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Tips for staying safe in flooding: Keep an ax in the attic

By Angela Fritz, CNN Senior Climate Editor

There is no more dangerous time for severe weather than after dark. You can’t see the storm coming. You can’t see the water rising. And, if it’s late enough, you’re not awake to hear the warnings.

This is exactly what happened in eastern Kentucky in the early morning Thursday. Torrential rain overwhelmed a river, which rapidly grew beyond its banks and flooded the surrounding towns, flooding homes up to their roofs and killing more than a dozen people.

“This is so deadly, and it hit so hard, and it hit in the middle of the night,” Gov. Andy Beshear said of the disaster. Houses were “completely swept away in the middle of the night,” possibly while residents were sleeping.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency alert — the agency’s most dire warning tool for flooding — around 1 a.m. Thursday. In many homes, the only way that alert would have come through at that hour would have been a Wireless Emergency Alert on cell phones. But even those can be shut off by users.

So how do you keep yourself and your family safe when flash flooding strikes at night? Here’s a checklist.

Know your risk

The tops of hills don’t have the same risk as low-level land near creeks, streams or rivers, so the first thing you should do is figure out whether your home is in one of these risky zones.

The best way to do that is to look at the flood maps themselves — these will show you what will flood when the water starts to rise.

Look up your address on FEMA’s flood mapping tool. Are there stripes or swaths of color over your home or neighborhood? If there are, then you’re at least at some level of risk. If extreme flooding strikes, there’s a high chance you will be affected. is another tool to assess your risk and your community’s risk. It adds how scientists expect the risk to change in the coming decades. The climate crisis is supercharging rainfall, which means more flood risk.

Be aware

Flash flooding, by nature, is intense and sudden. You aren’t going to have time to plan once a flash flood hits — so you need to know if the weather could turn foul before it happens and take the forecast seriously.

How do you know when all of this is happening? Meteorologists are really good at getting the word out.

  • Spend a lot of time on Twitter or Facebook? Follow your local National Weather Service office and your favorite TV meteorologist there.
  • Bookmark your local forecast on
  • Watch TV. We’re partial to CNN, of course, but local news is still one of the best ways to get weather warnings. Many stations also have their own weather apps.
  • Sign up for severe weather alerts through a weather app — these will include more than just the most dire warnings; you could also get personalized forecasts and notifications for when meteorologists think conditions could get bad.

Understand the alert lingo: A watch is issued when conditions are right for bad weather, but it hasn’t happened yet; A warning is issued when the severe weather is happening; An emergency is issued when things are really, really bad.

Don’t shut off your cell phone alerts

You know them when you hear them: those blaring emergency alerts that come out of your cell phone. Tornado; flash flooding; a missing child — all of these will trigger one of those Wireless Emergency Alerts.

So, don’t turn them off. They might be the only line of defense between you and deadly weather when you’re fast asleep at 2 a.m.

Own a weather radio

You can’t watch TV or surf the web when the power is out. You might not have a strong enough cell signal to get the WEA alert. So, when all else fails, a weather radio will ensure you get the warning.

Many of these radios are equipped with flashlights and hand cranks to keep the battery charged. Some have solar panels.

It doesn’t matter how fancy you want to get. The point is that these devices can be programmed to only wake up when things get bad. It’s much-needed peace of mind, especially if you’re in a high-risk zone.

From CNN Underscored: The best emergency radios in 2022

Have a plan

You have ways to know if the weather could get bad, and you have the alerts set up to let you know when it happens. But none of that matters if you don’t have a plan.

The Red Cross is a great resource. It will help you formulate the best plan and build an emergency kit or a “go bag” to take when forced to evacuate. The Red Cross also has an emergency mobile app that will send weather notifications based on zip code and will help you understand potential hazards.

Here are a few other bits of advice for a flash flood emergency:

Keep an ax in the attic — This sounds wild, but if the water is so high that you need to get into the attic, you’re going to need a way out. And that’s going to be straight up through the roof with an ax.

Invest in life jackets for the family — If the worst happens and you’re swept away by floodwater, having on a personal floatation device could be the difference between life and death.

Never drive through flood water — It’s imperative not to get in your car in a flood, especially if you don’t know whether your escape route is in a flood zone. Two feet of water can float a car, and 6 inches of moving water can sweep you off your feet. If you still find yourself in a car with the flood water rising around you, get out of it immediately and get to high ground.

Be prepared to get to higher ground on foot — Driving through flood water is deadly, so the “on foot” part is critical. Grab your emergency kit and head to higher ground on foot before high water hits your doorstep. Plan where that will be ahead of time.

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