In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, all but destroying New Orleans, as well as many smaller communities. Seven years later, Superstorm Sandy, a combination of two hurricanes, hit the New Jersey seashore and New York City. In 2016 there was a once in a thousand year storm that dropped as much as two feet of rain on Louisiana in two days, flooding one third of the state’s parishes. Now, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey has plastered Houston, with over 50 inches of rain falling on the city in a matter of days.
Fortunately, floods actually aren’t all that common. If you think of the size of our nation and the few major floods there have been, the chance of having to survive a flood are rather low. But if you look at the damage that they cause, floods are not something that we can ignore.
Mortgage companies sure don’t. When you are buying a home, one of the important pieces of information that is looked at is whether your home is in a “100 year flood zone.” That means that there is a one percent chance of the area flooding in any one year, accumulating to mean that it will flood sometime every century. If the home is in such an area, the mortgage company requires the home buyer to get flood insurance, before they will approve the loan.
The reason for that is that floods cause a huge amount of damage when they do occur. Okay, so maybe you won’t have a flood hit your home for 99 years. But that one year that it does hit, it can totally wipe you out, destroying everything that you’ve worked your entire life for.
Of all possible natural disasters, flooding is one of the most destructive. It is the flooding from a hurricane that causes most of the damage, not the winds. Even in the case of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, it was the flooding, more than the earthquake, that caused the majority of the damage.
Water is incredibly powerful; much more so than we would expect. When large quantities of water invade an area in the form of a flood, it can flatten some buildings and cause others to float away. It can cause massive amounts of all sorts of material to decompose or otherwise be destroyed. It can wash away ground under roadways and bridges, causing them to collapse. It can even change the landscape, moving massive amounts of rock, sand and soil, creating new terrain features and eradicating others.
Yet flooding isn’t seen as a “major disaster,” so we tend to ignore it in the prepping and survival community. We’d rather focus on EMP, the Yellowstone Supervolcano and the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. Those disasters are “sexy,” while a flood is just a pain in the…
Let’s Make Some Assumptions
Since there are few places in the country which are actually immune to flooding, let’s assume for a minute that we have to prepare for one. Flash floods can happen in deserts, so we can’t leave that out. Heavy rainfall on a mountainside can cause a mudslide, taking a whole town downhill with it, so we can’t ignore that location. Every type of geography you can imagine can and probably sometime will have a flood.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone will be hit by a flood. Even in the widespread flooding in Houston we see that some people are better off than others, simply because their homes are a few feet higher.
That doesn’t mean that their homes are totally immune to the problems caused by the flooding though. Not only is that rain falling on their homes, just like everyone else’s, but in many areas, the flooding has shut down normal services, as well as any possible hope of resupply. Those people may as well be stranded on an off-grid island, for all the good the rest of the city is doing them.
In some cases, those people are also having to deal with displaced refugees who have nowhere else to go. While the Red Cross and other agencies have opened up shelters around the city, not everyone can get to them. if your home happens to be sitting on a high point, with lower lands all around you, you can count on everyone around you coming onto your property, seeking help.
Your Home Isn’t Ready For This
American homes are not built for withstanding flooding. Our major structural element is wood, which soaks up water, causing it to warp or twist as it dries. Other materials, such as drywall and carpeting are simply destroyed by flooding. Even the wood underlayment, hiding under that carpeting is subject to serious damage by flooding, especially if it is MDF, rather than plywood.
You can’t really waterproof the walls of an American home either. Even brick homes will have vents in the walls, near the floor line. These appear as spaces between the bricks, where no mortar was added. Those provide access for water, if it ever floods.
So people who just put sandbags around their front and rear doors really don’t understand what they’re doing. They might stop water from flowing under the door, but they won’t keep the water out. It will only be slowed down, as it seeps under or through the walls. The higher the water rises, the faster you can expect that seepage to occur.
