Report Title: Major and Catastrophic Storms and Floods in Texas  
Report Guide
Glossary of Terms
Introductory Materials
Substantial flood peaks
Links to related web resouces
Measuring and gaging streamflow
Measuring Precipitation
Recent storm reports
John Patton storm narratives
Texas Flood Safety
Dedication and Credits
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  Texas Flood Safety

Excerpted (with minor modifications) from a report for the Lower Colorado River Authority (9/21/1999) by the Texas Environmental Center

Prepared by Marshall Frech, Director of

Report Overview
Texas leads the Nation in flash flood fatalities with more than twice the number of the next nearest state. Some major factors contributing to this fact are Texas' extreme flood events and the fact that Texas has one of the largest road systems in the country. These roads have many rural and urban low-water crossings and this is where the majority of flood-related fatalities occur. The fact that so many people drive to their death in floodwaters year after year is a major impetus for this report and has lead this research on some larger issues and patterns underlying flood fatalities.

This report is broken into two sections:

Part 1: A Description of the Flood Safety Problem
An outline of conditions that surround flood fatalities, such as driver desensitization to driving through water, misunderstanding of the power of water and/or the danger of a flooding vehicle. This section also includes a seven-stage analysis of common events and human perceptions and behaviors surrounding a flood event.

Part 2: Who's at Danger
A look at some of the statistics of flood fatalities and a description of the most common types of fatalities.

Table of Contents

Part #1: A Description of the Flood Safety Problem

Texas Weather

The State of Texas lies in close proximity to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and its seasonal weather patterns draw major storms from both water bodies as well as the North American landmass. Occasionally, storms coming from both oceans "collide" over the State producing record rainfalls. It might surprise many Texans to know that their State has experienced about half of the world record rainfall rates occurring in 48 hours or less (Raymond Slade, USGS).

(EX: On May 31, 1935 D'Hanis, Texas received 22 inches of rain in 2 hrs, 45 minutes. This is a world record for rainfall in that duration of time.)

Beyond the severity of storms colliding, sections of the State lie in areas where storms frequently stall and drop torrential rains. Central Texas is known as "Flash Flood Alley" for this reason. Stalled storm systems and storm events occurring in rapid succession can saturate watershed soils, which then direct large amounts of water very quickly downhill, via either an established waterway or simply a low-lying area. Even small, intermittent creeks and low-lying swales can gather large amounts of water if the storm drops into their particular watershed. These features can quickly turn into instant rivers and send deadly waters across roadways and through houses where there are little or no warning signs.

Geology and Size of Watershed
Size of watershed and its underlying geology profoundly affect both the amount of water and the rapidity of the runoff causing a flash flood. Intense, sudden rainfall can overwhelm the land's capacity to absorb rainwater. In much of Central Texas, the Edwards Limestone formation and a thin-to-nonexistent layer of topsoil cannot absorb intense rainfall; this geology encourages rapid, runoff of rainwater (Barton Creek Report, City of Austin, 1997). This means low-water crossings and creeks near roads can change character quickly, even in minutes, after heavy rain.

Miles and Miles of Rural Roads and a General Desensitizing to Low-Water Crossings

In addition to having one of the largest road systems in America, Texas also possesses many low-water crossings, owing in part to the largely rural nature of its roads (Roy Sedwick, phone conversation, 4 Aug. 1999). Flood-prone roadways, marked with yellow diamond signage (Caution: Roadway subject to flooding), and flood gages, are traversed daily by countless Texas drivers without incident. In urban settings, low-water crossings are frequently obscured by urban road infrastructure such as storm drains, pavement and culverts. In both urban and rural settings, low-water crossings—or potential low-water crossings—may be unmarked or poorly marked.

In many rural parts of Texas, thousands of drivers will regularly drive through wet low-water crossings with a foot of water from streams that run for days or even weeks after a storm has passed and all apparent danger is gone. With some drivers making hundreds of crossings in a month, it is easy to see how they might become conditioned to crossing standing water. Later, as a flooding landscape brings about a sense of urgency to get home or to get to other family members, these same drivers might not make the important distinction between a bridge covered with muddy water that appears to be a foot deep but is actually several feet deep.

Other Flood Safety Concerns
During a flood, ordinary creeks can become objects of ill-advised curiosity. Onlookers venturing too close have been known to fall into floodwaters as soggy, eroded river banks give way without warning.

