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Flood Survival 101 By Mark Hatmaker

I compose these brief notes while the unfortunateness with Harvey continues to plague Texas and moves its way to Louisiana. I fear it is far too late to aid and assist folks in those stricken areas, so I offer this information in the hopes that we may have it at the fingertips of our minds for future use. As Seneca reminds us “What has befallen one man may happen to all” or as the Boy Scouts would say “Be Prepared.

The following ideas are gleaned from naturalist studies in river-dynamics, the frontier scout tradition, and an American Indian tactic or two. Keep in mind when we discuss river-fluid mechanics these same mechanics will hold for “concrete rivers,” that is, streets turned to river by flood.

Rivers basically have two broad aspects to their composition Upland & Lowland. In the Upland portion the land is steeper and we find more energetic water. In the Lowland phase, it flattens out and at times we may see only a yard drop in elevation in a ½ mile of travel. The idea to keep in mind is that the faster or more energetic the flow the closer to the source we are, and the more care we must exercise when entering the river.

Upland River Characteristics:

Speed, energy, sometimes narrow and steep channels, and waterfalls. You can judge the energy the upland river possesses in full flow by the size of the boulders, the debris, the scatter of vehicles in the middle and along the banks. The larger the debris the more energy. Also—the sound. Upland rivers often provide white water noise, not just as found at a waterfall, but in general as it breaks over rocks and debris, or simply the sounds made by its rate of flow.

Lowland River Characteristics

Lowland Rivers are usually broader and have longer straightaways and typically silent unless something is plunked into it.

If we know that we must cross a river, it is wise to choose lowland phases where we can, move downstream, avoid narrowing channels.

Lee-Scree is the debris deposited by a river. In the wild, the rocks, boulders and logs we find within the main channel and along its banks. In the urban river-flood the cars, and all other detritus swept into its path. By noting the size of the lee-scree in a river or stream we can gain an idea of how much energy the river has when flowing at force.

Large boulders, rocks, etc. tell us this river carries a great deal of power, not the best place to interact with the river. Lee-scree seen above ground at the side of a river tells us that the flow is subsiding or we are moving to a lowland phase, therefore safer interaction can be found by moving downriver.

Water moves more quickly around the outside bend of a river or stream than the inside. Think of street corners and curving streets as correlates for river-bends. This info is useful for both reading scree and ford attempts—don’t look to the flow of the inside bend to judge a crossing, look to the outside bend. The inside bend water flow may look smooth and fordable, but a look to the outside bend will tell us what we may expect to find when we’re already a bit exhausted from fording two-thirds of a supposedly “calm” river.

This is also useful information for those using canoes, kayaks, etc.—in allowing current to ease workload—aim for outside bends when going downstream, inside bends when moving upstream.

When wading a moving river—face upstream. If you fall you want to fall towards upstream with the strength of your legs facing downstream to dig in and stop being swept away, or at the very least allowing your legs to be what comes into contact with debris and obstacles and not your head.

As the speed of water goes up by a factor of 2, the size of the object that can be carried away goes up by a factor of 64. Keep this foremost in your mind, it is not so much the depth of the flow that is the danger, but speed of flow.

Four inches inches of moving water can sweep a car away. We are not nearly as heavy or stable as an automobile.

I’ll offer one more tip, this one from an American Indian tradition. When the decision has been made to wade a river and there are few exposed dry rocks to cross over on, face upriver and place your feet-toes upriver/heels downriver—against the upriver side of rocks as opposed to on top of the rocks. The force of the water will “stick” your feet to the rocks as opposed to being swept off the top of them. If more stability is required use a stick in the hands to post upriver for balance, or if no stick is handy, lean forward and place the hands on the upriver side of stones and scuttle sideways to ford.

I fear this information is too little, too late for many down Texas-way, trust that my heart goes out to you. I spent a very fine year of my life down in Bryan, Texas.

To those of us in the path of Harvey, and Harveys yet to be, may it serve well.

Click here for more post-crisis survival instruction.

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19 thoughts on “Flood Survival 101 By Mark Hatmaker”

  1. Spot on advice. Crossed many streams and rivers. Falling into a river can be startling and without any prior observation of river conditions. Don’t panic. Conserve your strength. If the water is too deep to stand up and hold your position, roll over and float on your back with your feet downstream until you can assess the river. You can use your arms as rudders to navigate yourself to shore. Most important thing: DON’T PANIC!

