Severe Weather Awareness: The deadly power of water

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Rain is often a good thing here in Kansas. But sometimes, we can receive too much, too fast, and flooding can quickly become a concern. Each year, flooding kills more people than any other form of severe weather.

Emporia Fire Chief Jack Taylor recalls the events leading to a flooding tragedy on the Kansas Turnpike in 2003.

A flood washed seven vehicles off the Kansas Turnpike, Aug. 30, 2003. Five members of a Missouri family, traveling in this van, died. (Screen grab from KSN video the day after the flood)

“So in the 24-hour period preceding, we had had at least 7 inches of rain throughout our area,” he said. “It created a huge amount of water that drained into the Jacob’s Creek and overwhelmed the culvert at the turnpike and overtopped the highway, and just became a real danger to people that were driving in that area.”

This year marks 18 years since the flash flood that swept seven vehicles off the Kansas Turnpike and claimed the lives of 6 people. A Missouri family van was washed a mile and a half downstream. The mother and four children died. A Texas man died while trying to save others.

A flash flood washed these 10,000-pound concrete barriers off the Kansas Turnpike, Aug. 30, 2003. (Screen grab from KSN video the day after the flood)

This prolonged rain event caused a wall of water seven feet high to break through 10,000-pound cement barriers in the median. The barriers and cars were swept into the creek, leading to a heartbreaking search and rescue effort in the days that followed.

The water was so powerful that even the most experienced Olympic swimmers would be no match against it as it rushed at a rate of more than 4,000 cubic feet per second.

“That water weighs several tons, so you have several tons of water, could fill up the entirety of a swimming pool, passing through a road in a few instants, a few seconds,” said Richard Traverzo, a physics instructor at Wichita State University.

He says there are other factors that come into play when water covers a road.

“When water mixes with dirt and oil on the road, that already reduces traction,” Traverzo said. “Then, when there’s standing water in the road, that creates a lift, that creates a buoyancy effect.”

Moving water carries a lot of energy that can sweep anything off the road in a matter of seconds.

Six inches of moving water is all it takes to knock a person over. A foot of water can lift a car.

It is important to heed flash flood warnings and turn away from flooded roadways.

“We have instances every year where people go around the barrier and then get stuck in their vehicles in high water,” Taylor said. “You know the common saying is, ‘Turn around and don’t drown.'”

You cannot gauge if the road has been washed away or if other hazards may be hidden in the floodwaters.

“It’s always safest to assume the worst about what’s happening underneath that water,” Traverzo said.

Driving through flooded areas not only affects you, but also first responders.

“If you’re in danger, then the things that we have to do to get you out of that danger are risky to us as well,” Taylor said.

Remember, it is always best to turn around and find another route to your destination.

The best way to be prepared for flooding is to have a plan in place. Heed evacuation orders if one is issued. Avoid flooded areas so you can get to your destination safely.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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