The sequence seen above is all too common. This man has driven into a low-water crossing. His car is caught in the current and swept along. The car begins to role and the man is trapped. Despite their heroic efforts, the rescuers are unable to get to him in time. The man drowned.


The Anatomy of a Flood (a Breakdown of Events)

As a method for describing the problem at hand, this report uses a seven-stage analysis of a flood event. These seven stages delineate the events and situations surrounding major floods. They also describe the general public's desensitization to the dangers of flooded roadways and other factors behind the life-threatening behavior exhibited by many drivers during flood events. These stages are also introduced as a tool for targeting educational objectives such as flood safety awareness campaigns and specific programs like driver safety training in high schools.

The stages are:
1. Normal Life Before a Flood
2. Rain Forecast and Start of Rain
3. Substantial Rainfall and Saturation of Watershed
4. Flood Event
5. Flood Aftermath
6. Rebuilding Process
7. Resumption of Normal Life, as in 1

Stage #1 Normal Life Before a Flood

Preconceived notions and exposure to the facts and factors of floods.

This period, before any flood emergency begins, is the best time to save lives in Texas. Understanding what the public knows about flooding, and what it thinks is acceptable or acceptably risky behavior during a flood event, particularly while driving, is crucial. It is likely that the public's unfamiliarity with flood fatality statistics, how rapidly floodwaters rise and the accompanying level of danger even as one occupies the seeming security and comfort of one's car all contribute to a lack of proper respect regarding floodwaters. The public may also believe that flood control mechanisms may provide additional safety, regardless of the volume of water in a storm event. Since flooding has some seasonal predictability, educational programs should be started before this normal flooding cycle commences.

Stage #2 Rain Forecast and Start of Rain

This stage represents an opportunity to publicize safety information with the public increased interest in weather forecasts (i.e. a website is publicized at the end of a broadcast).

The majority of the public receive their receive their weather information from mass media. Television, radio, and newspaper forecasts usually mention the potential for flash flood warnings if the weather conditions and immediate weather history warrant it.

It should be noted here that these media messages could be supplemented with additional detailed flood safety information. It is in this time period that people may first consider plans for family, livestock and property. If weather forecasts with flash flood warnings are issued within a short time frame, people who wish to begin protecting family, livestock and property may find it difficult to do so in the short time allotted.

Stage #3 Substantial Rainfall in Progress

Unforeseen priorities arise, the pace of events increases dramatically.

This period can be marked by continuous medium rain, or a light rain that saturates the soils then turns heavy. As these patterns play out, people often begin to make arrangements to protect family, livestock and property, and may neglect flood warnings and other obvious warning signs.

A turning point is reached when the ground is fully saturated—a flood event could be possible at any moment beyond this point, with the significant variables being volume of rainfall and size of watershed.

This is can be a very short period, and it is generally too late to begin any sort of efforts that might affect human behavior. People can begin to panic at any part of this stage, resulting in impaired decision-making capabilities. The concept of Panic is defined as a belief that there are no options, and otherwise irrational reactions.

Stage #4 The Flood Event

The severity of the flood event is an outcome of the intensity and duration of Stage 3 in relation to the geography of the watershed. Small watersheds can flash very quickly. Large watersheds can catch tremendous amounts of water. Both can produce deadly results.

As this dramatic period begins, not only does the landscape change but so do people's priorities. Response times shrink as do options to take alternative routes home. People may feel a sense of urgency to travel to safe or higher ground, or check on family members or property. There are many stories of people dying while making desperate attempts to get home, while staying put would have been the safer option. Further study of human behavior and motivations during this time period would aid greatly in educational and public relations efforts to reduce flood fatalities incurred here. This is the most dangerous time period in the stage of a flood, and arguably for Texas drivers at low-water crossings the most treacherous, as low-water crossings change from passable to deadly.

Residents living on lakes and dam-controlled rivers may get advanced warning of flood events. Those living near intermittent, seasonal creeks and streams do not usually receive much advance warning about flooding, usually because these smaller water bodies are less carefully monitored. Unfortunately, people usually have no idea how much water can come down their small nearby streams. In the past 10 years, Austin's intermittent Barton Creek has twice flowed at over 12,000 cubic feet per second, which is half the average daily flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (USGS gage reports December 1991, October 1998).

Flood events differ in duration; most rivers and man-made lakes are monitored by local and regional entities, and man-made controls installed on many of these bodies of water make flood prediction more precise than flood timing for creeks, arroyos and the like.