  2. Yep! Reminds me of whitewater canoeing strategies, even in region areas that seem flat (lowland). If the water is fast and if a lot of large boulder-rock or debris is in the water (and if one is being swept along by the current…and as you said, legs always facing downstream) one should expect to find what appear to be significant drops in elevation of up to 4-6 feet [I think of them as mini-waterfalls]. The idea is that the gathering of large rock, along with say large logs (and that often you cannot see), etc. forms a “mini-dam” that raises the water level on the upstream side of it, and has a chute “drop off” (mini-waterfall) on the downstream side of it. Water in the chute is often real fast and white, and it can create an “undertow”. In an urban area below the undertow the force of the water can lift out street-blacktop, dirt, gravel, and create a deep hole that is hidden from view. The water movement in the undertow is circular and moves counterclock-wise–so the top part of the undertow catches something or someone similar to how a person dives into water from the side of a pool, but the bottom part of the undertow moves against the current, upstream until the object caught in the undertow is near the surface, when the counterclockwise undertow repeats the cycle. One is rolling in it forward with the current, then at the bottom of the undertow backward against the current, then forward again repeatedly. Hit your head in an undertow and your dead body could be stuck in it for days and until the force of the current weakens and releases objects in its grasp. One known undertow in WI and beneath a 6-foot “chute” drop off was like a 12-foot deep circular swirling undertow that had caught plenty of animals and people.

    Another thing that white-water canoeists are taught by excellent guides is that in deep river water the surface water can look fairly smooth, with just “mild appearing” swirls at the top of the water. But down below the surface the water movement can be raging and so raging that you cannot plant your feet on anything–the best you can do is use your feet to “bounce off” an unseen rock. If you get caught in “down deep fast raging water”, your aim needs to be to bounce off rocks towards the shoreline and get out. The current will take you where it chooses (which will be toward a chute, even an underwater chute that you cannot see, if one is nearby), so you swim UPSTREAM (which keeps your legs and feet facing downstream to be used for bouncing with your feet off of rocks and stuff) and then swim toward shore (hopefully an inside, slower water movement shoreline and hope that you can swim out of the fastest moving current that “almost” got a dangerous hold of you.

    The expert guides I had told me (our group) that they prefer canoeing on high water, even though it is moving really fast (compared to low water). The reason is to keep the canoes from bashing into small boulders just 2-4 feet beneath the water surface (that you cannot normally see, at least in WI, because of all the silts and soils in the water that “fast water” carries along with it. But if you are trying to keep your head above water in a standing-like position, the river current can bash your knees into boulders and break them; or it can bash your ribs into an unseen tree log wedged between two boulders–breaking your ribs while you are still in the water. Then, what are you going to do? Always-always-always keep your legs and feet facing downstream so you can bounce off whatever your body hits under the water, and always try to swim away from strong currents to weaker currents and the shoreline.

    One more experience to share about the weight of splash-water [water weighs about 8.3 lbs per gallon…so if you get splashed with a 7-gallon splash of water, not only will you get plenty wet, but also wet with a 60-lb splash of slippery water that can cause you to slip and lose your balance and end up in water you are trying to escape. As a teen I canoed with a friend the Wisconsin Dells on a river about 25 feet across. This was a deep water river (not much surface action other than a lot of surface swirls (that were a clue to lots of boulders maybe 8-feet below the surface) with almost sheer 70-foot cliffs on both sides. A tour paddle-boat (holding maybe 25 people) came up behind us in the narrow river. I saw a ledge about 3 feet or more up a cliff face. I told the friend, lets aim for that ledge and get on it and pull the canoe up onto it so we don’t get swamped. The friend said, “We don’t have to do that!”. I said, “Let’s do it anyway. For me this is scary!” Well, we were standing on the ledge holding onto the canoe, about 4-feet out of the water, but half of it over the water on the narrow ledge. As the paddle-boat passed, the surge behind it from the paddles nearly swamped us and pulled us back into the river. We were totally drenched by the surge-splash, and then freezing cold from the water. We returned as fast as possible to our campsite to warm up. This was middle of summer Wisconsin–the water was about 56 degrees F. It is not always just the worry of helplessness in the water (for swimmers) that is a problem; but also hypothermia when you get to shore, or get out.

  3. Bob your advice is always well worth listening to and your weapons and tools are first class.

    When driving through rivers in my army days, the driver or co-driver walked it first. If you have to use Bobs advise about facing the current and digging in with your toes etc. think hard about driving through it. I had to pull one driver out of a fast flowing river when she was being swept away. We still drove through it but we had good vehicles. I have also done a lot of canoeing and your advice is again spot on.

  4. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I pray that one day, when someone needs to assess the situation and decide if they should cross a stream or not, these words that you shared will come to mind and help them make the right decision.

  5. This is very helpful and has information I have never herd before. All of the information makes sense and I hope that if I ever am in this situation, I remember what I’ve read here.

  6. In crossing streams at least around here is the undercurrent . Which is more formable than a raging river . I want to thank you for the information. My prayers go out to those in Texas and Louisiana .

  7. Good advice.

    Better is to wait until the water goes down, then cross.

    I have lived in SEArizona (with a sabbatical in The Corps) all my life. Arizona has a “Stupid Driver” law which means that, if one is stupid enough to attempt to cross a running wash (arroyo), and gets stuck or washed away, any official response from any agency will be paid for by the stupid driver. That can run into thousands of dollars. If one dies, one is off the hook.

    Unless the mission requires crossing running bodies of water, it is better to deploy a perimeter, get comfortable, and wait it out. It may appear to be wasted time, but it beats drowning by a country mile. Or, worse, getting washed downstream and breaking every bone in one’s body, then drowning.