How to Survive a Flood: At Home, in Your Car, or Anywhere

How to Survive a Flood at Home or Anywhere!

You may have been teased in school about your highwater pants, but flooding is no joking matter. When the waters rise uncontrollably around you, your fashion sense will be the last thing on your mind. Let’s dive into some solid, actionable tips for surviving a flood, no matter where you happen to be.


How to Survive a Flood Anywhere

The Dangers of Flooding

To survive a disaster, you need to truly understand what makes it so dangerous. In this case, it’s especially important. After all, what’s so scary about a flood? It’s just water, right? You (presumably) brush your teeth everyday with it, bathe in it, and prepare your food with it. Water is everywhere for most modern humans, so what’s the big deal?

Physical Damage

Obviously, drowning is at the top of the list. Floods can knock people over with as little as six inches of water, and even less for smaller people or those with motor difficulties. Once down, it’s easy to drown. A child, for example, can drown in just two inches of water. Of course, you’re no child and two inches isn’t likely to drown you on its own, but imagine if you slipped and fell, banging your head and passing out. Suddenly, two inches of water is mighty scary.

Beyond the drowning aspect, there’s the danger of hidden obstacles beneath the rising tide. Open manholes, dislodged belongings, broken glass, and other debris can cause tripping, slipping, and impaling injuries. Hell, even other people struggling under the water can cause a problem for you as they grasp and flail to get back to the surface.

And, of course, there’s the problem of downed power lines. Get stuck in the same water that a power line is sending its payload through and you’re as good as dead.

Spread of Pathogens

A flood is the perfect vehicle for pathogens of all kinds to sweep through town and infect whole populations. A burst sewer line or leaking septic system only adds to the problem, releasing massive quantities of deadly bacteria and viruses into the water now sloshing around your torso.

Think beyond the common cold or the flu. Turn your attention toward the serious threats like leptospirosis, hepatitis A, and cholera. Flood water is notorious for contaminating drinking water supplies, even in the most well-prepared cities.

Don’t leave your survival up to “the man”; get prepared on your own.

How to Survive a Flood: The Basics

Floods aren’t always a slow rise of water that you can simply wade your way out of. Many floods happen so quickly, people don’t have time to get to safety, let alone rescue pets or their belongings. While you can’t avoid floods all together in many areas, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan in place to keep yourself alive and your most important belongings less soggy.

Know the Risk of Flooding in Your Area

The first step in flood survival is to assess your risk. Get to know your area and any places you’ll be spending time. Review flood histories and get a feel for the community flood preparation already in place by the local government.

Check out the FEMA Flood Map Service Center. There you can enter your address and see your risk of flooding in your area.

This is a good time to research and plan several evacuation routes to higher ground, just in case your main route is impassable.

Receiving Flood Alerts

After assessing your risk, be prepared with an early warning or alert system. The internet, television, and cell phones are decent early warning systems, but they have flaws and are all susceptible to flood damage or interference.

Radios are the perfect source of flood warnings, so keep a battery-powered radio on hand, just in case of power outage right before the flood. One great option is to sign up for Nixle Alerts. Nixle is a system used by local government agencies to communicate with their citizens during a major incident. It is used extensively during floods.

Regardless of your information source, listen for the following terms to help you decide when it’s time to bug out.

  • A flood watch means there is a possibility of a flood soon; stay tuned and keep listening.
  • A flood warning means flooding has begun or will start very soon and you need to act quickly.

Listen for evacuation announcements, but definitely don’t wait to get out. If you feel like your life is in danger, even without an official evacuation call, get your butt in gear and get to higher ground.

Creating a Flood Survival Kit

In addition to your bug out bag (BOB), take the time to put together a comprehensive flood survival kit. The size and contents will depend on your specific needs, but you’ll want it light enough to carry with or in your BOB and in a waterproof container of its own. You may not be near your BOB for one reason or another, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a small flood kit nearby.

At the very least, your waterproof flood survival kit should contain:

  • Clean drinking water in sealed plastic bottles.
  • Non-perishable food in sealed, waterproof pouches.
  • Matches or lighter in a zippered plastic bag.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries in zippered plastic bags.
  • Hand sanitizer or waterless soap, sealed.
  • Wet wipes for sanitary hygiene needs, sealed.
  • Prescription medications in plastic bags (assuming they’re not already in your BOB).
  • Small inflatable raft, life preserver, or other floatation device.
  • Small first aid kit in a zippered plastic bag.
  • Signal flare, sealed in plastic.
  • Neon spray paint, sealed in plastic. This is for marking a roof or other high spot so rescuers can find you.