If your home survives the flooding, it will require major repairs and remodeling. You’ll have to replace all the drywall that was underwater, all the insulation, all the carpets and probably much of the wood trim and flooring as well.
Not All Homes are Built This Way
American home building stands in stark contrast to the way that homes are built in many other parts of the world. Our neighbors to the south, in Mexico, actually build homes which are much hardier and much more able to survive floods.
Those homes are built out of cinder blocks and cement, usually with ceramic tile floors. I know several families living in that country, whose homes have flooded due to hurricanes or other storms. The state of Tabasco, in the southern part of the country, is especially susceptible to this, as about 30% of the state is water.
Since their homes are made to withstand a flood, all that people have to do is move their furniture and other belongings to the second floor, assuming they have a two-story home. Once everything is upstairs, they can either wait out the storm or wait to be rescued. As long as the waters don’t rise more than 10 feet, they’re home and their possessions will survive.
That’s not to say that the flooding won’t cause problems. Cars will still be damaged by the floods, as well as anything that’s still on the ground floor of their homes. Even in the best of cases, the windows will probably break and massive amounts of mud will enter the home. Cleaning up a home, drying it out and repainting it is a lot of work, but it’s much less work than trying to make an American home habitable after the same sort of flood.
Protecting Your Home
The time to start thinking about protecting your home from flood water is when you are building it, assuming that you build your own home. If you buy one, you should keep these same thoughts in mind, looking to see if the building took them into consideration in their design.
As I already mentioned when talking about Mexico, homes that are two stories tall offer a much better chance of survival than one story homes do. While the first floor of the home might become damaged, retreating to the second floor can provide you with a reprieve. But no matter what happens, you should never retreat to the attic, unless you have a way to get from the attic to the roof. Attics have become deathtraps in floods, when the water rose higher than the roof of the home.
Terrain is Important
First of all, you need to look at where you are going to build. Even flatlands can have undulations that are not immediately apparent. My home is actually on a slight rise, a few feet higher than the surrounding terrain, even though the whole area looks as flat as a billiards table. While that few feet won’t protect me from the kind of flooding they’re having in Houston, it will protect me from lesser floods.
In many places, the building code requires that homes be built up from the surrounding terrain at least a foot. While that is rare in my area (even though it is required) my home has been built that way. The dirt to raise the foundation slab up a foot came out of the backyard, making my backyard into a giant bowl. So not only do I have my home raised up, but I have a great area for runoff to go to.
That extra foot might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep flowing water from entering the home, which is why it is written into the building code. Granted, that won’t help if you have two feet of water flowing down your street; but it will with lesser flooding.
Our street was actually flooded once. Between the height of the curbs, the fact that my home is on a slight rise and the extra foot of buildup that we did before pouring the slab, my home stayed nice and dry, unlike some other homes in my area.
Choose Your Materials Wisely
If flood protection is one of your main concerns, then you don’t want to build a wood home. Better to build one out of cinder blocks, like they do down in Mexico. Of course, the problem with that is that you really can’t insulate a cinder block home, so your energy bills are going to be much higher.
There are some materials on the market, which combine the advantage of cinder blocks, with the ability to insulate a wall. Smartblock and Omniblock are two of these materials. You build the wall just as if you were building with cinder blocks, but there is a Styrofoam core, providing insulation. Granted, a home must be designed for building with block or you just can’t do this.
Another option is to build a brick home, but put the wall vents near the roofline, rather than near the floor line. Properly mortared brick is fairly waterproof, although it is possible to get some seepage though it. But the bigger problem is that anyplace which is not bricked will allow water to get through.
Doorways are the most common place for this to happen, including garage doors. But if the only place you have, where water can get through is your doorways, you can solve that problem easily enough by building a wall of sandbags in front of the doorway.
Building Barriers into Your Landscaping
We’ll talk about sandbags and other water barriers in a moment, but since we’re talking about how to build a home for flood protection right now, I want to mention building barriers into your landscaping. This is actually pretty rare and adds a fair amount of cost to your home; but if you live in a flood-prone area, it might be something you want to consider adding at some time.