Most people never see a flood event because they have retreated from outdoors to shelter. Unconnected from direct experience with the flood event or exposed to proof (photographs, video footage and statistics), public safety advice and flood warnings may take on a rather vague, abstract quality easily forgotten.

Stage #5 The Flood Aftermath

Many agencies have been geared up to step in during this period. Flood victims have been given places in shelters operated by relief agencies such as the American Red Cross, FEMA, and State agencies like Texas Department of Public Safety's Division of Emergency Management. These and other agencies are responsible for the recovery of human and animal fatalities, addressing issues such as water contamination and repairing broken septic systems. Due to the dramatic nature of this time period, media attention is high; human interest stories about flood victims are frequently featured.

One FEMA official told the Texas Environmental Center that 27 distinct Federal agencies have programs that assist after a flood, but few if any are designed to take actions before a flood.

Stage #6 The Flood Rebuilding Process

Indefinitely long, this period is used to assess fatalities and damages. FEMA designates Texas counties for Federal aid and there may be Presidential orders for further assistance after reviewing the agency's analysis of the State's request for Federal relief. The declaration covers damage from the severe thunderstorms and flooding. FEMA coordinates grants to help pay for temporary housing, minor home repairs and other serious disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration are also available to cover residential and business losses not fully compensated by insurance. Under the presidential declaration, Federal funds are provided for the State and affected local governments in the affected designated counties to help pay for approved projects that reduce future disaster risks. As concerns focus on returning victims' lives back to normal, lessons learned about flash flooding can begin to be forgotten. It should be noted that were flood education measures to be taken in this time period, these measures would be most effective when they take place before reconstruction of damaged property begins. ("Once they pick up a hammer and start rebuild, they forget about what has happened"—Roy Sedwick, Lower Colorado River Authority).

Stage #7 Normal Life Resumes

As in Part 1. The catastrophe finally having been addressed, flood victims are anxious to get on with daily living, grieving, etc. If people didn't see the flood event or didn't directly experience it, their learning of lessons about flood safety might be minimal. It can be years between flood events, years which can be interspersed with drought, further contributing to the public's forgetting of the power and danger of floods. The public may also relax its collective guard if it thinks that it has seen and recovered from all the flood events it is going to have for the season. This is can be a dangerous attitude as well. Within a single year, 1998, three consecutive presidential disaster declarations were made in as many months in Texas: Tropical Storm Charley & Related Flooding (Aug. 26, 1998), Tropical Storm Frances & Related Flooding (Sept. 18, 1998), and Flooding (Oct. 20, 1998) (source: Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety, from Jo Moss).

Part#2: Who's at Danger (Incident and Fatality Statistics)

High Risk Groups
Texas leads the nation in flash flood fatalities, with 612 flood-related fatalities recorded between 1960-1995 (Figure 3). Statistics regarding these flood fatalities reveal over half of all human mishaps with floodwaters are vehicle-related. These data include both fatalities and incidents, whether the drivers and passengers perished or were saved by swift-water rescue teams.

Preliminary figures for 1995 (Roy Sedwick, Lower Colorado River Authority, written commun., 1999) show that 79 people lost their lives in flash floods/floods of which 55% were vehicle-related. Texas had 34% of the 1995 fatalities. Of the 79 deaths, 73% were male with an average age of 34 years old, while females averaged 37.8 years old. Most of the years with the greatest number of flash floods/floods can be directly related to the years with major land falling hurricanes, "Betsy" in 1965, "Camille" in 1969, and "Agnes" in 1972, (Flash Flood/Flood Fatalities 1960 Through 1995, Roy Sedwick, 1999).

During October 1998, the Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety shows 10 incidents involving flood casualties: of these 8 were vehicle-related, the remaining 2 were tornado-related (Figure 2). Subsequent reporting could include more flood-related fatality and incident statistics for further study. These statistics, if available, would address questions about incidents and fatalities involving trucks/sport utility vehicles versus all automobiles, rural versus urban environments, and times of day during which incidents and fatalities occur.

