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Emergency Info Online, Fourth Edition

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III. Multicultural and Regional Preparedness

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Emergency Preparedness in Coastal Communities

By John Cavanagh and Anne Malia

In 2005, the number of Americans living in coastal counties passed the 150 million mark. This means that the coastal population is now larger than the entire U.S. population was in 1950. It also means that today, more than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal areas. The population growth of coastal areas of the United States heightens the importance of emergency preparedness for these areas, which often are vulnerable to severe weather conditions. All Atlantic and Gulf coastal areas are subject to hurricanes, as the U.S. Pacific Islands are to typhoons and tropical storms. Because of a limited number of evacuation routes, hurricanes are especially dangerous to barrier islands such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina and areas like the Florida Keys and New Orleans, Louisiana. Although rarely struck by hurricanes, parts of the Southwest and the Pacific Coast can experience heavy rains and floods from the remnants of hurricanes coming up the coast from Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends that if you live in an area prone to hurricanes, you should:

  • Know the hurricane risks in your area
  • Learn safe routes inland.
  • Find out where official shelters are located.
  • Develop a family hurricane action plan.
  • Ensure working condition of emergency equipment, such as flashlights and battery-powered radios.
  • Make sure to have enough non-perishable food and water supplies on hand.
  • Trim trees and shrubbery on your property.
  • Buy plywood or shutters to protect doors and windows.
  • Clear loose and clogged rain gutters and downspouts.
  • Designate a safe place to store your boat in an emergency.
  • Check insurance policies to determine whether you have flood and wind coverage.
  • Know your community safety plan.

Coastal, River, and Flash Flooding
Although flooding is a common occurrence in coastal communities, it can be a deadly serious matter. A major flood can become a catastrophe. Federal agencies estimate that 125 people die every year in the United States because of flooding. Preparation and effective response to flood conditions can reduce the dangers they create. There are many different types of floods, including river flooding, coastal flooding and flash floods. River flooding occurs when heavy rains or rapid snowmelt causes river levels to rise. Flash floods usually result from intense storms that bring heavy rainfall within a brief period. Flash floods occur with little or no warning, can reach full peak in just a few minutes, and can have dramatic effects, since terrain cannot always absorb the sudden downpour quickly enough. Coastal flooding can happen due to tidal surges or flash flooding. During hurricanes or other large storms, waves may be much higher than normal, and in a storm surge, low atmospheric pressure often forces seas to rise above normal. A combination of these conditions can create widespread flooding in low-lying coastal areas.

Before a Flood
If you live in an area at risk of flooding, make long-range preparations, including elevating and reinforcing your home (or at the very least, elevating the furnace, water heater, and electric panel, if susceptible to flooding). Also, install “check valves” in sewer traps to prevent water from backing up into the drains of your home. Construct barriers—levees, beams, or floodwalls—to stop water from entering the building. Seal walls in basements with a waterproofing compound to avoid seepage. If a hurricane or major storm is imminent, monitor for official bulletins of the storm’s progress via radio, TV or NOAA Weather Radio. Have preparations ready to cover all windows and doors with shutters or shielding materials. Bring lightweight objects, such as garbage cans, garden tools, toys and lawn furniture, inside. Check batteries and stock up on canned food, first-aid supplies, drinking water and medications. Have extra cash on hand. Make sure that family vehicles are fueled and serviced. Plan to evacuate if a storm is extremely severe and you live on the coastline; on an offshore island; near a river or a flood plain; or in a mobile home, which are unsafe in high winds, no matter how well anchored to the ground. If you are instructed to leave the area, do not ignore the order! If you are directed by authorities to evacuate:

  • Take only essential items with you.
  • If you have time, turn off the gas, electricity, and water.
  • Unplug appliances to avoid electrical shock when power is restored.
  • Follow the designated evacuation routes and expect heavy traffic.
  • Do not attempt to drive or walk across creeks or flooded roads.

During a Flood
During a severe storm, listen to the radio or television for information. Be aware that flash flooding is possible. If there is any chance of a flash flood, move immediately to higher ground. Do not wait for instructions to move. Be aware of streams, drainage channels, and canyons; these areas are prone to sudden flooding, and flash floods can occur in these areas with or without typical warnings, such as rain clouds or heavy rain. In case of strong winds:

  • Stay away from windows and doors, even if they are covered.
  • Take refuge in a small interior room, closet or hallway.
  • Close all interior doors.
  • Secure and brace external doors.
  • In a two-story house, go to an interior first-floor room, such as a bathroom or closet.
  • In a multiple-story building, go to the first or second floor, and take shelter in an interior room away from windows.
  • Lie on the floor under a table or other sturdy object.

During a flood, stay away from moving water. As little as six inches of moving water can sweep you away. Do not allow children, especially under age 13, to play in flooded areas; they often drown or are injured in areas that appear safe. If someone needs to be rescued, call professionals with the right equipment to help. Many people have been killed or injured trying to rescue others in flooded areas. Remember to stay away from standing water because it may be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines. Always use a flashlight for emergency lighting; never use candles or other open flames indoors, as there may be a gas leak. Do not use tap water for drinking and cooking until local officials say it is safe to do so. Use the telephone only for emergency calls to notify neighbors and a family member outside of the affected area of your evacuation plans. When you leave, take pets with you. Leaving pets behind is likely to result in their being injured, lost or killed. Move to a safe area before your escape route is cut off by floodwater.

After a Flood
After a flood, listen to radio, TV or NOAA Weather Radio to keep aware of road conditions. Wait until an area is declared safe before entering. Do not attempt to drive across flowing water. As little as six inches of water can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. Two feet of water can carry most cars away. If you see water flowing across a roadway, turn around and find another route! FEMA recommends that the following steps be taken after a flood occurs:

  • Listen for news reports to learn whether the community’s water supply is safe to drink.
  • Avoid floodwaters; water may be contaminated by oil, gasoline, or raw sewage. Water may also be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.
  • Avoid moving water.
  • Be aware of areas where floodwaters have receded. Roads may have weakened and could collapse under the weight of a car.
  • Stay away from downed power lines, and report them to the power company.
  • Return home only when authorities indicate that it is safe to do so.
  • Stay out of any building if it is surrounded by floodwaters.
  • Use extreme caution when entering buildings; there may be hidden damage, particularly in foundations.
  • Service damaged septic tanks, cesspools, pits, and leaching systems as soon as possible. Damaged sewage systems are serious health hazards.
  • Clean and disinfect everything that got wet. Mud left from floodwater can contain sewage and chemicals.

Resource 17 – Regional Preparedness:


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration posts an informative webpage about preparing for flood conditions and responding to them effectively. It is free and features answers to frequently asked questions to help workers understand how floods and flood response may affect their health and safety.

All articles in Bridge Multimedia’s 30 Days, 30 Resources series are available for publication in whole or in part without further permission, free of charge, with attribution to Bridge Multimedia and


About the Writers

John Cavanagh is Communications Director for Bridge Multimedia and Chief Researcher for Emergency Information Online.

Anne Malia writes about technology and emergency preparedness for people with special needs and has contributed to the production of and

Article inquiries welcome. On request, we can provide feature-length articles tailored to your audience and requirements. Please contact John Cavanagh at Bridge Multimedia: or .

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