Basically, the idea is to build cement or cinder block walls as part of your landscaping. Going back to Mexico, most homes are surrounded by some sort of cement, steel or cement and steel fence. I share a cement and steel fence with the neighbors on one side and have a cement wall as my back fence. In both cases, the fences can serve an additional protection against flooding, as the water won’t readily pass through the cement and cinder block.
Of course, that’s quite a ways from the home itself. But the same idea can be brought closer. One way this might be done is to build a brick half-wall around a patio or deck, rather than just a wood one. Perhaps this could be done as a planter, making it more attractive. If you do a lot of outdoor cooking, a brick wall can be incorporated into an outdoor grille and oven.
Why would you want to do this? Simply because it means that if you ever have to sandbag your home, you have that many feet of wall, which you don’t have to sandbag. You can make that wall part of your home’s protection, saving yourself time and effort in putting sandbags in place.
Flood Barriers for Your Home
If a flood is coming that will be high enough to get into your home, the best that you can do is to try and keep the water out of your home. That’s going to take a lot of time and money, no matter how you do it. Sadly, most people won’t even be able to try, due to the difficulty of protecting their homes.
The time-honored means of keeping water out of your home is with sandbags. While some water will seep through a sandbag wall, if the wall is properly constructed, the amount that gets through will be very little. What do I mean by properly constructed? Built in such a way as to not leave any gaps. This is done by not filling the sandbags all the way, so that when they settle into place, the bag can conform to any irregularities in the adjoining surfaces.
Properly constructed, the sandbag wall shouldn’t be up against the sides of your house, but rather a few feet away. That way, there is room to walk around your home and check for seepage. You should plan on having a pump or two on hand, to pump any seepage out and over the wall.
Of course, the sandbag wall needs to be high enough to withstand the rising water. Deciding how high to make it is mostly a guessing game, based upon the expected rainfall, but four feet high is what is usually recommended. You can get sandbags that are either 14” x 26” (filled size 14” x 7.5” x 4.5”) or 18” x 30” (filled size 20.8” x 9.6” x 6.7”). While it will take less of the larger sandbags to build a wall, they will also be heavier, making them harder to work with.
As a general rule of thumb, each foot of wall height requires 50 of the smaller sandbags, for every 10 linear feet of wall. So, a four foot high wall, will require 360 sandbags for every 10 feet. That’s a lot of sandbags.
There are alternatives for sandbags, but they are more expensive. Basically, these are flexible plastic tubes, two to three feet in diameter. They are laid out where needed and then filled with water. For higher walls, two of these tubes can be laid side by side, with a third one on top. The more they are filled, the higher the wall, but at the same time, the less ability the wall will have of conforming to irregularities in adjoining surfaces.
Taking Care of Your Stockpile
Regardless of whether or not you are able to save your home from the flood, you’re going to need to try and save your stockpile. In the cases of both Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, it took weeks for normal services and supply to return to normal. People were literally digging in dumpsters, because they didn’t have enough food to eat.
Even if your home becomes destroyed by the flood, your stockpile can help you to survive, if it is properly stored. Since most of us store our stockpile in our basements, that means storing it in waterproof containers.
Fortunately, canned goods are already packed in waterproof containers. Granted, those can become rusted from the flooding, but that will take a while. If you salvage those cans and dry them off, they’ll be fine.
Dry foods can be stored in five gallon plastic buckets to keep them from being damaged by flooding. This is a good way of storing them anyway, which I’ve talked about in other articles; so I’m not going to repeat that here. The rubber seal in the plastic bucket’s lid will ensure that water stays out, even if the bucket becomes submerged, as long as it is properly sealed.
