and better readiness for the future.”

However, he warns that not all that glitters is gold. Consumers need to carefully consider what they are getting when purchasing a shelter. “There are excellent products available, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not good on the market. We have a real problem in quality control and requiring standard compliance, and it’s not a regulated industry.”

Back in 1995, the people of Ardmore were very fortunate. They got lucky. But today, science, engineering, and public awareness is finally beginning to remove luck from the equation. As Dr. Kiesling says, “we’re doing pretty darn well.”

Related Links 

Community Tornado Shelter “Absolutely Saved Lives” in Alabama 

Tale of Two Homes – Tornado 

Hurricane Center Director Deconstructs “Lite” Season

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

It’s over. Put a fork in it. The 2015 Hurricane season is done. You get six months to exhale unless something crazy stupid happens! No more looking over the shoulder out into the Atlantic or Gulf wondering if that puff of clouds might grow into the next named storm. No more wondering if this might be the year your town or city’s luck runs out.

Unfortunately we, the collective we who live in harm’s way, don’t really seem to wonder near enough. And if you’re not wondering then you’re certainly not doing much to prepare. Over the years, study after study has shown most folks living along the coastal United States from Maine to Texas don’t give hurricanes much thought until one is about to beat down their door.

And that is troubling to the experts. I talked recently with National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. “I fear that so many coastal and inland residents at risk to wind and water hazards have forgotten how to get ready for the next hurricane season. We must take action now to survive the storm and be resilient in the aftermath.”

Sadly, it’s the same refrain Knabb’s predecessors shared with me over and over again, decade after decade. Whether it was Bob Sheets or Max Mayfield or Bill Read or Jerry Jarrell and all the way back to Neil Frank the fear was people were not paying attention. Bottom line, not much has changed. The directors talk, we don’t listen.

Sure there are spikes in attention the season after a big one hits like an Andrew, Hugo, or Katrina. But then you get a few years in a row of relative calm and we, that collective we again, fall back into our old complacency. For every Hurricane Center director, complacency was the first ingredient in that recipe for disaster.

Knabb says one of his great frustrations is that it really doesn’t take a whole lot of heavy lifting to be ready, “Here’s a start to your hurricane resilience to do list: create an evacuation plan, buy supplies, update insurance, including flood, and strengthen your home.”

So, why put it off? Now that you can exhale, now that the season is over, there’s no better time to get your plan together. For thirty-five years going back to David and Frederick in 1979, I have covered hurricanes. The common denominator in every, single storm was last minute panic. There were no exceptions. You’ve seen the images, cars backed up for miles as people flee the storm. Supermarkets wiped out. How about the long, long endless lines that snaked around gas stations? The guy with the plywood sheets roped down to his compact car. And that’s just before the storm hits! Really? Do you look forward to that?

No one can tell you what next season will bring. Who could have predicted Florida, the peninsula that sticks out like a sore thumb would have gone ten years without a hurricane? Director Knabb says that doesn’t change his outlook, “I don’t know how much longer we have until we get another Florida hurricane, but they’re coming back at some point. I live in Florida, and I’m going to continue to plan every year as if my house could be hit by a hurricane.”

2015 was an El Nino year. Strong winds helped keep a lid on hurricane activity and shielded the U.S. mainland. But as Knabb says, it didn’t shield the Bahamas from Joaquin. “Do you think the people in the Bahamas care about how many numbers of storms there were this year? They care that they got hit. And that really is at the end of the day all that matters. And we can get hit in any year. We can get hit in any era, El Nino or not, and everybody tends to look for this thing that they can hang their hat on and say ‘ok, this season it’s not my problem’, but it is our problem every year.”

Here’s a case in point from the Zarrella personal experience archives. This hurricane season ended with eleven named storms. The last was November’s Hurricane Kate which turned away from land. Thirty years ago, the 1985 season ended with eleven named storms. You know the name of the eleventh? Kate. It too was a November hurricane. But, it didn’t turn out to sea.

