Flash Floods, Forest Fires, and Storm Drainage

The recent damages, and deaths, caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have once again reminded us that many deaths occurring during severe weather are the result of accidental drownings rather than trauma such as lightning strikes, fire, or collapsing buildings. In today’s post, the drowning accident lawyer at the Doan Law firm will review some of the circumstances that can expose us to an unnecessary risk of accidental drowning following seemingly-unrelated natural disasters.

What is a “flash flood?”

According to the National Weather Service, a flash flood is “Flooding that begins within 6 hours, and often within 3 hours, of heavy rainfall or some other cause.”

Such “other causes” can include:

  • Breaching or collapse of manmade dams, dikes, levees, or other flood control /water diversion structures
  • Loss of natural ground cover such as grass, forest undergrowth, and trees occurring after a wildfire or due to urban development
  • Failure to construct, and/or properly maintain, adequate storm drainage channels

The actual incidence of flash flooding is influenced by many factors:

  1. The intensity, location, and duration of rainfall
  2. The topography of the area where the heaviest rainfall occurs
  3. The type and density of vegetation present
  4. The soil type and its water-content percentage (e.g. how much water the soil can absorb)

Flash floods and “burn scars”

Following a wildfire (also known as a “forest fire”), much of an area’s natural vegetation is destroyed. The resulting area that was damaged is commonly called a “burn scar.” Since vegetation makes important contributions to both soil stability and water retention, it is relatively common for areas downstream of burn scars to experience flash flooding for several years afterward. Flash floods downstream from burn scars are particularly dangerous for several reasons.

Since burn scars are largely devoid of mature plant life, relatively lesser amounts of water are needed to induce flooding since there is no vegetation to remove water from the soil. Also, this lack of vegetation makes the surrounding soil less stable and can lead to mudslides or “debris-slides” which can cause even more damage than the flash flood itself.

Flash floods in urban areas

Flash flooding isn’t restricted to rural or undeveloped areas that have lost ground cover due to wildfires. In fact, each year more people are killed in flash floods that occur in urban areas than by flash flooding downstream from the site of a recent forest fire.

Because urban areas have already lost much of their water-absorbing soil and natural vegetation to factors such as building construction and street paving with water-repelling materials such as concrete and asphalt, any rain water that is not immediately absorbed is often diverted into a storm drainage system consisting of canals and other manmade structures. Since these systems are interconnected, heavy rains in one area frequently cause flooding in areas that are many miles distant to such rainfall. As a result, a diversion canal or similar structure that is normally dry can be transformed into a raging river within minutes. Every year dozens of people are killed after being swept away by water from a storm that may not have been visible to the victims.

Liability in flash flood-related drowning accidents

In many locations, a government agency cannot be sued in a civil court for alleged liability in an accidental injury / wrongful death case. This protection, also known as “sovereign immunity,” was intended to protect government agencies from “frivolous” or “nuisance” lawsuits that could otherwise prevent such agencies from performing their lawful duties. Unfortunately, it has also been used as a “shield” to protect agencies and their employees from lawsuits where they were clearly negligent.

Many states, and the federal government, have amended their sovereign immunity laws to specifically remove protection in cases of gross negligence, deliberate misconduct, or for actions that are themselves illegal. Since sovereign immunity can be a very complex matter, it is always best to seek the advice of a drowning accident lawyer in cases that may involve liability due to misconduct by a governmental agency.

As we noted in our recent post Ten Family Members Dead after Drowning Accident Caused by Arizona Flash Flood (July 24, 2017), there can be several issues that may come into play involving flash flood drowning deaths. Since many if these issues have not been considered at the local level by state or federal courts, it is essential that anyone considering a drowning wrongful death lawsuit should arrange a consultation with drowning accident attorney as soon as possible after such a death.

In summary, accidental drowning is the leading cause of death during or immediately after natural disasters such as hurricanes, severe local weather, or flooding following failure of a levee or a dam. In many such deaths, there may be issues indicating that the actions (or inaction) by a local, state, or federal agency may have contributed to these tragic accidents. Anyone suspecting that a family member’s death by drowning may have involved negligence by an agency whose duties include flood control is encouraged to contact a drowning accident attorney to discuss any legal options that may be available.