You may have noticed how often I’ve mentioned things being sealed. In a flood, contagions can be lapping against you and every other surface for days or weeks before the water starts to recede.

That’s a ton of exposure and a lot of opportunities to get sick. Keeping your flood prep items in sealed containers inside another waterproof container is one sure way to keep your stuff uncontaminated for as long as possible.

“If you need to leave quickly during a flood, and can only grab one food item, grab a plastic jar of peanut butter. It’s completely sealed and packed full of protein and carbohydrates to keep you going.”

– John Walter (

Flood Survival Scenarios

It’s true that I can’t predict your exact situation, but I can at least give a wide variety of likely flood scenarios and tips on ways to survive them.

If I don’t cover your specific scenario, please feel free to drop your story in the comments section; that story could save someone’s life! You can also cherry-pick from the following situations and use the advice to fine-tune your unique flood survival plan.

A flood striking your own neighborhood can be a very scary thing.

How to Survive a Flood at Home

Preparation is key since this is your main base of operations. You’ll want to fortify what you can, but be prepared to make some quick adjustments when the flood call comes in.

  • Before a flood hits, prepare your home. Get flood insurance. Store supplies and important documents at least 6 inches off the floor. Higher is better.
  • Once a flood is imminent, secure your home. Bring any outdoor furniture inside so it doesn’t float away. Put delicate and important items in the highest part of your home. That may mean an upper floor or even the attic. Just get it off the floor.
  • Turn your utilities off, especially the power. You should already know where your main shutoff switches and valves are. If you don’t, now is the time to learn. If water has already come inside, skip this step, as your wet body is a great conductor for electricity!
  • Unplug appliances, computers, and other electronics. If water has already come inside, skip this step; it’s too late for your electronics and they’re not worth risking your life.
  • Don’t walk in moving water. As mentioned above, there are dangers lurking underwater, and moving water can easily knock you off your feet. Look for areas of still water and move slowly and carefully through.
  • If you must move through standing flood water, use a stick, umbrella, or other long object to probe the water ahead of you. This helps check for debris, obstacles, and depth. It’s you’re home, but it’s your home underwater now. The landscape has changed.

If water has come into your home, it’s probably a good idea to evacuate. Lock up when you leave, just in case of looters, but don’t stick around too long. You can’t save your home from a flood, and standing in the middle of your living room while flood water rise isn’t heroic; it’s stupid. Get out.

How to Survive a Flood in Your Car

If you’re driving when a flood hits, you’re in a particularly difficult situation. Water can easily sweep a car away with as little as 1 foot of depth. If the flood waters are rising quickly, you may not be able to drive out before your car stalls. In fact, I don’t suggest you drive in flood water at all.

  • If you’re coming up to a flooded area, stop and turn around.
  • If you’re already in flood water in your car, open a window and turn off your engine.
  • Get out of your car. If you can’t open the door due to high waters or obstruction, climb out of the window. See? I wasn’t being snarky telling you to open the window in the last tip.
  • Get on the roof of your car and look for higher ground. It won’t be safe up there for long, but if the water hasn’t reached the bottom of your car yet, you can use the car as a viewpoint for scouting a safer area.
  • If you can’t safely walk out of the flooded area (remember the tip about not walking through moving water?) then stay on the roof of your car.
  • If your car begins to float and move, hang on tight.

Do not get off the roof of your car under any circumstances. If you are above the water, you’re safer than being in it. Eventually, your car will fill with water and likely sink, which means it will stop moving. As long as you are above the water, you’re good. Wait for rescue!

But what if your car is hit too fast and you’re sinking before you can react? You’re not dead yet, so take a deep breath and move quickly.

Open the side window. If it won’t roll down, break it. You can use your foot or you can pull the headrest off the driver’s seat and use the prongs at the base of it to bust the window. You can also get a car escape tool like this one (amazon link). I have one of these on my keychain and in my glovebox.

Video: How to Bust Your Windows While Your Car is Submerged.

This is a great video on various ways to escape a sinking car.

How to Survive a Flood in a Big City

City-dwellers may have more options in a flood than rural folks, but they also have to contend with a lot more people all scrambling for the same resources. Plan your escape ahead of time to beat the slowpokes and stay dry in a flood.