My crew and I were in an RV. I probably should have thought that one through a little more! But, back in those days, the dark ages of television, we didn’t have satellite trucks lined up every few miles along the coastline. The RV was our production facility on wheels. We loaded it with food, camera equipment, and edit machines. We could shoot, write, and edit our stories all in one place and then drive to a feed point. It worked just fine until November 21.

We were heading down a two lane road towards Mexico Beach, Florida in the Panhandle. Problem was category two Kate got there first. So here we are in this RV as the storm comes ashore. Pine trees are snapping. The rain hit the windshield so hard and heavy that you could see absolutely nothing. It was a white out. The RV was trembling. Looking out the side window, I saw the tin roof of a barn lift off, then sail across a field until it was blown to bits.

My cameramen Doug Hart and Rudy Marshall were yelling, “We’ve got to get back to that house we saw up the road.” The roar of the storm outside was so loud you had to yell. My editor Steve Sonnenblick was behind the wheel. He began backing the RV up the road. There was no way we could turn around. The wind and rain was hitting us head on. If we attempted to turn, the RV would have been broadsided, and I have no doubt, would have flipped.

I don’t know how far we drove in reverse. It may have been a half a mile or so. But when you are driving in reverse on a two lane road in the middle of a hurricane, it takes a whole heck of a lot longer than you want! When we got close enough, we left the RV on the side of the road, ran for the house, and started banging on the front door. The husband and wife were more than a little bewildered seeing four guys standing on their porch, but they graciously let us in to ride out the storm.

The point is, as Knabb and all the other National Hurricane Center Directors have repeated until they were blue in the face, you have to be ready. You need a plan whether it’s June, November, or anytime in between. Why risk your life or the lives of your loved ones. No one has a crystal ball. No one can tell you when or if. Director . Knabb says, “We learned this season that you can have really, really horrible impacts in what had been forecast to be a below average year and what has been an El Nino year.”

And by the way, we never rented an RV again to cover a hurricane!

Last House Standing™ … Edu-tainment, App-style

Jay Hamburg, FLASH Consumer Writer

Many of us know that where and how we build is a critical factor to surviving disasters, and now the new, fun, and free app from FLASH is spreading that message to players of all ages.

FLASH designed the engaging and informative Last House Standing (LHS) game with inspiration from research such as FEMA’s Preparedness in America report on public preparedness and perceptions. The report showed that 58% of 18 to 34-year-olds surveyed failed to recognize disaster safety as a priority. Survey respondents said they needed information, but did not know “where to begin” to become protected and resilient in the face of natural disasters.

Last House Standing solves that problem with a fun, fast-paced game. Each player starts with a budget of $100,000 and has three minutes to choose from many building parts and design pieces to create the best blend of great style and disaster resistance. After building your home, the game tests your design against hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and more.

“Our goal is to introduce players to the idea that their choices help determine their level of disaster resilience,” said FLASH President and CEO, Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “The app does this by wrapping serious options about whether to build using a code or other strengthening features like metal connectors inside dozens of fantasy options from space domes to yurts. With only three minutes and a $100,000, players have to think fast to survive the disasters, but they learn that it can be done.”

Players also choose the locale of their home, which means they need to be aware of which natural disasters are most likely to affect the area. FLASH worked with many partners and volunteers to create a game that’s inviting, exciting, and provides easy-to-understand lessons about the importance of design and location in creating a safe, resilient home.

“With more than one hundred feature choices and millions of potential outcomes, the game will keep every audience engaged,” said former Walt Disney Imagineer and FLASH Board Member, Joe Tankersley. “In today’s crowded app world, serious games have to be informative and fun. FLASH has accomplished this with Last House Standing.”

Last House Standing is available for free on both iPhone and iPad here, and in Google Play here. LHS requires iOS 7.0 or later, and is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. While the app is optimized for iPad 4 and later, iPhone 5, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus, it will operate on older models.

