What You Should Know About Floods

While the number of fatalities varies from year to year, in the United States floods on average kill approximately 127 people annually, making floods more deadly than tornadoes or hurricanes. Many of the fatalities are electrocutions or accidents that occur after the floodwaters have subsided, and car-related incidents are responsible for almost half of the deaths. Floods may strike the same region repeatedly, resulting in recurrent stress for individuals residing in those areas.

Although floods may not destroy buildings in the manner of tornadoes or hurricanes, the process of cleaning up mud- and mildew-filled houses can be emotionally overwhelming and fraught with health risks. Risks associated with the clean-up process include electrocution; infected skin wounds; injuries by wild animals; and illness from poor quality water, food, and indoor air. Cleaning one's home after a flood is an exhausting process, and this fatigue can lead to increased accidents. Losses in agricultural regions include livestock, crops, and farming equipment; thus, the secondary financial and emotional stresses associated with floods can last long after the waters subside. Learn more about floods at the National Weather Service's Flood Safety Awareness website.

Impact on Children and Families

Floods carry risks to psychological as well as physical health. Much of the research on the emotional impact of floods was conducted following the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood in Logan County, WV. In a town of 5,000 residents, 125 died and 4,000 lost their homes. The vast majority of family members surveyed continued to struggle with severe psychological symptoms up to two years after the flood.

When floods occur, children may witness anxiety and fear in usually confident parents and caregivers. They may see adults' best efforts fail to protect their homes. Children may lose pets, cherished memorabilia, and toys; they may not understand why parents must dispose of contaminated belongings during the clean-up process. Children may also experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or dead bodies. Adults may find it difficult to gauge the emotional impact of floods on children, who often hide their symptoms to avoid worrying them.

As with other natural disasters, there may be a spectrum of psychological responses. The condition of individuals with preexisting emotional and behavioral problems may be exacerbated if their support systems fail, they lack medications, and their routine is destabilized. Individuals may develop chronic emotional and behavioral problems following exposure to pervasive stresses, such as the loss of community infrastructure, of home or employment, or of family or friends. In addition, emotional exhaustion and physical wear and tear may delay the recovery of an individual or family. The severe disruption and stress that floods can cause in a household may lead to an increase in family dysfunction or a risk of abuse.

Children and adults frequently experience traumatic reminders, during which individuals will suddenly relive all the emotions, fears, thoughts, and perceptions they initially had at the time of the flood. Typical traumatic reminders are flood watches and warnings, the sudden onset of dark clouds, bolts of lightning, thunder, and rain.

Common emotional reactions of children and families exposed to a flood:

  • Increased feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair, worry about the future, and dread of a flood reoccurring
  • Reactions of distress and anxiety when reminded of the flood
  • Believing myths or folklore as to the cause of the flood
  • Disruptive behaviors, irritability, temper tantrums, agitation, or hyperactivity
  • Clinging-dependent behaviors, especially when separating from parents or caregivers
  • Avoiding people or situations
  • Irrational fears (phobias)
  • Disturbances in sleep or appetite
  • Somatic symptoms, such as stomachaches or headaches
  • Increased concerns regarding the safety of family members, friends, and loved ones
  • School-based problems, with decreased motivation and a decline in school performance


Adolescents may respond differently than younger children in a flood or other natural disaster. Some may come to believe they will not live long and may:
  • Withdraw socially
  • Become angry or irritable
  • Behave in risky ways
  • Have conflicts with authority


Additional Information

To see more material on floods, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs at the top of the page.



Readiness: Before a Flood

  • Being prepared before a flood is the best way to help children and family members recover after a flood. Develop a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) and make sure that all family members know what to do in case of a flood. [Also available in Armenian , Korean, Russian, Spanish , and Vietnamese.]
  • Make sure your plan that includes your pets, as most emergency shelters cannot take in animals.
  • Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit in a large backpack or duffel bag or an easy-to-carry covered trash container.
  • Make and carry a Family Preparedness Wallet Card (PDF) . [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.]
  • Give children factual information about floods in simple terms: 
    • The FEMA for Kids website contains kid-friendly flood information presented in an engaging manner.
    • The National Severe Storms Laboratory website has a free safety coloring book (PDF) for young children on thunderstorms that you can download.
  • Check to see if your homeowner's insurance covers flood damage and get flood insurance if needed.
  • Keep important documents and valuables in a safe-deposit box.
  • Write down and post in an accessible place the instructions for how to turn off utilities.
For more ways to protect your home before a flood, click on this link to visit the American Red Cross website. If you live in an area prone to floods or flashfloods, and there have been heavy rains or it has been raining for a couple of days, listen to the media for word of a flood watch.
In the Event of a Flood Watch

  • Fill your car's gas tank, in preparation for possible evacuation.
  • Move furniture, valuables, and heirlooms to higher floors of your house.
  • Explain the situation to your children and remind them of your Family Preparedness Plan.
  • Review all evacuation sites with your children and all household members.


In the Event of a Flood Warning

  • Continue to listen to local radio or TV stations for information and instructions and, when advised, evacuate to higher ground
  • When advised to do so, evacuate to higher ground.
  • Do not drive around barricades.
  • Secure all pets in crates, cages, or on leashes to take them with you.
  • If your car stalls in rising water, abandon it quickly and climb to higher ground.
  • Do not walk through flowing water that is more than ankle deep.


