Electricity is dangerous during flooding

I was wondering about a video I saw on the news of Hurricane Harvey. A family and a news crew were inside of a house with 1 or 2 feet of standing water everywhere. The video showed the lights on and the ceiling fans on. That seems like a huge electrocution hazard to me. It seems like the water should have shorted them out. How could this be? At the very least, it seems like they should have thrown their own breaker when water started entering the house. Or would that not have done enough?

— Chris, Central Point


Standing around in your flooded house with the electricity on is definitely not safe, according to Pacific Power.

"While hurricanes don’t affect us here in Oregon, flooding can," said Pacific Power Director of Safety Steve Harkin. "If you have reason to expect flooding, Pacific Power encourages you to safely shut off your own power if you can do so ahead of the flooding and evacuate. If the flooding has already occurred, you should evacuate safely as a priority and not risk interacting with your power system until the wiring has been inspected by an electrical inspector or a qualified electrician. In all such cases, you should follow the directions of first responders and follow evacuation directions."

To shut off the electricity to your whole house, locate your main electrical panel. Flip the main circuit breaker, usually located above the smaller branch circuit breakers, to the off position.

Storms can also bring down power lines, creating a hazard for people who are outside. Always treat a downed power line as if it is energized and dangerous. Stay more than 10 feet away at all times, Harkin said.

Pacific Power offers the following tips to avoid a nasty shock or electrocution when returning to a home or business after a flood:

  • Do not assume that any part of a flooded electrical system is safe, even if the main switch is in the off position.

  • Do not re-energize power until a qualified electrician has thoroughly inspected the electrical system, electrical wiring and heating system before the power is re-energized.

  • Never cross damp floors to shut off electrical power at the main breaker.

  • Remember that some appliances such as televisions can “store” energy, which can shock you even if they are unplugged.

  • Even if the electricity is off in your area, be sure that your own power supply is disconnected. If the switch is left in the on position, power could be restored to the area and your property before the wiring is property inspected. If you are not sure that the main switch was turned off prior to flooding, do not enter the premises without first getting it checked by a qualified electrician.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following advice for helping someone you believe has been electrocuted:

  • Look first. Don't touch. The person may still be in contact with the electrical source. Touching the person may pass the current through you.

  • Call or have someone else call 911 or emergency medical help.

  • Turn off the source of electricity if possible. If not, move the source away from you and the affected person using a nonconducting object made of cardboard, plastic or wood.

  • Once the person is free of the source of electricity, check the person's breathing and pulse. If either has stopped or seems dangerously slow or shallow, begin CPR immediately.

  • If the person is faint or pale or shows other signs of shock, lay them down with the head slightly lower than the trunk of the body and the legs elevated.

  • Don't touch burns, break blisters or remove burned clothing. Electrical shock may cause burns inside the body, so be sure the person is taken to a doctor.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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