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The recent hurricanes that struck Texas and Florida were reminders of the powerful force of Mother Nature and her crippling effect on cities and states. In this two-part series, City Blog looks at the challenge of flooding. Previously: What the City has done and can do. Now: What you can do.

The tornado checklist that you’re already intimately familiar with? Flashlights, batteries, water, non-perishable food items, etc. It works with other natural disasters, such as floods, so as forecasts for potential overwhelming storms are made, make the usual preparations.

The City of Huntsville has its own checklist of sorts, with machinery in place to deal with weather events. But it’s incumbent upon citizens to be equally prepared.

Here’s a look at how the City gets ready and would react – and the important role that we, as responsible individuals, must play.

City readiness

It all begins in the basement headquarters of the local Emergency Management Agency (EMA), with its sophisticated communication and weather tracking equipment. The EMA is in constant contact with weather authorities, then, as significant issues loom, it connects with all the appropriate entities – the administrative arms of local municipalities, first responders, public works departments, hospitals, schools and others. They are kept abreast of developments that will assist in their preparation and decision-making.

As EMA director Jeff Birdwell notes, history tends to repeat itself when it comes to natural disaster. Areas that have flooded in the past because of the topography are more apt to flood again. The National Weather Service “keeps up with historical flooding,” he says, “and that’s helpful to search and rescue teams deciding what to evacuate, what roads might be closed, things like that.”

There were mandatory evacuations during Harvey and Irma in certain areas. In other areas, there was the strong encouragement to leave. In both cases, many people ignored the pleas from government leaders.

If we do it right, we help our neighbor and everybody comes out well.”

“You have to work with others so that you’re managing evacuation and you have to have communication,” Mayor Tommy Battle says. But he says he can’t envision a scenario where “you’d turn all of your four-lane highways that lead out of the city into one way and everybody takes off.”

He recalls the message from the 2011 tornadoes, that “this is a great time for everybody to get to know your neighbor, to help your neighbor. That was the key for all of us. If we do it right, we help our neighbor and everybody comes out well.”

Residents’ responsibility

The EMA has an extensive Disaster Preparedness List on its website that is a quick, easy read. It should be reviewed with family members. Some tips that are specific to floods:

  • If you have a history of flooding, look into flood-proofing measures and flood insurance
  • If your house is on a slab foundation, consider a low floodwall
  • If your house is on a crawlspace, consider a low floodwall, berm, or “wet floodproofing.” City of Huntsville Engineering Division staff can advise on retrofitting techniques
  • Move valuable items to a higher elevation
  • Place sandbags and plastic sheeting in front of doorways and other low entry points
  • Shut off power and gas
  • Keep trash, grass clippings, branches, etc. away from drainage pipes, retention ponds, ditches and channels that deliver water flow
  • If told to evacuate your home, do so immediately
  • If too late to evacuate, take a tool able to break through your roof from the inside out (axe, sledge hammer, etc.) and retreat to the second floor, the attic, and if necessary, the roof
  • Do not walk through flowing water
  • Use a pole or stick to ensure that the ground or structure is still there before you go through an area where the water is not flowing
  • Do not drive through a flooded area
  • Stay away from power lines and electrical wiring. Report downed power lines to Huntsville Utilities (256-535-1200)
  • Be alert for gas leaks
  • Be alert for snakes, rats, possums, raccoons, and other critters taking refuge in your home
  • Use generators or other gasoline powered machines, camping stoves, etc. outdoors only
  • Clean everything that gets wet. Items that have come in contact with floodwaters such as food, cosmetics, and medicine can be hazardous. When in doubt, throw it out