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Safety & Prevention

Flash Flood Recovery Information for Families

Floods are among the most frequent and costly natural disasters in the United States and account for approximately 30% of disasters worldwide. Flooding typically occurs after heavy or prolonged rainfall, or the rapid melt of snow. 

While the effects of floods can be devastating, th​ere are simple steps families can take to keep their children safe.

What are Flash Floods?

Flash floods are distinguished from a regular flood by a timescale of fewer than six hours. They are especially hazardous and can occur without warning during heavy rains or tidal surges, or when dams or levees give way. Due to the force of the moving water and the debris that accumulates in flood waters, such as trees and boulders, flash floods are extremely destructive. For example, a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds; hundreds of gallons of rushing water has thousands of pounds of force. Rushing water can carry a vehicle away, trapping the passengers, or sweep children and adults off their feet.

What Should Parents Do During a Flash Flood?

Below are some guidelines for keeping your children safe during a flash flood:

  • Do not allow children to walk through or wade into moving flood water--even if it's your basem​ent that gets flooded.

  • Remind teens and young adults about the hazards of driving during flash floods:

    • Never drive through flooded areas or standing water. Shallow, swiftly flowing water can wash a car from a roadway. Also, the roadbed may not be intact under the water.

    • If the vehicle stalls, abandon it immediately and seek higher ground. Rapidly rising water may engulf the vehicle and everyone inside.

    • Be especially cautious at night when it's harder to recognize flood dangers.

    • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams and washes, particularly during threatening conditions.

What Should Parents Do After a Flash Flood?

The aftermath of a flash flood can be almost as hazardous as the flood itself due to electrical dangers, mold, and contaminated water. Children are especially vulnerable to these environmental hazards. Parents should limit children's participation in flash flood recovery. 

Children, teens, and pregnant women should not be involved in clean-up efforts but should return after the area is cleaned up. Before they return, these areas should be cleaned and disinfected, along with all toys, clothing, etc. Keep the following in mind:

Is your home safe to be in?

  • Return home only when officials have declared the area safe.

  • Before entering your home, look outside for loose power lines, damaged gas lines, foundation cracks or other damage.

  • Parts of your home may be collapsed or damaged. Approach entrances carefully. See if porch roofs and overhangs have all their supports.

  • Watch out for wild animals, especially poisonous snakes that may have come into your home with the floodwater.

  • If you smell natural or propane gas or hear a hissing noise, leave immediately and call 911.

  • If power lines are down outside your home, do not step in puddles or standing water.

Hazardous clean-up

  • Do not allow your children to play in flood waters or with any rocks, mud, or debris that have been in flood waters. The water may have high levels of chemicals or bacteria, including raw sewage from failed lift stations, sewers or septic systems.

  • If you or your child have an open wound that comes into contact with contaminated flood water, you may need a tetanus booster shot to prevent illness.

  • Wear rubber boots and gloves when cleaning and be sure to protect and cover any open wounds and sores.

  • Everyone should practice basic hygiene and wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer, especially before handling food or food containers.

Contamination of drinking water

  • Homeowners using drinking water from a city or other public water system should watch for public announcements regarding the safety of the water supply. Homeowners using private wells for drinking water should follow these guidelines from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Do not use contaminated water to wash your hands, wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash or prepare food, make ice, or make baby formula. If possible, use baby formula that does not need to have water added.

  • Drinking water must be disinfected through boiling and/or chlorination, or an alternative clean water supply (e.g., bottled water) must be identified and made accessible. This is critically important when mixing water for baby formula. Click here for instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to make your water safe after a disaster.

Food contamination

  • Foods or other items that may have been contaminated should be thrown away, including canned goods, water bottles, eating utensils, inside surfaces (especially those used for food preparation), and baby bottle nipples. When in doubt, throw it out!

  • If you lost power for an extended period of time you may also need to throw out any food that has become spoiled or contaminated. Don't forget to turn off your icemaker if authorities have advised not to drink the tap water. If the door is kept closed, a full freezer will keep food frozen for 2 days, and a refrigerator can keep food cold for 4-6 hours.

Surface contamination

  • Contaminated surfaces require disinfecting to kill germs. Household bleach is effective, economical, convenient, and available at grocery stores. Bleach solution should be left on contaminated surfaces for at least 2 minutes before being wiped off.

  • Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products should not be used in close proximity to children, and adequate ventilation should be maintained during any cleaning, sanitizing or disinfecting procedure to prevent children from inhaling potentially toxic fumes.

Toys and play areas

  • Play areas should be cleaned and disinfected, along with all toys, clothing, books, etc.

  • Do not allow children to play with toys that have been contaminated by flood water and have not been disinfected. Materials that cannot be readily disinfected, such as stuffed animals or pillows, should be thrown out.

Mental Impacts of Flash Floods on Children

In addition to flood dangers, any disaster can take a toll on your child's physical and mental health. It is important to limit media coverage of a disaster. If children are going to watch media coverage, consider taping it (to allow adults to preview) and watch along with them to answer questions and help them process the information. Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. Often they have fears based on limited information or because they misunderstood what they were told. Reassure children when able to do so, but if their fears are realistic, do not give false reassurance. If you have concerns about your child's behavior, contact his pediatrician, other primary care provider, or a qualified mental health care professional. See Talking to Children about Disasters for more information.

Additional Information & Resources

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2017)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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