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Why You Shouldn’t Swim in Flood Water & Other Safety Tips

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Santa Cruz, CA. 1//4/2023

BY CAMERON FLETCHER

I used to work as a diver. Years ago, I’d scrape the ghost shrimp, crustacea, and other
arthropods off of all the little boats in Sausalito until my arms couldn’t take anymore. One day
at work, after a particularly nasty spat of storm activity, I climbed out of the water and was
confronted by a concerned boat owner.

“Excuse me, did you see the new sign?” He politely asked.

“Huh?”

And he pointed to a hastily erected sign at the dock entrance.

“CAUTION: RAW SEWAGE ALERT”

Oh! How delightful! I had all but suppressed this memory until the recent deluge that has saturated the Bay Area
this last week.

Viral videos emerged of surfers paddling down the street in San Francisco, a boy
tubing down East Oakland, and however many more people splashing through the flooding like
a day at the water park.

So, this might be a good time to take stock of just what’s in the water
that will surely fill the streets again this week, with a historic storm heading
into town that has, as of Tuesday, been upgraded to the highest category: Level 5 storm.

According to the CDC, floodwaters carry a high risk of contaminants from a number of harmful
substances, such as human and animal waste, industrial and household chemical runoff,
arsenic, chromium, mercury, rats, and snakes. Exposure to these could leave one facing the
most undesirable of maladies: wound infection, skin rash, tetanus, a bout of E. coli, and for the
truly unlucky: leptospirosis (a bacterial blood infection that can result in meningitis or
pulmonary bleeding). To make matters worse, any loose, sharp objects such as used needles or
broken car window glass may also be present. In short, floodwater is nasty business.

If for some reason you do find yourself forced to wade through this, there are several ways to
mitigate the risks. For starters, cover any open wounds with a waterproof bandage. If exposure
does occur, thoroughly clean the wound, and even better, clean any part of the body that
encountered the water. Remain alert to any signs of infection, and it never hurts to check with
your provider on the status of your tetanus vaccination. More information can be found at
cdc.gov.

The National Weather Service is predicting a storm in size that will deliver significant damage
and disruption to the Bay Area, so it is also advisable to take other precautions, especially as it
relates to driving. ABC Meteorologist Drew Tuma warns on Twitter:

Additionally, NWS states: “Forecast rainfall over already saturated soils will result in widespread
flooding impacts region-wide. Of greatest concern will be the flooding of rivers, creeks,
streams, and other low-lying and flood-prone locations. This will also result in extensive street
flooding in portions of the Bay Area and Central Coast. Additionally, these conditions will also
lead to an increased threat of widespread shallow landslides. Thus, a Flood Watch also remains
in effect through the duration of this event.”

Needless to say, submerged driving conditions are to be expected, and this can often result in
travel hiccups such as being swept out to sea. It is near impossible to gauge just exactly how
deep flood water is, and it takes a surprisingly little amount to sweep a car away, which, unless
your Honda has a rudder, is an unfortunate scenario. The majority of flood-related
casualties are a result of miscalculating depth, and according to the National Weather Service it
only takes a mere 12 inches of fast-moving water to carry away a sedan, and 2 feet for most
SUVS. Water can be surprisingly deceptive.

Take for instance in Los Angeles during severe storm weather in December 2021, three cars
were casually removed without permission from their parking space in Downtown. Not from a
tow truck or theft, but a torrent of floodwater passing through, and one of them was last seen
crumpled along a pier several miles away. Luckily, they were unoccupied. But this situation is
surprisingly more common than one might think, and can often have deadly outcomes.

Do not take this as alarmist, or that I’m hinting you begin preparations of a will before the
storm reaches landfall. The dangers of flash floods present more in areas near lakes and rivers
with rugged terrain and lack of infrastructure. So, if you live in Nob Hill, you can probably feel at
ease. The real point of this, however, is just a friendly reminder to slow down.

California drivers have many nostalgic pastimes, and crashing into each other is at the top of
the list. And that’s on a clear day. The deep-standing freeway water will amplify the risk of
hydroplaning by multitudes, so I implore you, dear reader, to drive as if your Grandmother is in
the backseat holding a crock-pot filled to the brim with her famous chili.

Lastly, as Grandmothers love to say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So as a
Californian it’s always advisable to have a “go-bag” in case you must leave with an extreme
sense of urgency, be this in the case of a fire, flood, or surprise visit from the in-laws. It’s also
prudent to sign up for emergency broadcast alerts through your community, be prepared for
road closures, fill up your gas tank, have batteries charged, and extra food, check your insurance
policies, and document the current state of your property for reference.

If you have elderly loved ones, ensure they have medical buffering for any power outages.
And please, promise me that you won’t go wakeboarding down Hwy 1.

Stay safe out there.


More safety tips can be found at:
www.weather.gov/safety/flood

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