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Rampant flooding leaves US nearly drought-free following wettest 12 months on record

AccuWeather logo AccuWeather 5/14/2019 chaffin.mitchell
Flood waters surround area businesses near the main breach in the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa on Friday, May 3. © KC McGinnis/For The Washington Post/Getty Images Flood waters surround area businesses near the main breach in the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa on Friday, May 3.

April showers brought May flowers and now the biggest drought relief in recent decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. The United States just had its wettest 12-month period in record history.

The rising floodwaters are also rising flood death numbers in 2019. At least 10 deaths were related to flooding in May thus far.

Parts of the south-central United States were hammered by severe weather and flash flooding this past week and will continue to face long-term river flooding through the rest of May and even into June.

In March, historic river flooding persisted throughout the north-central United States following a 'bomb cyclone' that struck the region. The storms triggered massive snowmelt and dropped heavy rain that have both overwhelmed rivers and waterways.

According to NWS statistics, this year has been a little bit busier than normal, so AccuWeather interviewed a meteorologist with the NWS about the flooding fatalities.

Todd Shea, warning coordination meteorologist with the La Crosse, Wisconsin NWS, said this year as a whole so far has been more active than normal.

"It's a lot of people driving around barricades, and it just seems like it's happening day after day after day. And I'm assuming that's because of the wet pattern that we've been in," Shea said.

Flooding and heat are both quieter weather-related killers that most people don't think pose much risk.

"The leading thunderstorm related killer is typically flash flooding. So when you start looking at the flood and flash flood deaths that we document, especially when you start adding in the hurricane season and the tropical influence of that, the numbers, the averages are into the 80s and some years we've had 120 to 140 fatalities," Shea said.

Whereas when you look at things like hurricanes or tornadoes, the number of fatalities can really vary from year to year, depending on how the season ends up.

"Unfortunately with flooding, it seems like that number stays pretty consistently high. So I know as part of what I do, and what we do as meteorologists, working with our emergency management officials, is of course trying to figure out solutions to solve this problem," Shea said.

Flooding claims on average 95 lives per year. So far, there have been 44 fatalities in 2019 already.

"A lot of times when we get into the tropical season, the numbers can really jump up. We saw that in the case of Houston and some of the hurricanes in the Carolinas. And so to have 43 or 44 fatalities already here through early to mid may is a little bit above schedule, above what the average would be for this time of year," Shea said.

Shea believes people underestimate the force of flowing water and they take the road they typically use instead of finding a different route. Instead of following the flooded route on your GPS system, it is better to find a safer route around the floodwaters.

"We've seen that too with cases of the school bus drivers, where that's their route, and they just - I wouldn't say almost blindly, but drive into high water because that is their route. So I think when it comes to solving this problem, we have to look at the social behavior, getting people out of that creatures of habit and always taking the same route," Shea said.

Shea said physical barriers are sometimes a must on some road closure areas, or low water crossings, to physically prevent people from making that mistake of driving into them.

Shea said they have had challenges with so much flooding.

"Unfortunately, you know, we had tremendous flash flooding in 2018 in parts of our area, and we were very lucky to go through that season without losing any lives. Yet this spring with the Mississippi River being as high as it's been, and of course that is a bigger story as it's worked its way south of here," Shea said.

"We did have an elderly woman that tried to ride out the flood in her house. Water surrounded her house, basically made it an island, and it sounds like she wandered off at night and unfortunately fell in the flood waters. But, otherwise, I think for our part of the area, we've been kind of on the lucky side," Shea said.

Shea said when it comes to flooding most people lose their lives driving into flood waters.

"It's interesting, when you look at the actual actions that people are taking, I've estimated going back to about 2010, that 90 percent of all these flood deaths are people that are going to water. So it's not 90 percent are all driving, but that is a big part of it. You also have a percentage of people that unfortunately walked into it, or somehow just maybe even, you know, we've seen cases of kayakers or boaters. But people going to the flood waters. It's a lot more rare for people just get swept away by a flash flood sitting at home or just standing still," Shea said.

"As a meteorologist, my advice would be to heed those warnings. Always stay on high ground when there is flood warnings. But if you come across a barricade, a road closed, or high water, some kind of warning sign, find a different route. Don't take the chance of going around those barricades. It's just better to be safe than sorry," Shea said.

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