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Floods and Society

by Katy Pearce and Deborah Leib

Floods are among the most frequent and costly

natural disasters in terms of human hardship and economic loss. (Floods)
Peoples? lack of education about flooding preparation and the instability of
predicting floods has led to a $3.1 billion annual cost for the United States alone
(Floods) and more than 1.6 million deaths worldwide in one year. (Confronting
Natural Disasters: An International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction)
Excluding droughts, almost ninety per cent of damages relating to natural
disasters is caused directly or indirectly by floods. Seventy-five per cent of the
time that a President of the United States declares an area a disaster, it is due to
flooding. Floods and flash floods kill more people in this country than any other
natural disaster. The damage and death toll seem to be rising. The biggest killer
used to be lightening, but with increased awareness about thunderstorms and
their safety rules, people are able to avoid the effects of lightening. However,
more and more people are living in flood-prone areas, such as along riverbeds
and in floodplains and that makes the chance of flood-related death higher.
(Floods) Also the high costs and maintenance of flood protection systems and
structures tends to turn communities off from proposing methods for dealing with
this potential killer.

Floods pose tremendous danger to people

and property. Since 1900, floods have taken
more than 10,000 lives in the United States
alone. Eighty per cent of flood deaths take
place in a vehicle. Just six inches of flood
water can knock an adult down. Only two feet of water can float a large sized
vehicle. One-third of flooded roads and bridges are so damaged that only fifty per
cent of those trying to cross in a vehicle make it to the other side. (Facts About

A flood is defined as a high flow of water that comes from a body of water
(Basics of Flooding) and overtops the normal confinements and/or covers land
that is normally dry. (Nuhfer, Proctor, and Moser) Floods are the most common
and widespread of all natural disasters, besides fire. (Backgrounder: Floods and
Flash Floods) They are also the number one related killer. (Project Safeside:
Flood and Flash Flood Safety)

There are three major types of floods: river floods, flash floods and coastal
floods. River floods are caused by high or overflowing water from a river and
typically occur after winter and spring rains and when snow is melting. (Flood and
Flash Flood Occurrence) This water is directed to a major stream from its
drainage basin. (Nuhfer, Proctor, and Moser) River floods can also occur when
ice or floating debris cause a jam. (Flood and Flash Flood Occurrence) The
debris flows tend to occur primarily in the summer. Intensive snowmelt in the
mountains causes the debris to flow in the spring and rapid thawing glaciers
cause the problems that happen during the summer. (Hiadny and Buchtele)
Torrential rains also cause river floods from decaying hurricanes (Project
Safeside: Flood and Flash Flood Safety) or sustained rainfall from a frontal
storm. (Flood Climatology)


Flash floods occur when excessive rainfall sends a

river out of its bank in a period of several hours or
less (Flood and Flash Flood Occurrence), usually
during the night. (Prediction and Mitigation of
Flash Floods) The usually are the result of
cloudbursts or torrential rains. (Confronting Natural
Disasters: An International Decade for Natural
Hazard Reduction) Flash floods can reach heights of twenty feet and higher.
(Flash Flood Safety Rules) This type of natural disaster is common mainly in
desert and mountainous regions. However, they can still occur and cause
damage where streams flow in narrow canyons, where there are steep terrain
and high surface run off rates. They also can occur whenever thunderstorms are
present. (Confronting Natural Disasters: An International Decade for Natural
Hazard Reduction) The two key elements to flash flooding are rainfall intensity
and duration. Intensity is the rate of rainfall and duration is how long the rain
lasts. Topography, soil conditions and ground cover also play a role. (Flash
Floods: NWSFO) Like river floods, flash floods can be caused by a spring thaw
(Project Safeside: Flood and Flash Flood Safety) or intense storms, specifically
thunderstorms (Flood Climatology) or storms with a large amount of rainfall in a
short period of time. (Backgrounder: Floods and Flash Floods) These large
amounts of rain pour large amounts of water in to small drainage basins. (Nuhfer,
Proctor, and Moser) Ice jams, overflowing drainage basins and dam breaks also
cause flash floods. (Flood and Flash Flood Occurrence) Low permeability soils or
soils in a highly saturated state, impervious ground surfaces, steep slopes that
facilitate rapid flood-wave movement, and possible anchor convections are all
conductive to the genesis of flash floods. (Prediction and Mitigation of Flash
Floods) Flash floods give little or no warning, which makes the potential danger
much greater. (Backgrounder: Floods and Flash Floods) Flash floods can roll
boulders, tear out trees, destroy
building and bridges, and scour out
new channels. (Flash Floods:



The third major type of flood, coastal floods, occurs when strong offshore winds
that push water from an ocean on to the land. (Flood and Flash Flood
Occurrence) Low barometric pressure in storms like hurricanes cause the sea
level to rise locally above the coastal lowlands. (Nuhfer, Proctor, and Moser)
Eventually storm surges are produced. (Flood and Flash Flood Occurrence)
Coastal areas are often barrier islands, swamps and plains with many rivers. The
additional rainfall in these areas increases flooding in the surrounding low lying
areas. (Flood Climatology) The overflowing seawater then rushes in to the
mouths of river channels and covers the area with water. (Nuhfer, Proctor, and
Moser) Escape routes can be cut off and blocked by high water. (Flooding Takes
Many Forms: NWSFO)


Volcanoes surprisingly also cause floods. They are produced by the melting of
ice and snow during ice-clad volcanic eruptions and by heavy rains that may
associate with eruptions. This is a type of flood that can be large and occur
suddenly. If the rivers are already high due to snowmelt or rainfall, the floods can
be greater than normal. (Miller) Smaller historical meltwater floods caused by
volcanic heating have occurred in Iceland and Ecuador. (Nuhfer, Proctor, and
Moser) Floods that are eruption-caused can be more damaging than others can
because they contain a large amount of sediment. (Miller) During the eruption of
Mount Saint Helens in 1980, flash floods and mudflows occurred. (Nuhfer,
Proctor, and Moser)

Urban floods are when land is converted from fields or woodlands to roads and
parking lots; it loses it ability to absorb rainfall. Urbanization increases runoff two
to six times over what would occur in natural terrain. During urban flooding,
streets can become swift moving rivers, while basements can become deadly as
they fill with water. (Flooding Takes Many Forms: NWSFO) (Flood and Flash
Flood Occurrence)

Arroyos/Washes are a water-carved gully or normally dry creek bed. Arroyos can
fill with fast-moving water very quickly. (Flooding Takes Many Forms: NWSFO)


Ice jams usually occur in cold arctic-like regions. These occur when ice breaks
up in to cakes and sheets. The flow of the river, augmented by the run off from
snow melt released by the warm weather, becomes obstructed and is dammed
up by the ice. The water accumulates and the river rises. A return to cold weather
may arrest the snowmelt run off and the jam holds until the next thaw. The dam
grows until the force of the backwater can break the jam. The rapid release of the
impounded water and ice can result in a flood downstream. (Hoyt and Langbein)

Floods have accompanied mankind throughout time. Damage and deaths have
occurred. The environment and economy have played a large part in the impact
of flooding. Increased density of population in areas prone to floods,
urbanization, and "people?s marked changed way of life in respect to nature and
natural resources" are some of the causes of flooding. (Hiadny and Buchtele)


What exactly happens to the environment to create a flood? Floods occur in five
stages, called the run off cycle. Stage one is a fair weather rainless period. Low
rivers with dry rills and slow seepage from ground water are present. The fair
weather has depleted land water drainage from ground water in to stream; this
lowers the water table. The water table drops below the channel stream and
gradually dries up. The lowering of the water table restores the underground
storage capacity of the soil. Stage two has uniform and light rain. A small amount
of rain falls directly in to the stream and becomes an increasment of water and
stream flow. Some rain goes to vegetation, some rain wets the ground and is
caught by small depressions and puddles. There is no overflow. In stage three
the rainfall increases. The vegetation is thoroughly wetted and the surface
depressions and puddles begin to overflow. The additional rain becomes runoff
or infiltrates the soil. The dry soil absorbs the water freely, and the sodden soil
absorbs it slowly. Rainfall exceeds the infiltration rates and active surface runoff
now exists. This runoff may or may not reach the stream channels depending on
the infiltration capacity of the ground.