Response: Immediately after a Flood

Small children, pregnant women, and people who have health problems should avoid the flooded area until the cleanup is complete. During clean up of their home, families should do the following:
  • Keep electricity turned off until it is dry enough to be safe.
  • Keep children from playing around drainage ditches, storm drains, and flooded areas.
  • Discard any food or baby toys soaked by floodwaters.
  • Have all family members wash their hands frequently and thoroughly. If clean water is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to wash hands.
  • Drink only bottled water; public drinking water might be contaminated.
  • Watch out for reptiles, rodents, and other wildlife; use a stick to turn over fallen items.
  • Keep pets on leashes or in crates/cages to prevent them from running away or causing injury.
  • Be sensitive to the feelings children express about lost pets or toys that you must discard.
  • Dilute bleach before using it to clean, and do not mix it with other household cleaners.
  • Freeze soaked photographs, documents, and books until you have the time and emotional strength to deal with them.


Health officials warn parents that children should not play in floodwaters. They recommend that families sterilize anything exposed to floodwater. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the following guidelines for drinking water, cooking, and personal cleanliness after a flood:
  • Do not use contaminated water to wash dishes, brush teeth, wash and prepare food, wash hands, make ice, or make baby formula. If possible, use baby formula that does not need to have water added.
  • Use only bottled, boiled, or treated water. Boiling water for one minute will kill most bacteria and parasites. If using bottled water, be sure it came from a safe source. If in doubt, boil or treat it before use.
  • Pregnant women and infants younger than six months should not drink boiled water. Boiling may concentrate potentially harmful nitrates in the water.
  • If boiling is not possible, treat water with chlorine, iodine tablets, or unscented household chlorine bleach. If using household bleach, add 1/8 teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water if the water is clear. For cloudy water, add 1/4 teaspoon of bleach per gallon. Mix the solution thoroughly and let it stand for about 30 minutes before using it. However, treating water with chlorine, iodine tablets, or bleach will not kill parasitic organisms, so treated water should only be used for cleaning purposes, such as rinsing water containers or washing food cans before opening.
  • Do not allow family members to eat any food exposed to contaminated floodwater. Before opening undamaged food cans, discard the labels, wash the cans thoroughly, and disinfect them in a bleach solution.
  • Food will keep cool in a refrigerator without power for about four hours if the door is unopened. It is safe to eat thawed food if it is still cold, but if you have any doubt, it is best to throw it out. Discard any food that has been at room temperature for more than two hours or has an unusual odor.


You can find additional cleaning instructions and safety information at these websites:


Recovery: After a Flood

After a flood, most families will recover over time. The length of recovery will depend in part upon how frightening the flood was, if evacuation from home was necessary, the extent of the damage and loss, how well the family copes with postflood stresses, and the amount of support from family, school, community, and organizations. Some families will be able to return to their normal routine quickly, while others will have to contend with destruction to their home and possessions, obtaining medical care, or overcoming financial hardship. Children especially will need time to recover if they have lost a loved one or pet or if their school has closed.

The ways that parents and other caregivers cope during and after the flood influence children's functioning. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Parents and teachers should try to remain calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests. Children and adolescents do better when they understand the event they have just gone through.


Page Contents

NCTSN Resources

Psychological First Aid 
     >En Español [Primeros Auxilios Psicológicos - Guía de Operaciones Prácticas]

Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide for Community Religious Professionals

Coping with Unconfirmed Death

Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents 

Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event (8320) (PDF)

After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal (1163) (PDF)

Parents Tips for Helping Preschool-Aged Children after Disasters (2944) (PDF)

Parents Tips for Helping School-Aged Children after Disasters (2923) (PDF)

Tips for Parents on Media Coverage (2222) (PDF)

Brief Information on Childhood Traumatic Grief for School Personnel (PDF) (988)

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Children's Reactions

Children react differently to a flood and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a flood or any natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety or the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another flood will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the flood, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to reminders of the flood
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities


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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries, and that their reactions to the flood are normal. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once, and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the flood, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations. Your ability to cope during and after a disaster influences your child's recovery.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the flood or the resulting damage. Children may misinterpret what they hear and be unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from graphic depictions of the flood, including those on television, on the Internet, on the radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the floodwaters recede. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Give extra comfort if your child has lost a pet. When you help him/her mourn appropriately, you help the recovery process.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure children that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, healthy food, and safe drinking water. Be sure they have a balance of quiet times and physical activities.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities that unrelated to the flood, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Do not criticize children for changes in behavior, such as clinging to parents, acting out the flood in play, or seeking reassurance.
  • As everyone copes differently, learn what works for each person in the family. Help family members tolerate these differences.
  • Be extra patient once children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The flood may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over), or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through even the most challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the flood.
  • Keep in contact with your child's teacher and other adult caregivers about your child's experiences and reactions to the flood.


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Therapy for Children

If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the flood, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems and prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the flood

Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the flood

  • Problem-solving and anger management skills as needed
  • Help to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections


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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and other caregivers should take time to talk together and provide support as needed.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any unnecessary life-altering decisions during this stressful postflood period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo clean-up activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by floods, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the floods, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the floods, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by the flood, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:

  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other so they can address important personal/family issues.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo clean-up activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any unnecessary life-altering decisions during this stressful, postflood period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many flood-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.


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