  • Pay attention to flood warnings on local radio stations.
  • Make sure you know your city’s flood evacuation plan.
  • Make your own plan in case the city’s plan is insufficient or you think it’ll be too crowded in safe zones.
  • Get out of the city if you have time.
  • If you’re stuck in the city, get to higher ground as soon as possible.
  • Be sure to memorize the flood info above regarding cars. If you’re driving through a city when a flood starts, you’re going to get overrun very quickly.
  • If you’re on public transportation, get off if the waters aren’t too high yet. If they are, follow the driver’s instructions.
  • High-rise buildings can be safe in floods, but they likely won’t have power. Have your flood kit with you, just in case.

While city-folk may have more options to get above the water in a flood, they also have a higher chance of flooding in the first place. Why? It’s simple science!

Rural areas have trees, grass, and soil that can all absorb rain and flooding waters. Cities have a whole lot of hard surfaces that just let water run wild. Rooftops, sidewalks, roads… these don’t absorb water, so it must go somewhere.

How to Survive a Flood in a Rural Setting

You may not have high-rise buildings to escape to, but you have a lot more room to move out of water’s path. You also won’t have as many people crowding your escape routes. Even so, have contingency plans, just in case.

If you’re camping, hunting, or just happen to live in a wooded, rural setting, you’ll need to be aware of specific dangers during a flood.

  • Get out of your camp and up to higher ground the moment you suspect a flood. Abandon your gear if you must; just get out.
  • Watch for animals. Small animals often get swept away in flash floods, so be cautious of them. They’ll be scared and ready to bite or scratch anything they float past.
  • Pay attention to floating tree limbs and forest debris. They have lots of momentum and can be dangerous.
  • Be cautious of the natural debris you can’t see under moving water. A large branch sweeping past can easily knock a full-grown man off his feet.
  • Don’t climb a tree. It might be tempting to get off the ground when the water starts to move, but trees can become weak in flood waters.
  • Boulders are often safe, but be cautious. Even boulders can be dislodged by enough moving water.

The benefit of rural living (or being familiar with rural areas) is that the land itself is full of clues. Water will pool in the lowest points. Trees, shrubs, and plants will often grow in these low points, because that’s where the water is.

It should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Don’t camp or hunt in dried out riverbeds, ponds, or lakes. Any dried-up body of water is susceptible to flooding. It held water once, and it’s ready to do it again, so just don’t get into that situation.

Similarly, don’t chill out in canyons or too close to mountain streams. Flash floods happen, you know… in a flash. Don’t be “that guy” that ends up drowned in a known flood location.

How to Survive a Flood at the Coast

Maybe this one sounds silly, but hear me out. In the case of a hurricane, tsunami, or a flash flood caused by sudden, unexpected heavy rain, the coast can become a deathtrap in no time.

Between the pouring rain, rising water, and panicked humans all around, you’ll be dodging dangers at every soggy step of the journey to safety. Be smart about beach trips. Preparation is key in this situation.

  • Know the lay of the land. Understand the possible flood dangers before you go. Map out evacuation routes.
  • Bring your flood kit.
  • When a flood begins, take a few seconds to watch what the people are doing. Don’t do what they do. They’ll be in a “crowd panic”, and that is never good.
  • Head to one of your evacuation routes, preferably the one fewer people are moving toward.
  • Avoid the roads. People will be driving dangerously.
  • Don’t get in your car either. Just move to higher ground as quickly as possible, as far from the beach as you can get.
  • Water from higher ground will soon be running down toward the beach, so watch for rivulets before they turn into rivers.
  • Get on top of parked cars if you can’t get to higher ground fast enough. Bigger isn’t always better. Those big, fat tires on larger vehicles may actually make them float sooner than the smaller cars.

Of course, if you see the ocean water start to suddenly receding for no apparent reason, it’s a good sign that a tsunami is about to hit. Don’t go walking out and looking at all the pretty shells that are now exposed. Get yourself to higher ground as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts

I hope it’s obvious by now that preparation is key to surviving a flood in any situation. Having a flood kit is one way to ensure you have the tools you need to survive a flood. But more than that, you should be planning escape routes everywhere you go.

Know the layout, the local evacuation and shelter areas, and have secondary and tertiary plans to make up for governmental shortcomings.

Can you swim in a flood? Even highly trained competition swimmers can be easily overpowered in rising flood waters. Trying to swim during a flood should be your last resort.

Is standing water dangerous? Standing water during a flood can be very dangerous. Standing water can spread bacteria, mold, and pathogens. It can contaminate water supplies and be dangerous to move through due to hidden obstructions.

What are the three types of floods? The three types are coastal flooding (surge), river flooding (fluvial), and surface flooding (pluvial).

Do you have any other tips to add? I’d love to hear your ideas or your stories of flood survival in the comments below!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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