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Wettest 12-month period on record leaves US nearly drought-free amid rampant flooding

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
May 14, 2019, 8:31:58 AM EDT

The continental United States just recorded its wettest 12-month period in recorded history, while also moving one step closer to being drought-free, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

April showers helped ease drought conditions further, with only 2 percent of the U.S. experiencing some level of drought.

While the drought relief is welcome in some areas, the wet weather has resulted in disastrous flooding for many communities across the country.

The rising floodwaters are contributing to an increase in flood fatalities in 2019. At least 10 deaths were attributed to flooding in May thus far, according to the National Weather Service.

Flooding claims an average of 95 lives per year. Through the first five months of 2018, there were 19 flood-related deaths; so far in 2019 there have already been 44 fatalities.


Water levels in New Orleans had risen to flood many of the city's streets by Sunday morning.


Floodwaters approach homes as water levels rise in New Orleans.


A New Orleans street flooded after intense rainfall and flooding across the city.


Residents of New Orleans woke up to flood waters creeping towards their houses on Mother's Day morning.


Water overruns the streets of New Orleans on Mother's Day morning.


Mid-City street in New Orleans flooded after receiving rainfall on the morning of May 12, 2019.


Nearly knee-high waters reached parts of New Orleans by Mother's Day morning.


Residents in New Orleans woke up to several inches of floodwaters near their homes on Sunday morning.


Residents of New Orleans woke up to flooding on Sunday morning.


New Orleans receives a reminder Sunday morning to not attempt to drive through flood waters.


Continuous rainfall encouraged flooding in New Orleans Sunday morning.


The New Orleans Police Department warned against driving in flood waters Sunday morning.


Flood waters creep closer to homes in New Orleans on Sunday morning.

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.

Todd Shea, warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS office in La Crosse, Wisconsin, 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 in an interview with meteorologist Brittany Boyer for the AccuWeather Network.

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

Nebraska flood 3-2019

Much of Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska, where the US Strategic Command and the 557th Weather Wing and 55th Wing are located, was underwater amid the rising floodwaters. (Twitter / Offutt AFB)

"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.

When it comes to other types of weather like hurricanes or tornadoes, the number of fatalities can vary significantly 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.

"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 [mindset] 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.

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"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 floodwaters. But, otherwise, I think for our part of the area, we’ve been kind of on the lucky side," he said.

When it comes to flooding, most people lose their lives heading into floodwaters, according to Shea. He's estimated that since about 2010, about 90 percent of flood fatalities are due to people going towards water, whether it's driving a car, walking or getting in a kayak or boat.

"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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