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Flooding is an overflowing of water onto land that is normally dry. Floods can happen during heavy rains, when ocean waves come on shore, when snow melts too fast, or when dams or levees break. Flooding may happen with only a few inches of water, or it may cover a house to the rooftop. They can occur quickly or over a long period and may last days, weeks, or longer. Floods are the most common and widespread of all weather-related natural disasters.
A river flood occurs when water levels rise over the top of river banks due to excessive rain from tropical systems making landfall, persistent thunderstorms over the same area for extended periods of time, combined rainfall and snowmelt, or an ice jam.
A coastal flood, or the inundation of land areas along the coast, is caused by higher than average high tide and worsened by heavy rainfall and onshore winds (i.e., wind blowing landward from the ocean). Places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, experience impacts from shallow coastal flooding several times a year because of coastal development and lower elevation.
Storm surge is an abnormal rise in water level in coastal areas, over and above the regular astronomical tide, caused by forces generated from a severe storm's wind, waves, and low atmospheric pressure. Storm surge is extremely dangerous, because it is capable of flooding large coastal areas. Extreme flooding can occur in coastal areas particularly when storm surge coincides with normal high tide, resulting in storm tides reaching up to 20 feet or more in some cases. Along the coast, storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane.
Inland flooding occurs when moderate precipitation accumulates over several days, intense precipitation falls over a short period, or a river overflows because of an ice or debris jam or dam or levee failure. Hurricane Floyd (1999), aided by Tropical Storm Dennis (1999), caused widespread severe flooding that caused the majority of the $3 to 6 billion in damage reported after those storms.
A flash flood is caused by heavy or excessive rainfall in a short period of time, generally less than six hours. Flash floods are usually characterized by raging torrents after heavy rains that rip through river beds, urban streets, or mountain canyons sweeping everything before them. They can occur within minutes or a few hours of excessive rainfall. They can also occur even if no rain has fallen, for instance after a levee or dam has failed, or after a sudden release of water by a debris or ice jam.