The Only Thing Worse Than No Tornado Safe Room is an Improperly Installed Tornado Safe Room

Jay Hamburg, FLASH Consumer Writer

The deadly outbreak of tornadoes in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and across the central United States serves as a stark reminder of the lifesaving value that safe rooms can provide. At the same time, some tragic cases remind us that safe rooms can only protect you and your loved ones if they are properly installed.

Reports that heavy rainfalls caused some underground tornado safe rooms to pop up out of the ground serve as warnings that even a heavy, sturdy, underground tornado safe room can be dislodged by unexpected water flow during a tornado when installed the wrong way.

And, regardless of installation quality, you should never enter an underground tornado safe room if flooding is expected as water flow could cover air vents, or drowning could occur.

“If you have an underground tornado safe room, proper stabilizing and anchoring is very straightforward,” said FLASH SVP Tim Smail. “We recommend using a National Storm Shelter Association Installer Member or ensure your installer follows the ICC/NSSA-500 standard or FEMA P-361 guidelines.”

There are also many affordable options for prefabricated and site-built tornado safe rooms. Prefabricated safe rooms are those that are assembled off-site and transported to the site where they will be installed. A site-built safe room is assembled and installed on-site. Regardless of which type of safe room you choose, be sure to discuss the following with your safe room installation contractor:

  1. Is your home located in a floodplain? If so, keep in mind FEMA P-361 does not allow safe rooms to be installed in high-risk flood hazard areas.
  2. Does your property have the proper access for equipment needed for installation? Installation could involve a large crane or flatbed truck.
  3. Are there easements on your property that would limit where a safe room could be installed?
  4. Have you checked with your neighborhood association to see what design or structural guidelines must be followed? Many associations have rules regarding outdoor structures and their placement.

Most types of tornado safe rooms can be installed and completed in a day, with the average cost for an 8-by-8 foot room ranging from $8,000 to $9,500. Each offers different advantages, but when built and installed properly, all provide the best available life safety and property protection against tornadoes. And it is essential that we point out the need to use a tested door.

The myth that there is nothing you can do to protect against a tornado is false. We want consumers to know that they can survive if they choose smart. Our new video series, Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You, will help them get started.

Forty-two States At Risk for Earthquake: Residents Should Prepare Now

Early damage reports from today’s earthquake validate the case for simple preparations for families and small businesses to help prevent injury, property damage, and post-earthquake fires

(Tallahassee, FL) Citing today’s Magnitude 6.0 Northern California earthquake, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) urges residents in 42 USGS-identified earthquake states to take immediate action to prevent injuries, property damage, and post-earthquake fires.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “While all states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years (the typical lifetime of a building). Scientists also conclude that 16 states have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing damaging ground shaking. These states have historically experienced earthquakes with a magnitude 6.0 or greater. The hazard is especially high along the west coast, intermountain west, and in several active regions of the central and eastern U.S., such as near New Madrid, MO, and near Charleston, SC. The 16 states at highest risk are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”  USGS published new national seismic hazard maps last month.

“Buildings constructed with strong, modern seismic codes and standards will perform better in earthquakes, but it is up to the resident or building owner to take actions inside and around the structure to prevent injuries and interior damage from falling objects, broken glass, and gas leaks,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “Most of these critical preparations require only household tools and basic home improvement skills, so acting now before the next earthquake can mean the difference between life and death.”

Chapman-Henderson provided prevention examples for homes and small businesses, including:

  • Support ceiling fans and light fixtures using bracing wire secured to a screw eye embedded at least an inch into the ceiling joist.
  • Anchor the tops of bookcases, file cabinets, and entertainment centers to one or more studs with flexible fasteners.
  • Secure loose shelving by fastening screws into the cabinet or with museum putty placed at each corner bracket.
  • Secure china, collectibles, trophies, and other shelf items with museum putty.
  • Install a lip or blocking device to prevent books or other articles from falling off shelves.
  • Secure televisions, computers, and stereos with buckles and safety straps that also allow easy removal and relocation.
  • Install latches on cabinet doors to prevent them from opening and spilling out contents.
  • Hang mirrors, pictures, and plants using closed hooks to prevent items from falling.
  • Cover windows with approved shatter-resistant safety film to protect against broken glass.
  • Ensure appliances have flexible gas or electrical connections.
  • Strap the top and bottom of a water heater using heavy-gauge metal strapping secured to wall studs.
  • Locate gas shutoff valve and know how to turn off the gas supply with the use of a specialty wrench. (video)
  • Relocate flammable liquids to a garage or outside storage location.

