Flooding from Wednesday's rains on State of Franklin Road. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
As emergency rescuers were leading stranded drivers through waist-deep water last week after a heavy downpour caused flooding throughout Johnson City, other motorists drove past barricades and emergency vehicles to drive through that same water.
Dan Wheeley, executive director of Washington County/ Johnson City EMS, and Chad Bruckman, training and operations manager for the Emergency Management Agency, said those motorists put themselves and emergency workers in danger.
Those drivers also broke state law, which says anyone who disregards a flood barricade commits reckless driving, officials said.
“We had 11 people we had to get out of cars on Broadway,” during the flooding Wednesday, Wheeley said. “There was one car actually floating.”
But even with three emergency vehicles parked across the road with the emergency lights flashing, other motorists drove on around and into the same water that had cars stranded.
Wheeley said floods kill more people annually than other severe weather events and most of those are due to people driving through water covering roads.
“A foot of water will move a car if the water is moving fast enough,” he said. “Our goal is to educate the public on the dangers. The perception I get is we’re inconveniencing people” when emergency personnel block water-covered roads.
Bruckman said rain like that which fell last week puts a lot of water on the ground, and when creeks and storm drains can’t handle the flow, the water takes the path of least resistance.
“One inch of water in one square mile is 17 and a half million gallons of water,” Bruckman said. On Wednesday, two inches fell in 15 minutes.
“That’s a whole bunch of water,” Bruckman said.
He said it’s not only dangerous to drive through flood water, but also to attempt walking through it. One example from last week’s flooding was a man in Carter County who tried to help someone cross through the rushing water and he was swept off his feet.
The man fell and was dragged into a culvert. He was pushed through to the other end, but Bruckman said it could have been a different story if the man had become stuck.
Johnson City police had to force a Broadway Street business owner away from a storm drain she was trying to clear of debris. Bruckman and Wheeley said it’s dangerous to try to clear a drain because a person can get pulled into it.
“Those can go for miles before they open up,” Bruckman said.
As soon as the rain stopped Wednesday, the flood water receded pretty quickly.
“It went away just as quick as it came up,” Wheeley said. And that created another danger from water being sucked back down into storm drains or drainage culverts.
If water is standing because of blocked drains and that blockage is cleared, the water will create a sudden suction. EMS Capt. Brad Gerfin compared it to pulling the plug on a bathtub filled with water.
“Put your hand at the drain and what does it do? It sucks your hand down,” he said.
Wheeley said people need to be aware of the dangers of floods and the power of rushing flood water.
Another thing for motorists to remember during a storm, according to Johnson City Police Officer Jim Tallmadge, is how to treat a traffic light intersection when the power is out.
“Anytime someone approaches an intersection that is normally controlled by a traffic light and the power is out, it should be treated as a four-way stop,” Tallmadge said.
If one direction has a flashing red light, traffic should come to a complete stop and make sure it’s clear before proceeding. Traffic that approaches a flashing yellow light should slow down to make sure the intersection is clear and then proceed with caution, Tallmadge said.
“I did see a lot of people that were doing it right on Wednesday,” Tallmadge said, but there were also motorists who did not follow the law for inoperable traffic lights.
“When manpower and calls for service allow, we will put officers at those intersections,” he said.