Flash Flood Eclipses Eclipse
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
I live in central Iowa. Naturally, like much of America, I felt inclined to take a dive into total solar eclipse madness… after all, I was only 3.5 hrs’ drive to the north. Probably like more of America than Americans would admit, I made my travel plans at very nearly the last minute. That part worked out pretty well, because I ended up having what was really a pretty divine eclipse-viewing experience. Which was good, because the unexpected flash flood that night was not unremarkable, and the balance was helpful on the long drive the rest of the way north.
The adventure began Sunday, on a sunny drive down from Iowa. I ended up crashing Sunday night with a coaching colleague in Kansas City, KS, and getting up super early to head to Liberty, MO for the big event. We were so ahead of traffic that we had time for a pit stop at a Starbucks before arriving pretty early at our pre-chosen (and pre-reconned) winery. We had enough time to unload and haul all of our sitting-around-outside gear to an ideal spot in front of the main building before it started sprinkling. With incoming cloud-to-ground lightning. We actually managed to secure our stuff under plastic and a huge umbrella we had on hand before the total downpour. And I do mean total downpour – like for a while.
Not to worry. As we were so early, we found ourselves a small room in the neat old building and settled in. We had electricity, air conditioning, a fan, and plenty of space. The winery started serving wine at 10 a.m., and we were all set. Considering that they hadn’t charged for parking, it seemed the least we could do.
I say all of this to describe the exquisite bounty we found ourselves in. As the morning and the rain wore on, more and more people filed into the building. We tried to get others to settle in to our room as well as they checked out its antique furnishings, but they found other spots… many of which were similarly intriguing. A few intrepid families made the best of their SUVs in the rain outside… perhaps surprised at the sheer persistence of the storm. It just kept on.
Not long before the eclipse was to start, I kid you not: the sun broke out. It was amazing. We had half-joked earlier that we had each done some praying and shaman work and whatnot so that we’d have clear skies for the big event. And here we had clear skies. Whether all of the hoping and praying paid off or not we’ll never know, but it was absolutely gorgeous outside.
We got settled outside not long before the eclipse action started to get interesting, and we had an absolutely stunning eclipse experience. My friends and family scattered about just 50 miles to the north had clouds obscuring the view. We felt bummed for them – but also incredibly grateful for where we were.
Perhaps equally stunning was this: just as we hit traffic after packing up, another thunderstorm rolled in. We literally had the perfect weather window. It stopped raining again as we unloaded gear and loaded our respective vehicles, including one with firewood from a neighbor. I love that so many women I know have SUVs, and use them.
Smooth sailing all around. Eclipse accomplished. This was good, because the rest of the day was much more of a weather adventure than I prefer.
I left Kansas and headed toward the Kansas City airport for a spontaneous dinner. A colleague from Massachusetts was in town for the day, and we managed somehow to coordinate dinner plans. Enroute, I drove through an incredible hailstorm.
I thought I had driven through hail before, but I was wrong. This was stunning. Ha! See what I did there? It was impactful. Fortunately, not so much that my Jeep was noticeably impacted. Including the windshield - a near miss, as far as I can tell. But driving on the freeway was fairly dangerous. I did not get dead, but I did get stressed.
The Flash in “Flash Flood”
The freeway danger is relevant because after dinner, it was storming like a hurricane – except that they don’t have those in Missouri. I had driven around in a Category 3 hurricane in Virginia once, and it was raining and blowing WAY harder than that hurricane where I was in Kansas City.
I thought I could maybe wait out the near-hurricane in a parking lot, and caught up on my eclipse texting. In something that looked like a lull, I headed out on a back road to get back east to the interstate that would take me north to Iowa. After my earlier freeway hailstorm experience, a back road seemed likely to be less intense.
The side road was flat-out treacherous. I realized it about five minutes in - when it was too late to turn around. I was driving straight north into the wind and rain for the first part, and then along super windy roads. I could only reasonably go 10-15 mph – if that. There was nowhere to pull over, or to turn around. The ditches were full of water. There was zero visibility.
As I was realizing the scope of the situation, I drove over a small downed tree across the road. This was okay, because I do have a Jeep – and know how to drive it. The four wheel drive had been in use since leaving Kansas.
Just after the tree, I came to my first creek flooding across the road. I was upon it before I could avoid it – and even if I had seen it first, there were not a lot of options. It was on a blind curve in both directions, and turning around may have been almost as dangerous as crossing it. I did manage to slow down a bit, but it was deep enough to nearly flood the engine. I crossed several more streams before hitting a less-backroads-type backroad. Had I needed to keep going north, I’d have made it only 50 feet. I could see in the light from a barn that a farm pond had flooded well across the road just to north of where I'd been driving.
I turned east, into hillier terrain. This was in some ways worse, because the rain was coming down so hard that the road was extremely slick. It was so bad that I very nearly hydroplaned on the top of a hill. My blood pressure didn’t really go up until that moment. Because if you fly off into nothingness in hilly terrain where everything is flooded and plenty of emergencies abound, I don’t reckon you’d get found for quite some time.
Each valley brought the threat of another creek crossing, and there were several. There were also signs that civilization was near, and I came upon it as suddenly as I had the creeks.
