What to do if you get trapped in your car by flash flooding

CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A Cabell County woman died after floodwaters swept the car she was in into a creek Thursday night in the Green Valley Road area just outside of Huntington. Just weeks before, a woman in Clendenin was on the phone with 911 while water rose inside her car until she drowned.

In the wake of the recent flood-related tragedies in West Virginia, we asked emergency officials what you should do if you find yourself trapped in your car in flash flooding.

"In moving water, there is no set standard," said Steve Murray, deputy director at Cabell EMS. "You're going to have to remain calm because things are going to happen very quickly."

Firstly, Murray wanted to reinforce the point that people should avoid high water at all costs. You should never attempt to drive through water, no matter how shallow you think it is.

It only takes about 6 inches of water to make your car float, he says, which in many cases, is barely above the bottom of the rim on your tire.

"Please don't drive in standing water, moving water or any water," said Murray. "Regardless of the message, every time there's standing water, cars go in. And unfortunately, we had loss of life last night due to that."

Murray says there's no protocol for what to do if you get trapped because moving water with flash flooding, as opposed to standing water like a typical lake, is unpredictable.

You can also have as little as two minutes to escape before water overwhelms your car.

"It's powerful, it's unforgiving,and it's relentless," Murray said. "It's going to keep coming."

He says you have to assess the situation and decide what the best plan of action is and what you're comfortable with doing. You can stay with your car, he says, or get out and try to swim to safety. There are risks to both as this is always a dangerous situation.

If you decide to stay put, he says to try to get on the roof of your car. However, you have to do this quickly before water rises and you can no longer open the door from the inside.

"If you choose to get out of the vehicle and you climb to the highest part of your vehicle, stay there until rescuers get to you," said Murray.

You can also decide to leave your car, but there is always a chance the current could overpower you.

"If you find yourself swept away, remember defensive swimming position," said Murray. "In defensive swimming position, we want you to keep your head pointed upstream, keep your feet pointed downstream that way you can see the obstacles as they come to you."

He said obstacles are things like guardrails, trees and debris. He says you should not grab on to these items because most times they will not help you stay afloat. In fact, they can do just the opposite.

The forceful water rushing around the object could pin you up against it and you can't get to safety.

"Stay away from guardrails, stay away from downed trees, things like that because it allows water over it and under it, but as soon as you hit the guardrail, you're going to fold up over it and under it," Murray said. "Then the force of that water's going to keep you pinned to that item and as that water continues to rise, then your head's going to go under and you lose the ability to breathe."

Instead, he says use your feet to push yourself away from those objects. That's why your feet should be pointing downstream.

Murray says you also have to keep in mind, you don't know what's below the surface. You may try to drive through shallow-looking water, but the road could be washed away underneath.

Another big issue is with storm drains. Murray says the water can even appear to be still, but the drain could have opened up below the water and acts as a deadly vacuum.

"As the storm sewer grate pops off, the water then sucks back down," said Murray. "Now, the water may not be moving 'cause it's standing in a viaduct, but there's a storm sewer there that can suck you in."

He says people have died from being sucked into a storm drain in the past in Cabell County.

They are routinely worried about the viaducts, as well as the 3rd and 5th Ave. areas of Huntington flooding, Murray says.

Above all, he says many of these dangerous situations can easily be avoided.

"The best option is not to find yourself in that situation," Murray said. "Don't drive through high water."

In addition to giving tips for drivers, Murray also gave advice for people who witness the entrapment and want to help.

Thursday night on Green Valley Road, several people inside of Bozhi's Gym Nest noticed a car wasn't moving and ran out to help. They waded into the water with sturdy gymnastics ropes tied around their waists.

They were able to pull two family members from the car, but could not reach the third. Sherry Wysong was killed, but her family survived because of the bravery of the helpers.

Despite that bravery, Murray says people should never voluntarily go into rushing floodwater, or rely on a rope to bring them back out. What can happen is something emergency responders call "porpoising" which he says is when the rope ends up dragging the person back below the water.

"The people last night that saved the lives of those individuals are heroes and we applaud them," Murray said. "We train by the notion of we don't want our protocol to say by the grace of God things happened. Last night, by the grace of God, more people weren't killed by putting those rescuers or those lay rescuers in the water."

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