You’ll also want to store as many of your other supplies in waterproof containers as you can. Plastic storage bins really aren’t waterproof, although most will float. So if you have them located somewhere besides your basement, chances are that they’ll keep their contents dry.
The bigger problem might end up be in getting to those buckets and cans. Basements are the first thing to flood and the last thing to dry out. So if you’re storing everything in the basement, you might find yourself unable to get to your stockpile. Better to store some of your stockpile above-ground, even in the second story of your home or in your attic, if you have those available.
The problem with attic storage is heat, which will shorten the life expectancy of some foods. So if you are going to store food in your attic, be sure to rotate that stock and use it, replacing it with new cans or packages.
Don’t just limit your thinking to your home though. There’s always a chance that you will be forced to abandon your home. In that case, you need a cache of supplies away from your home, preferably outside of the flood zone. This could be the same cache of supplies you’ve prepared as part of your bug out plan or it could be supplies that you store in a rented storage area. Just make sure that it is far enough away and high enough that it won’t be flooded, if your home is.
Surviving the Flood
Most of the time, surviving the flood is easier than surviving the aftermath, unless the flood brings fast-moving waters that sweep people away. But that’s pretty rare. One of the reasons that many floods happen is that the water can’t drain off fast enough. So you can pretty much eliminate the possibility of fast-moving waters in those cases.
If you know a flood is coming and your home is at risk, your best plan will probably be to bug out and get away from home. That is, unless you are going to build the aforementioned sandbag wall to protect your home. If you do that, you’ll obviously want to stay home to keep an eye on things.
But you may not be able to leave or may not expect the waters to get that high. In that case, your actions are important, as they can affect your chances of survival.
First of all, never make any assumptions about what is beneath the water, even if you think you knew what was there before the rain started falling. As I mentioned earlier, water can move earth, causing massive erosion and changing the landscape. So your previously flat lawn or the previously flat street in front of your home might have a hole in it big enough to swallow a truck.
Earlier today, I saw photos of both sharks and alligators swimming underwater, over the Houston highways. That was a bit surprising; not so much because they were there, but because I could see them in the photos. Normally, flood waters are murky enough that you wouldn’t be able to see those predators swimming below the surface.
Wherever you are, you want to get to the highest point you can. If you’re at home, go to the second floor and stay there. If your home is only one floor, get up on the roof. No matter what you do, don’t go into your attic, unless you have an existing opening to get from there to your roof. If you have to, go out a window and allow the water to float you up to the roofline, but don’t go in the attic.
Always Be Ready to Bug Out
I already mentioned that you should consider bugging out before the flood hits. But what if you don’t? What if the flood ends up being worse than you expected, and you suddenly find yourself stranded, trapped on an island, or even worse, on your roof?
Chances are, if you find yourself in this situation, someone will be along in a boat to rescue you. The Cajun Navy showed up in force to help out the people of Houston, as well as many Texans who own boats. Actually, if it wasn’t for private boat owners helping out in Houston and the flooding in Louisiana in 2016, many people would have drown before government rescue workers could have reached them.
But you and I aren’t preppers so that we can depend on others to take care of us; we expect to take care of ourselves. So we need to be ready to effect a self-rescue, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue us.
I know what you’re probably thinking right now; you can’t afford a boat. Well, neither can I. But there are other options we should consider, besides buying ourselves a pleasure boat or even a rowboat. One is to buy an inflatable rubber boat. I just looked at one of the major sporting goods companies, and you can buy one which will support the weight of a family of four for as little as $199. While you would be better off with a slightly larger one, that could be enough to save your family. If you want one big enough for your whole family, plus survival packs or bug out bags, you’re probably looking at about $100 more.If that’s too much, you could use an inflatable mattress as a makeshift raft. There’s really no difference between one of those and the inflatable lounges that people use in swimming pools. A queen or king sized inflatable mattress makes a pretty good makeshift raft. The only thing you have to be careful about is weight distribution. But when properly loaded, it can carry you far enough to get to safety.