After years of severe drought, most of California’s reservoirs are now full and the snowpack is, in places, exceeding record levels set in 1983. A major storm drenched Southern California on February 17 before shifting to the north. Heavy rains are expected to continue, hitting different areas of the state, for as long as the La Niña weather pattern holds. Longstanding drought conditions have been lifted, at least temporarily, throughout much of the state.
But all of this good news has its downside, in the form of flash floods, mudslides, and downed trees and power lines. Residents and businesses in areas at risk of flooding are subject to periodic evacuation orders.
It’s been a while since most Californians had to worry about natural damages caused by anything other than earthquakes or wildfires, so here’s a review of safety advice for wet, stormy weather. Use it for yourself, and share it with your employees.
During the Storm
When storm conditions prevail, pay attention to flash flood warnings and especially to evacuation orders. If you must go out in flash-flood or high-wind conditions, observe these precautions:
- Don’t drive through flood waters. It’s hard to tell how deep flood waters are before you’re in them, and the road underneath may be severely damaged. In Southern California, flooded roadways claimed at least one life—rescue workers found a deceased person in a submerged car. Sink holes and lane failures claimed cars and even a fire truck. Local authorities will close impassable roads—but that won’t help drivers who happen to be first on the scene. Play it safe: if you can’t see the roadway, don’t go in the water.
- Watch out for downed trees and power lines. Waterlogged ground and high winds can topple trees and power lines. If you see downed trees, there may be downed power lines as well. Always assume that power lines are live unless you have positive assurance to the contrary, and keep a safe distance (at least 10 feet) away. If a flooded area may be in contact with downed lines, stay out of the water.
When the weather clears
When there’s a break in the storm, when the evacuation order has lifted, when the water has receded a bit, you’ll want to get out and inspect your home and business, start cleaning up any messes and repairing any damage. The safety precautions above still apply—especially the warning about downed power lines—but here are some additional precautions that apply during cleanup:
- Secure your site. In the wake of a storm—especially one that has resulted in voluntary or mandatory evacuations—thieves and looters may see an opportunity, so the first safety priority is to secure your site against unauthorized intrusion. This not only minimizes the risk of theft, but protects you against potential liability in the event of injury to trespassers.
- Know who’s working for you. When there’s storm damage to clean up, communities will often work together until things are set right. If the disaster is bad enough, people from out of the area may come to help. For your business, that may mean that you have volunteers who are not part of your regular workforce helping you clear debris. Make sure that everyone who is working on your site has appropriate training and gear.
- Review equipment safety. People who don’t frequently use generators, chain saws, winches, and similar equipment may pick them up in the wake of a storm. Go over how to safely use this equipment before everyone jumps in to clear that tree or haul that wrecked car out of the ditch.
- Wear your work clothes. Business suits and high heels have no function in storm cleanup operations. Storms can cause damage that leaves broken and jagged edges exposed, so wear work boots, work gloves, and appropriate protective clothing when you’re clearing storm debris.
- Protect your health. Chemical and biological hazards may crop up in the wake of storms and flooding. Flood waters and debris may be contaminated with hazardous materials, including chemicals and animal wastes, and buildings that have suffered any amount of flooding may be at risk of mold damage afterward. Know what is on your site, and on any sites upstream, that could cause a hazard for you and your workers, and provide appropriate information and protective gear.