Flooded Roadways: Don’t Try It!

Originally published 4/14/13

Experienced drivers know this, but there are thousands of new young drivers taking to the road every year. When you see a flooded road ahead, forget it. It does not matter if you are running late. What matters is that you see tomorrow. 
Stay out of the water, and stay alive.

Lots of people think a car is heavy and that it ought to make it through shallow water. Well, yes, it is kind of heavy. But it is also hollow, and quite buoyant. It will start to float in surprisingly shallow water. And when it does that, you could be in a heap of trouble. Even if you get out of the car, fast moving knee deep water is almost impossible to get through to safety. The owner of this car was very lucky.

In this area, we have a lot of hills, a lot of woods, and a lot of little streams. That is part of the charm of living in Virginia’s Piedmont. Decades ago, the streams stayed pretty calm when it rained. There was lots of spongy forest floors to soak up the overflow. However, as the area has grown up, with lots more roads, parking lots, and new roofs to shed the rain water, the forests are getting overwhelmed, and the creeks now rise much faster and higher when the skies¬†open up.

When that happens, even a little stream that you usually can cross with one step can become a disaster area. Case in point, Old Courthouse Road at Besley, shown in these photos. Normally, Wolftrap Creek easily goes under the road, even during the worst of storms. But fast moving currents can float deadwood out of the forests, which will pile up against the culvert. The bigger logs stop smaller branches, which in turn stop brush, vines and leaves, and within minutes a critical situation can develop. Of course at that point, nothing can be done to clear the problem. First the stream needs to return to normal.

Who clears the culverts? If you are within Vienna, generally it is the town. If the road bears a state highway designation, it is the Virginia Department of Transportation. Otherwise, it is Fairfax County.

It is not practical for road crews to stop to examine every culvert they cross, and culvert intakes are not usually visible from the road. Governments do encourage the citizens to report on problems. In the case of the Old Courthouse situation, the photo above was emailed to VDOT and crews cleared it the next day before the heavy rain hit.