International lab studies rising fatalities in Texas' flash flood alley

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by Jared Silverman / KENS 5

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kens5.com

Posted on November 21, 2009 at 11:05 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 21 at 7:42 PM

It is arguably the worst of all natural disasters, killing more people every year than any other hazard, and it happens often, right here in Texas. The National Weather Service says flash flooding is responsible for an average of 100 deaths per year in the United States. But the number of fatalities has been rising recently, while the death count from other disasters, such as hurricanes and lightning, have been steadily decreasing. 

Why is that?

That is the million dollar question that spawned the new International Flash Flood Laboratory (IFFL). This international lab is right up the road, or rather, right up our alley.

"Texas State University (TSU) is very uniquely situated, right in the middle of 'flash flood alley'", said Dr. Pam Showalter, TSU professor and Director of IFFL.

In fact, 'flash flood alley' runs right through San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Austin, and all the way up to Dallas.
Our region has been identified by the National Weather Service as the most flash-flood prone area in the U.S.

Which is why the IFFL is located at Texas State University. At the lab they are trying to reduce the number of flash flood fatalities.

The IFFL will now serve as the central source for flood data collection.

Just weeks ago, they played host to more than 30 state and federal agencies, each of which holds important information that can be used for research. Together they hope to prevent these types of flood-related accidents from happening.

"Just look at the numbers of flooded vehicles that are on the road on an annual basis," Showalter points out. "The number is in the hundreds of thousands. How are they getting so wet?"

Flood experts say these are some of the reasons why:
- Central Texas is more susceptible to flash flood events than anywhere else in the U.S.
-Texas holds six out of twelve world-record 24-hour rainfall rates.
-Texas leads the nation in flood-related damages almost every year.

We also lead the nation in the number of flood-related deaths almost every year. About 80 percent of those happen in vehicles, and the number continues to grow for many reasons.

"You have basic population growth, then you have a larger number of people in cars. You have building new roads, so more roads have the potential to go under water. You have development taking place upstream, which causes more water to run off at a higher velocity," says Showalter.

In the meantime, the best preventative advise still is "Turn around, don't drown."

"I keep thinking about why does the chicken cross the road, and keep telling people don't be a chicken. Don't drive across the road," says  Showalter. "In many cases people didn't have a good reason to be in that water. These are fatalities that did not have to occur."

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