They say when it rains, it pours. Tuesday night was the first substantial rainfall that we have seen this year. However, when we have heavy precipitation like this, it causes extensive flooding across the Hub City.

I spoke with City Engineer Mike Keenum about why this occurs and ways for you to stay safe when flooding impacts Lubbock and the South Plains in general.

“The City of Lubbock is a surface drainage city," Keenum told me. "That means we use our streets primarily as our rivers when it rains, so everything is designed for the runoff to go into the streets, and then the streets are designed to drain to the playa lakes.” When asked why our city was designed this way, his answer was quite simple: Lubbock is flat.

He notes that places like Dallas have lots of hills and water sources that facilitate the natural movement of rainwater. However, in order for us to get gravity to do its job, the city would have to spend billions of dollars and tear up city roadways in order to not only bury pipes, but to place them deep enough so that they could effectively discharge the water to the correct location.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

When you consider the fact that our yearly rainfall totals average just over 18.50 inches per year, the outcome would not be worth the investment. Additionally, we have geographical hurdles that other cities do not have to face.

"We're one of the only places in the world that have [playa lakes]. They are a very unique feature of Texas, which makes drainage very complicated here because we're so flat and trying to move the water is very difficult. I affectionately call them bathtubs because once they are full of water, there is nowhere for it to go other than over the ground,” Keenum said.

This is why city officials have worked hard over the last two decades to improve our infrastructure and help remedy this problem.

"Our biggest point of relief is the Canyon Lakes System on the northeast side of town. We've spent over $150 million on major storm sewer projects that discharge [water] out to the canyon," Keenum said.

Lance Ballance, Townsquare Media
Lance Ballance, Townsquare Media

So what does this mean for drivers during big rain events? Keenum stresses that while inconvenient, one of the best ways to stay safe on the roads during these instances is to not be on them at all. "If you're in a location where you can wait 30 minutes for the rain to lighten up a little bit, that's better. Usually the roads will be pretty clear to drive on," he said.

While we all want to get home from work, school or running errands, this is sage advice unless it's an emergency or an issue of safety. Behind heat, flooding is the second leading cause of weather-related deaths each year in the United States. Many people do not realize how little water it takes to wash a car away and you never truly know how deep the water may be in flooded areas.


Turn Around, Don't Drown
Photo: Nicole McGavock, National Weather Service

My favorite phrase as a meteorologist is "turn around, don’t drown." I wish more people would heed this warning. It could save so many lives. If you decide that you must get out in the elements, Keenum has another key piece of advice: "Don't drive next to the curb when it's raining because that's where the water is going to stand."

Most importantly, Keenum stressed that residents should steer clear of problem areas that are more prone to flooding. Looking at the city map below, the blue areas indicate where the playa lakes fill up and spill over onto the roadways. These flood zones should be avoided during big rain events like we saw on Tuesday.

Lubbock Flood Zones
City of Lubbock

Specifically, avoid the stretch of roads between Quaker and I-27 from 19th to 34th Streets, as well as Mackenzie Park and along the Marsha Sharp Freeway near Jones AT&T Stadium. Avenue Q between 23rd and 25th Streets and the 98th and Milwaukee intersection are also quickly inundated during heavy precipitation events.

These are just a few of the areas where the water builds up quickly. For a closer look, here is the link to the interactive view.

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