Out of the howling rain and darkness, I pulled into a town. Blazing light, cutting through darkness. I have never been so excited to see the shining beacon of a gas station sign. This is notable, because I might have had some tense moments in Wyoming and Virginia and maybe also Maryland where my vehicle literally ran out of gas right just as I pulled up to the fuel pump. I mean, hypothetically that could have happened, like at least three times.
At the gas station, I discovered that there were about seven flood and flash-flood watches and warnings for the area where I was driving.
I will admit that I had ass-umed my phone would get any automated Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) that are broadcast by cell tower if there was flood danger in the area – and I had not gotten any. I did consciously consider this before heading out into the hurricane-force weather.
The gal at the gas station had gotten all 3-4 or so of the WEAs, so they were sent. My guess is that my carrier had poor coverage in the area. Which is in part a lesson to me and to anyone – we aren’t necessarily going to get officially warned of impending danger. It certainly caught me a bit by surprise – and I’m an emergency management professional. Had I known the topography better, I might have anticipated the flood risk. I wasn’t keeping up on precip rates and so on – as most folks don’t on a normal day. I had been focused on seeing good friends, and on being in touch with my people.
At the gas station sanctuary, I got up to speed. A friend I was in contact with recommended a hotel. I looked into it, and the unfolding flood scenario.
While I was getting gas, an emergency water rescue team and corresponding fire apparatus left town all lights-and-sirens, which was not a surprise. Still, my heart fell. Partly because it could have been me; but mostly because someone was in trouble. Now, firefighters would be out in the rain and the danger rescuing someone. Hopefully.
My assessment of the info I could find was this. The flood situation looked like it would continue, although the rain had diminished to slightly-less-than-hurricane-force strength. The town I was in was surrounded by creeks, and just below a dammed-up lake. Google Maps showed backed-up traffic all over the metro area. While the back roads had been dangerous, it’s possible that the freeways were just as bad – or worse. And waters would be rising well into the morning.
One thing I know about disasters is that I don’t want to be a part of one… if at all possible. It just adds complication – all around. My inclination as a professional is not to add to the trouble, and I certainly was not in a position to assist.
I got the hell out of there. I advised my friend when I left that beautiful shining oasis of a gas station, and checked in when I got to the interstate. As a bonus, a local sheriff followed me about halfway through that last section, and there were only a few pretty low stream crossings. I did see the lights for the water rescue to my north on what could have been a lake. It’s hard to tell, when everything is wet and flooding.
This is a long story. I tell the story for a few reasons. One is that I had an absolutely beautiful and serendipitous day. I got to see two good friends and make some new ones… with next to no planning on my part. We saw an amazing total solar eclipse, in a short window with the only sun we would see that day. I get the irony, given that we needed full sun in order to not see the sun – and I love it.
I’d never have expected the day to take such a turn. We were watching the weather for news around the eclipse – not for what happened after.
Nobody expects a disaster. It’s the nature of the things that they tend to catch people off guard. The scene I always picture with this thought is from people having dinner in Ellicott City, Maryland in the summer of 2016. Suddenly a flash flood trapped them in a restaurant, as the road outside become a torrent of water… carrying cars and people down the spontaneous and extremely powerful temporary river. In one moment, dinner. In another, people nearby are helping more people save each other’s lives.
When an emergency is unfolding, you don’t know if it will become a full-on disaster. There seems to be some sort of tipping point that is different in every single scenario that is the fine line. But it may be a disaster for an individual. It may have been a disaster for the person or people who had to call for a water rescue near the town I stopped through. For the 72 (or 160, depending on the news source) other water rescues people needed in the Kansas City area that night. For the family shown on their rooftop, awaiting help as floodwaters surrounded their home.
I continue to be awed by the power of this planet we inhabit. All of the technology in the world is not going to save every single one of us when we are in an impact zone. That’s just a fact. Stuff is going to happen, and keep happening. Firefighters are not going to be able to reach everyone in the rushing water.
So we think about this stuff ahead of time. We plan for it. We get resilient. In my story here, owning a Jeep – and knowing how to drive it – may well have saved my life. And you know I bought that Jeep to increase my resilience, because that’s how I roll – even before I understood that resilience was what I was building.
When the unexpected happens, we navigate it as best we can, given the tools we have available. Sometimes that’s a 4-wheel-drive vehicle; sometimes it’s a flood warning and a decent map. Had I known about the numerous flood warnings, would I have stayed back at the hotel where I dropped my friends? Had I been familiar with the geography of the place, would I have taken those backroads?
Part of countering fear is assessing, accepting, and addressing risk. Part of it is knowing what’s going on in the first place. Part of it is not panicking when the unexpected happens. Part is resilience. There is also critical thinking. Taking action.
One of the things first responders and emergency management professionals do after any big incident is an after-action analysis. When I was on a hotshot crew, our crew created the space to talk through every incident. The rough stuff and the success. Everything from our communication and interaction to the mistakes we made, or the things we could have done better. Also, of course we totally kicked ass… so we covered that, too. Every burn I have been on and every disaster has been the same: there is always an after-action.
Thanks for reading mine. As my hotshot captain said before every fire, “don’t get dead.” Good advice.
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