More free information and videos are available online at,, and QuakeSmart.

Technical information is derived from FEMA document E-74 Reducing the Risks of Nonstructural Earthquake Damage. QuakeSmart is a FEMA National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) initiative to help businesses in at-risk communities implement mitigation actions in addition to basic preparedness activities, such as creating and exercising disaster plans, preparing disaster supply kits, and knowing how to Drop, Cover, and Hold On (

8 Reasons Why You Need the FLASH Weather Alerts Smartphone App

We asked our users what they value most in the FLASH Weather Alerts app and this list is the outcome.

1. Friends and Family

Personally, I find this app to be extremely valuable if you have friends and family scattered across the globe. I can set all six locations for my mom in DC, my dad in Florida, friends in Colorado and California as well as my current location. Knowing that I will receive National Weather Service alerts before them, gives me a good reason to call and say “Hey get to a safe place because there is a tornado in your area.” Trust me, they will thank you later.

2.    Improved NOAA Weather Radio technology

The same National Weather Service alerts sent to your traditional NOAA weather radio are the same alerts sent to our app. However, the traditional NOAA radio does not allow you to set up to five different locations, calculate your GPS position, or customize alerts based on your lifestyle.

3.    Much cheaper than a NOAA Weather Radio

Google “NOAA Weather Radio” and you will find the price between $30 and $50.

Google “FLASH Weather Alerts” app and you will find a one-time price of $7.99.

4.    Customizable alerts

Having the option to toggle on/off over 100 different NWS alerts gives you piece of mind without alerting you every time the wind blows. If you love to fish, the “Marine” alerts will be prefect for a day of deep-sea fishing. If you love to golf, the “thunderstorms and tornadoes” alerts might be for you.

5.    Mobility

The traditional NOAA radio is comparable in size to the early 90s boom box. Thankfully, in 2013 we are more mobile than ever with smartphones in every pocket, on every desk and in every purse. Essentially this means miniature NOAA Weather radios will be in everywhere and we will all be informed and alert. What a relief!

6.    Text to speech

Without having to open up the FLASH app, you will receive an alert just like a notification. This notification speaks to you even at night so you do not even have to unlock or open your smartphone. My four-year-old niece screamed “MAGIC!” the first time she heard the phone wake up and speak to her. Sometimes the younger generation knows how to sum things up nicely.

7.    Location precision

The fact that traditional NOAA Weather Radio alerts you for severe weather in multiple counties surrounding you and not your specific location can be irritating. The FLASH Weather Alerts app uses your GPS location and proximity to cell towers to provide extremely location specific National Weather Service alerts.

8.    DIY mitigation projects

Despite being number eight on the list, this is what sets the FLASH Weather Alerts app apart from others. Along with the alert features in the app, there are videos that show you how to strengthen your home in preparation for natural disasters. Much like the DIY TV shows you watch, the videos break down important mitigation strategies and projects you can tackle in one hour, one day and one weekend. These projects add value to your home and ultimately keep you one-step ahead of natural disasters.

Former National Hurricane Center director Bill Read’s testimony of the app:

“I was able to put the FLASH Weather Alert app to the test last night as severe thunderstorms crossed our area. The audio alerts for the severe thunderstorm warning and flood advisory were perfect. A neat feature in the app is the screen capture and share, which I used to post this picture during the storm. 2-4″ diameter hail fell along a swath of the county roughly where the pink color was located.”

Share your app experience on the FLASH Facebook page and be entered to win a $25 Home Depot gift card that can go towards a new bird feeder or better yet, supplies to strengthen your home outlined in the DIY mitigation projects.