“Turn around, don’t drown!”
Yesterday was an exciting day. I had tickets to see Hamilton with a friend in Des Moines and was beyond excited. I listened (and sang along) to the cast album in the car under sunny skies all the way on the long trip from home. The performance did not disappoint, and it was on a high note that my friend and I made our way back to the house. On the way home, the sky was clouding over a bit, but there was not much indication of the perfect (perfectly awful) situation that was about to brew with the weather.
As we chatted about the show and fixed supper, it started to storm. It was a typical thunderstorm, with torrents of rain and a lot of thunder and lightning. Our conversation and attention revolved mainly around the dogs, sensing their anxiety and watching their reaction to the loud thundering noise. Although the storm lasted for quite a long time and various warnings came across in the media, we didn’t pay much mind. After all, it is summer in Iowa, and especially this month storms are pretty common.
After a time, I thought I should head for home. I could tell from the radar that once I left Des Moines and went south a little bit, I would be completely in the clear with the rain. I wanted to make some of the trip in the little bit of light that was left, so I headed out. There were still thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, but nothing seemed that unusual.
But as soon as I left the townhouse complex, I knew I was in trouble. The right side of the road was puddling pretty quickly, and my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the rain, even on high speed. I leaned to the left a little bit and realized the left side of the road was accumulating water just as quickly. Then as soon as I started to worry, the road went up a little incline and I was fine. I shook my head and considered my options. Without being too familiar with that area in a rainstorm, I wondered if that was just a low spot where water accumulated a little. I really didn’t want to turn around and go back through it, although part of me wondered if I should just stay put for the night and make the trip home in the morning. By then I had come to a stoplight, and other cars were slowly making their way around me, so I shook it off and turned to the left.
As soon as I rounded the corner I was in trouble. I was in the water before I saw it. There was no chance to “turn around, don’t drown”, and no warning to stop or think about whether I should try to proceed or not. I was in deep water. A lot of thoughts went through my head, including thinking my car would be swept away and picturing being rescued from the roof. To my left, another driver was stranded–the water up to his headlights. Yelling for help at the top of my lungs, I slowly kept going, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. I expected my car to stop at any moment and I fully panicked at the thought. It was the worst scenario I could have imagined.
I have no words to explain how I managed to get through that water. I steadily kept going and then I was out of it and on firm pavement. There was a man with a flashlight who had come out of his house and was frantically trying to stop other people who couldn’t see the danger ahead. He told me not to go any further because the next intersection was even worse than what I had just gone through. He didn’t need to tell me twice because I was completely shaken and ready to be done with driving. Fortunately, there was a small college up just ahead with a side road leading to it, so I carefully pulled over onto the side under a streetlight and tried to gather my emotions and thoughts.
I learned several lessons last night. First of all, I realize many people largely pay less attention to flash flood warnings than other types of warnings–myself included. And for the most part, people are aware of areas that flood easily during bad weather. However, the northern part of Ankeny, where I was driving, was under a deluge that resulted in TEN INCHES of rain falling within three hours. The roads and intersections that flooded had never done so before. There was not a river nearby. No one could have anticipated the flooding that occurred, and many drivers were caught unaware. First lesson–pay attention to warnings and be aware of road conditions as best as possible before venturing out. Second lesson–thunderstorms make things dark. Was there a streetlight out on that corner? I don’t remember. But I know I did not see the water until I was in it and becoming submerged. In the dark, it’s best to stay where you are until the rainstorm is over. And third lesson–pay attention to the radar. If I had checked more carefully, I may have been alarmed by the fact that wave after wave of heavy rain was aimed right over Ankeny with almost no end in sight. I don’t know if that would have translated to thinking seriously about flooding, but it was another indicator that something wasn’t normal about this summer rainstorm after all.
My story had a happy ending. I was able to make it out of the deep water without my car stalling. I didn’t have to be rescued or leave my car in water. I found a safe place to park and was able to call friends and family for help. There was even a kind lady traveling with her dog who pulled in behind me and was just as frightened, but just as glad to have someone to talk to. In the end, I had only traveled a mile from my friend’s house. She dressed head to toe in waterproof gear and came for me on foot. My friend, the lady and her dog, and I walked the mile back to the townhouse complex through the wet soggy yards and I had a dry, safe place to sleep. Upon retrieving my car in the morning, it was in perfect running order and none the worse for its trip through the floodwaters.
Not everyone was so fortunate. There were cars abandoned that looked to be quite damaged. There were people wandering through yards and down streets trying to help others or figure out how to get home themselves. And one man lost his life when his car stalled in the floodwaters and he tried to escape. All of those facts weigh heavily on my mind when I think about my own experience and how easily there could have been a different outcome. I have no doubt that I was guided through those waters, and I am very grateful. I will always think differently before driving during a thunderstorm and be much more aware of the situation as it develops. This was an emergency that took the whole community by surprise. People were immediately out in the storm helping each other and supporting those who were in trouble. There were a lot of lessons to be learned last night, and the cost was high for many people, homes, and businesses. Pay attention–more than you think you might have to. Don’t take safety for granted. Keep a level head and freak out afterwards. Look for people who might help you and then help someone else along the way. And don’t live under the illusion that you will always have time to stop and turn around so you don’t drown. Summer storms can be beautiful, amazing, powerful, and very dangerous all at the same time. I’ll drive differently during them now, and I hope you will, too.