There was widespread and destructive flooding in Colorado (U.S.) last week. Flooding is not new news, but thanks to a comment by Nancy Rigg, of the Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund, I realized how flawed the public’s perceptions are when it comes to water-based disasters and how the media supports those flawed perceptions. Nancy pointed out how common it is for people to literally wade right in, heedless of the health and safety repercussions of entering fast-flowing, debris-strewn and contaminated water, and then publicize their exploits. Just watch this guided tour of overflowing sewage.
As Nancy succinctly put it, “floods and tornadoes have been turned into spectator sports and it is SO dangerous!”
Think about it. Discounting the few risk-taking thrill-seekers, who in their right mind would hike towards a raging forest fire? Run to the opening cracks in the earth during an earthquake? And yet everyone seem to gravitate towards water. Standing on a bridge taking photos of the churning water. Refusing to evacuate from the eye of the hurricane. And so avoidable drowning deaths continue every time there is a water-based disaster.
The public understands basic safety protocol in most situations. The correct response is so drilled into them that it is an instinctive reaction. Like many Midwesterners all it takes is a slight change in sky color or the sound of the wind and I’m flipping on the TV to check for tornado warnings, or get the kids to the basement just in case, because the destructive force can begin and end in a matter of minutes, as it did when a tornado blew through two years ago and uprooted numerous old trees in five minutes – before any siren or warning had been issued. (Tornadoes are no longer a spectator sport in my neighborhood – their power is now fully understood.)
A friend in San Francisco told me that she knows if there was an earthquake tremor during the night because she wakes up fully-clothed with her earthquake survival kit next to her bed – her response is that instinctual when she feels a tremor.
Flooding? Nope, we’re all out there rowing, kayaking, trudging boot deep through the water snapping photos on our phones.
I’m as guilty as the next person, which is why Nancy’s comment was such a shock, I realized how, despite my occupation, I do not fully understand the correct action around flooding. Last spring, my town got 10 inches (25 cm) of rain in 8 hours, resulting in severe flooding. My kids and I ventured out to survey the damage. The eight-foot deep football field-sized retention pond at the end of the street was overflowing. Even the sledding hill was half under water. And everywhere people were walking, riding bikes, and rafting through the flood waters. Never mind the overwhelmed sewer system, the downed power lines, the trees and garbage floating in the flood waters.
I did post a note on the local 400-strong mom’s list Yahoo board describing the force the storm drains would exert and the damage they could cause to children and pets if they ventured into the new ‘ponds’ and were sucked downwards. There was widespread shock and ‘I didn’t know’.
They didn’t know.
The big messages I take away from my experience and Nancy’s brilliant observations:
The public is a long way from understanding how to act safely around water;
The media reinforces the risky behavior by posting photos; and
We have a lot of work to do.