Why More Men Die in Floods

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Joe Raedle / Getty

A resident of Oakville, Iowa, gazes out his garage door at rising floodwaters in his front yard

In the floods that have swamped the U.S. this month, at least 12 people have been killed. Nine of them were men: in Iowa, three men, ages 33, 35 and 50, died in the floods; three middle-aged men perished in Indiana; Wisconsin, West Virginia and Minnesota lost one man each.

The ratio, it turns out, is typical for storms. Men are more likely than women to die in floods, year after year, all over the country. A study of U.S. thunderstorm-related deaths from 1994 to 2000 found that men were more than twice as likely to die than women. Of the 1,442 fatalities, 70% were men, according to research by Thomas Songer at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. Most of the deaths happened outside the home during flash floods or lightning strikes. That is partly because men are more likely to be outside for their jobs. But men are also more likely to take risks of all kinds — which can be a fatally bad idea in ugly weather.

Most storm deaths happen the same way: people drown when they try to drive or walk through floodwater. The brain is not very good at assessing the depth and strength of water on a road. Water can hide dips and valleys, making the path look smooth and shallow when it is not. And the brain is even worse at assessing the risk of anything that appears to be familiar or within control — like driving a car in the rain. To add to the general cognitive confusion, flash floods can happen quickly, without any warning at all.

Lightning is another very common, very deadly — and very underappreciated — natural hazard. Men are more likely to die from lightning partly because, in addition to their riskier occupations and behaviors, they are more likely to be outside playing or watching sports, Songer found.

On June 15, a 43-year-old Wisconsin man drove around ROAD CLOSED signs and hit a washout, according to news reports. He was pronounced dead at the scene. In Indiana, two men died in separate incidents this month after their cars were swept away — and they tried to walk home.

Of the 12 deaths across the country this summer, eight involved people driving in floodwaters. Two of those victims were women. (The total number of flood deaths this season will probably turn out to be higher than 12, but the Federal Government does not yet have complete figures. This number was compiled by TIME through interviews with county emergency managers as well as a review of local media reports. It does not include tornado deaths.)

Floods are extremely common all over the country and getting more common in many places. The good news is that we understand how to reduce the odds of dying in one. So what can men (and women) do to override their brain's blind spots? The simplest solution is to stay inside. But if you do find yourself out in flood conditions, here are some survival strategies:

— Don't be deceived by water that looks shallow. Six inches (15 cm) of water will reach the bottom of most cars and can cause stalling and loss of control, according to FEMA. A foot of water will float many cars, and two feet of moving water can carry away most vehicles — including SUVs and pickup trucks. In other words, if you can turn around, do it.

— If floodwaters do rise around your car, leave the car and move to higher ground ...

— ... Unless you don't know the depth of the water or if you are in moving water. In those cases, stay in the car and wait for help.

— If you must walk through water, walk where the water is not moving. Even ankle-high water, if it is moving, can make you fall. Use a stick to check the depth and firmness of the ground in front of you.

— If you do get swept into a fast current, don't fight it, according to the U.S. Army Survival Manual. In fast, shallow water, swim on your back, feet first. Keep your feet up to avoid hitting debris or getting pulled under.

Senior writer Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, a new book about human behavior in disasters