Rural Vs Urban Flooding Dangers

Flooding affects both urban and rural residents, although not in the same ways. With so much impervious cover, the urban environment can quickly engender rapid runoff during a storm—runoff water will readily flood road surfaces and impervious cover. Urban residents and drivers frequently traverse low-water crossings and roads near creeks and drainage ditches as part of the urban watershed environment. Many of the watershed features may be hidden by buildings, parks, and urban street features such as culverts and ditches. Because it is not possible to predict where the rainwater from a storm event is going to concentrate, it is not possible to know where the most dangerous places are going to be. Even urban areas that feature more flood controls than rural areas can become dangerous. On the other hand, urban drivers frequently have the option of alternate routes of travel, and the concentrated urban infrastructure allows crucial police and fire department personnel and other emergency response services to aid victims quickly.

Rural residents often have few choices of travel routes. While having the same concerns about flooding that urban residents have, rural residents may also be responsible for herds of livestock, which can place additional demands on the short supply of time during a flood crisis. Rural drivers stranded on roadsides may have no access to facilities offering shelter, telephones, food, water or fuel. Communication with rural residents on the road or in the field may be through radio broadcast or not at all.

March 1998 Austin-American Statesman headline "Flood Restrictions must be Enforced"—From the article: "The scene is one that plays itself quite often in South Texas during heavy rainfall: a vehicle approaches a roadway overflowing with water; the driver assesses the water level, then daringly proceeds, with disregard for the danger and, often, even barricades.

On October 17, 1998, Devine, Texas resident Kathleen McCoy was traveling on a Caldwell County road with her two young sons and family friend, Heather Cottle, 11, when she encountered a flooded bridge over Brushy Creek. Even her Chevrolet Suburban was no match for the swift water. It was recovered three days later under 27 feet of water. McCoy and her youngest son survived. Heather and McCoy's oldest boy drowned. A grand jury last month indicted McCoy on a charge of manslaughter, a felony that could spell a 20-year prison sentence" (March 5, 1999, Austin American-Statesman).

October 1998 flooding claimed 31 lives, most of which involved people whose vehicles were swept away by floodwaters. "This is a grim reminder that the overwhelming majority of flood-related deaths in Texas each year involve motor vehicles," noted Tom Milwee, Governor's Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety State Coordinator. "People who attempt to drive through or near flooded roadways often place themselves, their passengers and rescue and rescue workers in danger," he said. "As emergency managers and first responders, it is incumbent on us to continually remind people of the dangers of floods and flash floods, especially when they travel." (Emergency Management Digest, July-December 1998.)

Common Mistakes

Drivers underestimate how little water makes a car buoyant. Two feet of water will carry away most automobiles, a fact few drivers may know and appreciate. Water weighs 62.4 lbs. per cubic foot and typically flows downstream at 6 to 12 miles an hour. When a vehicle stalls in the water, the water's momentum is transferred to the car. For each foot the water rises, 500 lbs. of lateral force are applied to the car. But the biggest factor is buoyancy. For each foot the water rises up the side of the car, the car displaces 1,500 lbs. of water. In effect, the car weighs 1,500 lbs. less for each foot the water rises (FEMA web site). Three-inch rainfalls in the Dallas and Houston metro areas caused serious flooding during April 24-26, 1990 (Flash Flood/Flood Fatalities 1960 Through 1995, Roy Sedwick, 1999). Drivers of vehicles with higher ground clearance may feel safer, more inclined to drive through minor or other flooding at low-water crossings.

It should be noted that these vehicles are often marketed (vis-à-vis TV ads) as capable of crossing water safely. More analysis of flood fatality statistics is needed to determine the extent to which these vehicles are involved in deadly engagements with the power of moving water.

When required to evacuate an area, drivers may wait too long and then feel "forced" to cross flooded roads. As discussed in Anatomy of a Flood, people can panic during Stage #3 (Substantial Rainfall in Progress ) and Stage #4 (Flood Event) as they feel the pressures of time and responsibility. Compounding factors may include volume of traffic on roadways and the timeliness with which at-risk drivers receive crucial flood information.

Drivers may drive too fast in low visibility conditions, reducing reaction time.

Flash floods can occur at any hour, but nighttime drivers facing low-water crossings are especially endangered. Flood signage and gages are less visible at night, and flooded low-water crossings with no markers on curved roads and/or unlit rural roads can surprise an unwary driver. Further, the depth of water on a flooded road surface is especially difficult to determine in low-light conditions (Roy Sedwick, 1999).

Drivers underestimate reaction time and/or handling as their car quickly floats out of control.

