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A flood is an overflow of water that submerges land, producing measurable property damage or forcing evacuation of people and vital resources. Floods develop slowly as rivers swell during an extended period of rain, or during a warming trend following a heavy snow. Even a very small stream or dry creek bed can overflow and create flooding.

Floods frequently cause loss of life; property damage and destruction; damage and disruption of communications, transportation, electric service, and community services; crop and livestock damage and loss and interruption of business. Fires, health and transportation accidents and contamination of water supplies are likely effects of flooding situations.

History of Flooding in New England

New England has a long history of floods. The Vermont Flood of 1927 was the deadliest natural disaster in the state’s history; eighty-four people were killed with over $28 million in property damage. The Spring Floods of 1936, which affected all of New England, caused $113,000,000 in damage, killed 24 people and left 77,000 homeless. The Spring Floods left the main street of Hooksett, New Hampshire under 18 to 20 feet of water.

During 1978, flooding occurred throughout New England causing millions of dollars in damage. In 1996, flooding ravaged communities in northern New England, causing significant damage ultimately resulting in a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Mills and factories in Lawrence, Haverhill, and Lowell, Massachusetts were severely damaged, 81 bridges in Maine needed repairs, and a large portion of downtown Hartford was underwater.

Floods due to dam failures also occur in New England. The first recorded dam failure in the United States occurred on May 16, 1874, in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. A landslide shattered a 43-foot dam on the Mill Creek, a tributary of the Connecticut River, resulting in the death of 144 people and $1 million in damage.

What is the Risk of Flooding in New England?

Floods are the most common and costly hazard to affect New England. Most communities have experienced floods after spring rains, thunderstorms, hurricanesand winter thaws. Floods can develop over a period of days or, in the case of flash floods, very rapidly. All types of flooding can be life threatening.

Because New England has a long coastline, many rivers with dams and large urban areas, it is susceptible to many forms of flooding. New England is susceptible to river flooding, coastal flooding from hurricanes and Northeasters, flooding from dam failure, and urban flooding as runoff overwhelms storm drains.

When Are Floods Most Likely?

Inland floods are most likely to occur in the spring due to increased rain and the melting of snow. Flooding along the coast can occur anytime of the year as a result of heavy rains, a thunderstorm, tropical storm, hurricanes or Nor’easters.

Who is Most At Risk?

People living in low-lying coastal areas or in close proximity to water bodies (such as rivers, lakes, and streams) are susceptible to flooding.

What Causes a Flood?

Flooding can result from the overflow of major rivers and their smaller tributaries, storm surge from hurricanes and other coastal storms, or inadequate local drainage. Historically, floods have been a factor in over 80 percent of all Presidential Disaster Declarations.

Did You Know?

  • Almost 9 out of 10 Presidential Disaster Declarations include flooding is a component.
  • Swiftly moving flood waters only six inches deep can knock people off their feet.
  • Cars can float away just a foot of water.
  • Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles including sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) and pick-ups.
  • Flash flood waters move at very fast speeds and can roll boulders, tear out trees, destroy buildings, and obliterate bridges.
  • Flooding has caused the deaths of more than 10,000 people since 1900.
  • Property damage from flooding now totals over $1 Billion each year in the United States.
  • Virtually all homeowners insurance policies do not cover flood damage. Individuals and homeowners can, however, purchase flood insurance administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through any insurance agency.

Terms To Know

  • A Flash Flood or Flood Watch is declared when flash flooding or flooding is possible within the designated watch area — be alert.
  • A Flash Flood or Flood Warning is declared when flash flooding or flooding has been reported or is imminent — take necessary precautions at once.

In The Event Of A Flood


  • Listen to the radio, television, or NOAA Weather Radio for more information.
  • Be aware that flash flooding can occur. If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move immediately to higher ground. Do not wait for instructions to move.
  • Be aware of streams, drainage channels, canyons, and other areas known to flood suddenly. Flash floods can occur in these areas with or without such typical warnings as rain clouds or heavy rain.
  • If evacuation is likely, secure your home. If you have time, bring in outdoor furniture. Move essential items to an upper floor.
  • Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves if instructed to do so. Disconnect electrical appliances. Do not touch electrical equipment if you are wet or standing in water.
  • Climb to high ground and stay there.
  • Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can make you fall. If you have to walk in water, walk where the water is not moving. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.
  • If you come to a flooded area turn around and go another way.
  • Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely. You and the vehicle can be quickly swept away.

What is Mitigation?

Mitigation is the cornerstone of emergency management. It’s the ongoing effort to lessen the impact disasters have on people and property. Mitigation involves keeping homes away from floodplains, engineering bridges to withstand earthquakes, creating and enforcing effective building codes to protect property from hurricanes — and more.

Flood Hazard Mitigation Measures for Communities

FEMA’s National Mitigation Action Plan suggests that state and local mitigation plans include the following:

  • Developing and enforcing all-hazards building codes.
  • Adopting incentives to encourage mitigation.
  • Developing administrative structures to support the implementation of mitigation programs.
  • Mitigation should be incorporated into land use management plans.
  • Developing and conducting public information campaigns on hazard mitigation should be a priority.

FEMA’s Floodplain Management Program

Floodplain management is defined as a decision-making process that aims to achieve the wise use of land in the Nation’s floodplains. Floodplain management aims to reduce damage and the loss of life caused by floods. The Nation’s strategy for reducing flood damages has evolved from a reliance exclusively on structural flood control projects to a more comprehensive approach that emphasizes non-structural measures such as local land use planning and zoning, building codes, and relocation of flood prone buildings.

Flood Hazard Mitigation Measures for Individuals

How to Protect Your Property

  • Purchase flood insurance.
  • Keep insurance policies, documents, and other valuables in a safe-deposit box. You may need quick, easy access to these documents. Keep them in a safe place less likely to be damaged during a flood.
  • Avoid building in a floodplain unless you elevate and reinforce your home. Some communities do not permit building in known floodplains. If there are no restrictions, and you are building in a floodplain, take precautions, making it less likely your home will be damaged during a flood.
  • Elevate the furnace, water heater, and electric panel if susceptible to flooding. An undamaged water heater may be your best source of fresh water after a flood.
  • Install “check valves” in sewer traps to prevent flood water from backing up into the drains of your home. As a last resort, when floods threaten, use large corks or stoppers to plug showers, tubs, or basins.
  • Construct barriers (levees, beams, flood walls) to stop floodwater from entering the building.
  • Seal walls in basements with waterproofing compounds to avoid seepage.
  • Consult with a construction professional for further information if these and other damage reduction measures can be taken. Check local building codes and ordinances for safety requirements.
  • Contact your local emergency management office for more information on mitigation options to further reduce potential flood damage. Your local emergency management office may be able to provide additional resources and information on ways to reduce potential damage.

How to Plan for a Flood

  • Talk to your insurance agent. Homeowners’ policies do not cover flooding. Ask about the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
  • Use a NOAA Weather Radio with a tone-alert feature, or a portable, battery-powered radio (or television) for updated emergency information.
  • Develop an evacuation plan. Everyone in your family should know where to go if they have to leave. Trying to make plans at the last minute can be upsetting and create confusion.
  • Discuss floods with your family. Everyone should know what to do in case all family members are not together. Discussing floods ahead of time helps reduce fear and anxiety and lets everyone know how to respond.

Links for Additional Information about Flooding in New England