If you don’t give much thought to flash flood dangers when heavy rain is forecast, consider what happened this past spring in Oklahoma and Texas and think again. Residents of these two states are still recovering from torrential downpours in May that in a matter of hours overwhelmed rivers, streams and storm drains. Thirty-one people died in the flash flooding that followed. A tragedy like this can happen anywhere.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), more people are killed by flooding than by any other single severe weather hazard, including lightning, hurricanes and tornadoes. More than half of these deaths occur when people are trapped in vehicles.
Flash flood risk increases when rainfall is intense and the ground surface is unable to absorb all of the water. This can happen when the ground is saturated or when it is extremely dry and impermeable. This was the case in Oklahoma and Texas, parts of which have been struggling with extreme drought conditions for years. Rapid runoff results, engulfing sewers and tunnels where Laborers can be working, washing out construction sites, collapsing retaining walls and transforming roads into fast-moving rivers that sweep away vehicles and people.
“Hot weather increases the likelihood for thunderstorms, making the summer months prime time not only for lightning strikes, but also flash floods,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “To protect against these hazards, employers need to monitor local weather conditions and have an effective plan in place to alert Laborers and other workers when thunderstorms or other hazardous conditions are in the area. Weather apps and portable weather radios are additional tools that can provide timely information.”
When a flash flood warning is issued:
- If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.
- Get out of work areas that are subject to flooding like storm sewers, tunnels and basements. Move to an area of higher elevation before access is cut off.
- Do not drive if not necessary.
- If driving is necessary, do not attempt to drive over a flooded road or flowing water:
- Depth of water is not always obvious.
- The roadway may no longer be intact.
- If your vehicle stalls, get out immediately and move to higher ground before water sweeps you and your vehicle away.
Do not try to walk or swim in flood water because:
- You may not be able to tell how quickly water is moving.
- You may not be able to see holes or submerged debris.
- Hazardous materials may be polluting the water.
- You could be electrocuted if power lines are down.
Flash Flood Cleanup
“When Laborers are involved in flash flood cleanup, the hazards they are likely to encounter such as contaminated water, sewage, mold, asbestos and lead are no different than those associated with cleaning up after a hurricane or tornado,” Borck says. “Personal protective equipment can help protect against these exposures and it is essential that Laborers always wear it when doing this kind of work.”
The Roadway Safety Awareness Program that the LHSFNA assisted in developing includes a Roadway Safety Plus Disaster Response CD that can assist signatory contractors and Laborers in staying safe during flood cleanup. The Fund also has a number of Health Alerts and other materials that would be helpful in this situation (see the sidebar for more information).
The OSHA website on Flood Preparedness and Response can also assist signatory contractors and Laborers in staying safe in the aftermath of a flood.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]