Texas Offers 4 Lessons For Staying Safe In Flash Floods Over half of U.S. flood deaths happen on roads, a risk that's growing as a warmer climate fuels intense rain. Texas, home to "Flash Flood Alley," is using high- and low-tech ways to keep people safe.

Texas Offers 4 Lessons For Staying Safe In Flash Floods

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Over half of all deaths related to floods in the U.S. happen on roads. That risk is growing with the warming climate and resulting flash floods. One place that's dealt with flash flooding for generations is Texas. And as Mose Buchele of member station KUT reports, the state has lessons to share.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hector Guerrero grew up in central Texas. It's a part of the state known as flash flood alley. About 20 years ago when he was a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, he launched a phrase that's since spread all over the country, turn around, don't drown.

HECTOR GUERRERO: I felt like we needed to have something catchy. The National Weather Service needed a catchy phrase.

BUCHELE: He thinks it's helped remind people that even a little water on the road can turn deadly fast. But even he acknowledges that sometimes you just can't turn around. That's why, like a lot of people who grew up with flooding, he keeps a hammer in his car in case he gets stuck in rising waters.

GUERRERO: You know, you hit the corner of that windshield and you can break out if it has to come to that. But we hope that never happens.

BUCHELE: Texas has honed more high-tech solutions to keep people away from flooding in the first place. Local governments maintain online maps showing where low water crossings are closed, sometimes even with images TV stations pick up to show where not to drive.

CAROL HADDOCK: And it's a fantastic tool for the public.

BUCHELE: This is Carol Haddock. She is the director of public works for the city of Houston, a place that's also installing a system of traffic signals to activate in case of heavy rains.

HADDOCK: And we have sensors down in the underpass that when there's water on the roadway that it literally turns to a flashing red light to stop traffic.

BUCHELE: Haddock says Houston's also improving drainage to keep floodwaters out of roads and neighborhoods. But...

HADDOCK: For an area in the Northeast of the United States, it is going to be a much more complicated question than it is for those of us further South and West.

BUCHELE: She says that's because older, denser cities are harder to reshape with new infrastructure. Since Hurricane Harvey swept through, Texas has started elevating more construction out of floodplains and improve regional flood planning. But Sam Brody, who heads the Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas, says There are also some Texas-sized mistakes other places should learn from, like sprawling development that can increase flood risk.

SAM BRODY: Other ways to avoid the floodwaters is to protect open space. And we're not so great at that in Texas.

BUCHELE: And he says even when cities improve their drainage systems, they often don't maintain them. Brody even keeps a broom in his car to clean drains that seem really clogged when a big storm starts up.

BRODY: I often tell people in Houston, like, well, before you spend billions of dollars on new drainage, why don't you work on getting what we have to work. And then see where we're at.

BUCHELE: Then there's the question of emergency response. Harry Evans is a retired, 30-year veteran of the Austin Fire Department. He says it's essential to plan safe flood evacuation routes ahead of storms just like some places do for hurricanes or wildfires.

HARRY EVANS: You need to do some time and motion studies to understand what it would take to evacuate that neighborhood in the event of a flood.

BUCHELE: But, he says, Texans have learned the hard way that evacuation is not always the right answer, like during Hurricane Rita in 2005 when around 100 people died trying to get out of Houston.

EVANS: Do you try to protect in place and try to do your best there? And that means flooding that area with rescue resources because you've got to go get them. Or do you try to move them? Those are never easy decisions. And there's a mortality cost to both sides of it.

BUCHELE: But they are decisions public safety agencies can expect to face more in the future as climate change drives more rain and floods.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

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