Flood deaths, narrow escapes spur calls to avoid water-covered routes

A car that attempted to pass through a water-covered road sits submerged in a ditch near Broadway and 103rd Street South. (Sept. 9, 2016)
A car that attempted to pass through a water-covered road sits submerged in a ditch near Broadway and 103rd Street South. (Sept. 9, 2016) File photo

“It’s filling up with water! We’re about to drown!”

Those words came from a terrified woman who had called 911 from near Harry and Rock Road on the night of Sept. 9. Floodwaters had swept the Dodge Charger she was in off the street.

“Our car is in a canal, and we’re upside-down filling up with water. … Please hurry! Please!” she pleaded, breaking into sobs.

Firefighters were able to rescue her and her brother 30 minutes after a woman in her 60s was rescued by boat from a submerged car at Second and Bleckley.

“I’m going to drown! Help me!” the woman anxiously told a 911 dispatcher prior to being saved.

A slow-moving storm system brought heavy rains to Sedgwick County on Thursday night, Sept. 8, 2016, prompting flash flood warnings throughout south-central Kansas. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

Flooding dangers are receiving added emphasis in severe weather identification classes this spring across Kansas. Flooding kills more people than any other type of severe weather on an annual basis, weather officials say.

As Severe Weather Awareness Week is observed in Kansas next week, authorities say it’s a good time to reflect on how dangerous flooding can be.

Last year offered painful reminders of that fact, officials said.

▪ Devon Cooley, 11, was swept away by a rain-swollen Gypsum Creek in south Wichita in May. His body was found a week later.

▪ Richard Lowery, 62, of Wichita drowned when his truck was swept off a rural Butler County road by floodwaters on the night of Aug. 19. His son survived.

▪ Bobby Morris 58, of Lenora drowned after his vehicle was swept off a rural Norton County road on Sept. 3. Two companions survived by clinging to a tree.

On the same night Lowery was killed, Cassandra Phillips and her 3-year-old son, Ethan, survived flash flooding south of Rose Hill. Phillips clung desperately to her young son and a tree until rescuers arrived.

‘Enough … to last us for a long time’

The deaths and narrow escapes provide a tragic reminder of how dangerous it can be to drive on water-covered streets and roads, authorities said.

“We do not need a repeat of last year,” said Keri Korthals, assistant manager for Butler County Emergency Management. “That was enough flooding to last us for a long time.”

While tornadoes and hurricanes get most of the attention, flooding kills more people each year in the U.S. than any other form of severe weather, statistics show.

“People just don’t realize how dangerous it can be,” said Dan Pugh, Sedgwick County Emergency Management director.

Wichita fire Capt. Chris Conover echoed Pugh’s perspective.

“Most of these people put themselves in these situations because they think they can drive through high water and then their vehicles stall out,” he said in an e-mail response to questions.

But the rescue at Second and Bleckley on Sept. 9 was different, he said.

“They were driving on Bleckley in water that was not even that high when they were basically hit with a flash flood,” he said. “The water rose very high and became very violent in a matter of minutes. They could have very easily been washed away or killed. That is how fast it can happen.”

‘It’s unrivaled power’

Heavy rain at night can be especially deceiving because it can trigger flash flooding that turns familiar routes into death traps, said Korthals, the Butler County official.

“You’re not entirely focused on what you’re doing” because the drive has always been routine, she said. “The headlights are reflecting off the water, and you’re not sure what’s going on until you’re driving into the water.

“The environment is what throws a lot of people off.”

Wichita Fire Rescue Capt. Brent Holman recalled the flash flood on the Kansas Turnpike in 2003 that killed six people, including five members of one family. Driving in a slashing rainstorm in the dark, the Rogers family didn’t realize water was covering the turnpike until it was too late to avoid it. They were swept into Jacob Creek, with only the father surviving.

“We need to get the word out before the spring rains on the dangers of swift water,” Holman said in a Facebook message responding to questions. “It’s unrivaled power.”

People are commonly fooled by that, Korthals said.

“They think, ‘It’s just rainwater, how can it be that bad?’ ” she said.

So much water was rushing over the rural Butler County road where Richard Lowery was swept to his death that “you could hear the roar of the rush of the water,” Korthals said. “You couldn’t really compute how bad it was unless you could see it.”

Motorists don’t realize or don’t believe that it takes remarkably little water to sweep their vehicle off a road – even big trucks.

“A lot of people think, ‘I’m in a truck, so I can make it,’ ” said Pugh, the Sedgwick County official. “It doesn’t matter how high your clearance is.”

It takes only 6 inches of moving water to knock someone off their feet and 2 feet of moving water to sweep a vehicle off a road.

No matter how many times officials recite the phrase “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” people continue to plow into flooded streets and roads.

“Every year – we see it every year,” Pugh said. “Some people just take it for granted” that nothing bad will happen.

“All it takes is once.”

254 Productions shot aerial drone footage of Highway 81 near Belle Plaine on September 11, 2016. The road is underwater with the Ninnescah River out of its banks.