The moment a vehicle's tires leave the pavement, a driver is no longer in control of his vehicle. Any coping strategies such a driver might use to get back in control will be futile. Vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive may encourage the mistaken notion among drivers that such vehicles will handle better in a crisis situation.

Drivers don't know what safety measures to take once their cars are out of control. Once their cars are buoyant, few drivers may know what their options are, i.e. whether to roll down windows and evacuate the vehicle, or stay and wait for help. People can underestimate or overestimate the depth of the water they've become stuck in as well.

Flood Fatality Statistics

From Federal Disaster Declarations and Emergency Declarations in Texas in 1998


Top sixteen flash flood/flood fatality states, 1960-1995
Number of fatalities

1. TEXAS - 612
4. VIRGINIA - 241
8. COLORADO - 168
9. LOUISIANA - 149
10. MISSOURI - 122
11. GEORGIA - 112
12. NEW YORK - 107
13. OHIO - 102
14. ARIZONA - 96
15. KENTUCKY - 93
16. TENNESSEE - 91

Source: Roy Sedwick, Lower Colorado River Authority, written commun., 1999

Flood-Related Bibliography

In Print

Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety. Federal Disaster Declarations and Emergency Declarations in Texas in 1998. June 13, 2001

FEMA, National Flood Insurance Program. In the Event of a Flood: Tips to Reduce Loss of Life and Property… 593-237D (12/94).

FEMA. Project Impact: Building a Disaster Resistant Community. Spring 1998.

KVUE 24 Pinpoint Weather/LCRA. Weather Safety Guide. 1999.

LCRA. The State of the River. 1995.

LCRA. Colorado River Flood Warning Guide. No date.

LCRA. Drop by Drop: The Life Cycle of the Lower Colorado. No date.

LCRA/FEMA. Flooding on the Colorado River: Current Danger. 1992.

LCRA, EMS of COA, HEB, KTBC-TV, State of Txeas EM, LCRA Rangers, Pflugerville VFD, Friends of the Colorado River Foundation. Danger: Flooded Roadway Ahead. No date.

NFIP/FEMA. Weather Patterns Are Changing, and So Are Your Chances of Being Flooded. F-0323, August 1998.

NOAA, FEMA, American Red Cross. Flash Floods and Floods…the Awesome Power: A Preparedness Guide. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service. July 1992.

NOAA. NOAA Weather Radio… the Voice of the National Weather Service. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service. March 1997


Texas Water Development Board. Texas Water Facts. TWDB 91-0166. 1991.

USGS/B.D. Jones. Texas Floods and Droughts. National Water Summary 1988-89. US Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375.

USGS/US Dept of the Interior. Stream Gaging and Flood Forecasting: a Partnership of the US Geological Survey and the National Weather Service. Fact Sheet FS-209-95. August 1995.

USGS/US Dept of the Interior. Floods in South-Central Texas, June 1997. USGS Fact Sheet FS-053-98. May 1998.

USGS/Water Resources Division. Flood-Related Actvities in Texas. 1996.

On Video

KVUE Weather: Nature's Fury: Surviving the Storm

National Weather Service
The Hidden Danger, Low-Water Crossings

NOAA, FEMA, American Red Cross
The Awesome Force
RT 17:15

The Flood of 1991
RT 23:46

Flash Floods: A Warning to Beware
RT 16:00

Wirtz Dam Update
December 17, 1997
The Evolution of Flood Management
RT 12:00

Fixing the Floodplain
DEC 1998
RT 14:30

Wavelength-Flood of '98 Story
NOV 1998
RT n/a

Weather and the Colorado River
RT 13:30

Dam Modernization: A 15-Year Program for the Highland Lakes Dams
RT 16:00

Lake Travis: Hidden Dangers
RT: 28:36

US Interactive, Houston Texas.
USA Driving Safety Course
RT: 6:00:00

On the World Wide Web

California Flood Information

FEMA: Flash Floods: How Can a Foot or Two of Water Cost You Your Life?

FEMA: Floodplain Management Summary

FEMA: National Mitigation Strategy

The Flood Control District of Maricopa County

Interactive Weather Information Network

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

National Climatic Data Center

TEEX : Texas Engineering Extension Service

Texas Water Resources Institute

TexasWaternet Subject Index (FLOOD)

Texas Department of Transportation

Texas Association of County Engineers and Road Administrators

USGS—Water Resources of the United States

The Weather Channel—Project SafeSide: Flood and Flash Flood Safety