Skip to Main Content

Flood Threats

Floods are prevalent in Tennessee and still cause declarations of disaster, although mitigation efforts over the years have reduced much of the serious flooding and flash flooding that have plagued Tennesseans before Tennessee Valley Authority dams. Floods, however, are still the number one weather-related killer. A flood can happen anywhere, in the flatlands of West Tennessee, in the rolling meadows of Middle Tennessee or along the mountainous terrain of East Tennessee.

 A flood is a flow or overflow of water from a river or similar body of water, occurring over a period of time and rising above the normal levels for water. Flooding may be caused by thunderstorms and by fronts that may fill creeks or river basins too quickly. Even Tennessee may experience torrential rains from decaying hurricanes or other tropical systems. The Mississippi River Flood of 1993 was caused by repeated heavy rain from thunderstorms over a period of weeks.

Flash floods are quickly-rising floods, usually occurring as the result of very heavy rain over a short period of time, and typically surge through dry creek beds or ditches unexpectedly. Flash floods can be caused by ice jams on rivers in conjunction with a winter or spring thaw or a dam or levee break. The constant influx of water finally causes a treacherous overflow which can sweep away vehicles, uproot trees, rip away propane tanks, level buildings, roll boulders into roadways, and drag bridges off their piers. Most surprising is the speed with which the water rises.

A frightening example of a flash flood that combined with other disasters to kill a large number of people was the Johnstown Flood of Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889. Johnstown was a steel manufacturing community that did not recognize the danger they were in from a dam 14 miles upstream. The South Fork Dam, stressed beyond its ability, failed during several days of torrential downpour. The dam released 20 million tons of water and debris that rose at times to 60 feet high and rushed downhill at 40 mph sweeping nearly all homes, factories, equipment, bridges and other paraphernalia in its path. The debris piled against a stone bridge in Johnstown that became oil soaked and which then caught fire. Eighty survivors who had avoided drowning and who were on the debris or who were floating down the river into the debris were burned to death. The flood leveled 1,600 homes, and the flood and fire killed 2,209 people.SOURCE:

Safety Tips for Flood Victims

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends several safety tips to the victims of floods. This safety alert illustrates some dangerous practices which consumers may be tempted to engage in during efforts to rebuild or while staying in temporary housing, tents, or partially damaged homes. This information is provided in an effort to prevent injuries and deaths from consumer products as flood survivors make new beginnings.

"We hope this information helps prevent product-related injuries and deaths during these difficult times."
- Chairman Ann Brown

Do not use electrical appliances that have been wet. Water can damage the motors in electrical appliances, such as furnaces, freezers, refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers.

If electrical appliances have been under water, have them dried out and reconditioned by a qualified service repairman. Do not turn on damaged electrical appliances because the electrical parts can become grounded and pose an electric shock hazard or overheat and cause a fire. Before flipping a switch or plugging in an appliance, have an electrician check the house wiring and appliance to make sure it is safe to use.

Electricity and water don't mix. Use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to help prevent electrocutions and electrical shock injuries. Portable GFCIs require no tools to install and are available at prices ranging from $12 to $30.

When using a "wet-dry vacuum cleaner," be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions to avoid electric shock. Do not allow the power cord connections to become wet. Do not remove or bypass the ground pin on the three-prong plug. Use a GFCI to prevent electrocution. NEVER allow the connection between the machine's power cord and the extension cord to lie in water. To prevent a gas explosion and fire, have gas appliances (natural gas and LP gas) inspected and cleaned after flooding.

If gas appliances have been under water, have them inspected and cleaned and their gas controls replaced. The gas company or a qualified appliance repair person or plumber should do this work. Water can damage gas controls so that safety features are blocked, even if the gas controls appear to operate properly. If you suspect a gas leak, don't light a match, use any electrical appliance, turn lights on or off, or use the phone. These may produce sparks. Sniff for gas leaks, starting at the water heater. If you smell gas or hear gas escaping, turn off the main valve, open windows, leave the area immediately, and call the gas company or a qualified appliance repair person or plumber for repairs. Never store flammable materials near any gas appliance or equipment.

Check to make sure your smoke detector is functioning. Smoke detectors can save your life while fires are still small. Check the battery frequently to make sure the detector is operating. Fire extinguishers also are a good idea. Keep them current.

Gasoline is made to explode! Never use gasoline around ignition sources such as cigarettes, matches, lighters, water heaters, or electric sparks. Gasoline vapors can travel and be ignited by pilot lights, thermostats or other ignition sources. Make sure that gasoline powered generators are away from easily combustible materials.

Chain saws can be hazardous, especially if they "kick back." To help reduce this hazard, make sure that your chain saw in equipped with the low-kickback chain. Look for other safety features on chain saws, including hand guard, safety tip, chain brake, vibration reduction system, spark arrestor on gasoline models, trigger or throttle lockout, chain catcher, and bumper spikes. Always wear shoes, gloves, and protective glasses. On new saws, look for certification to the ANSI B-175.1 standard.

When cleaning up from a flood, store medicines and chemicals away from young children. Poisonings can happen when young children swallow medicines and household chemicals. Keep household chemicals and medicines locked up and away from children. Use the child resistant closures that come on most medicines and chemicals. Burning charcoal gives off carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide has no odor and can kill you. Never burn charcoal inside homes, tents, campers, vans, cars, trucks, garages, or mobile homes.

WARNING: Submerged circuit breakers and fuses pose explosion and fire hazard! Replace all circuit breakers and fuses that have been under water:

GAS CONTROL VALVES on furnaces, water heaters, and other gas appliances that have been under water are unfit for continued use. If they are used, they could cause a fire or an explosion. Silt and corrosion from flood water can damage internal components of control valves and prevent proper operation. Gas can leak and result in an explosion or fire. Replace ALL gas control valves that have been under water.

For "disaster-related" questions, call the FEMA Helpline at 800-525-0321.

For people who live in counties already declared eligible for "federal disaster assistance," call FEMA on 800-462-9029.