Heavy rains are a precursor to a misunderstood and dangerous event, the mudslide. Mudslides and landslides have been seen in almost every state in the country. These disasters can cause serious damage and have taken a number of lives over the years.

The term landslide describes a geological phenomenon of downhill earth movement. It can be a slow-moving event or one that occurs quickly and without warning. Both versions can cause incredible amounts of damage. Most slides are connected to periods of heavy rains or rapid snowmelt where water compromises the integrity of the soil. These slides can also be caused by earthquakes, which literally shake the earth loose.

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In March of 2014, a major landslide occurred just outside of Oso, Washington. A portion of an unstable hill collapsed and sent mud and debris across the Stillaguamish River, engulfing a neighborhood. The slide covered approximately 1 square mile and killed 43 people. It devastated a community and shocked the country. It was a brutal reminder that landslides are much more than an inconvenience.

Warning Signs
More important than knowing why is the ability to recognize signs of an imminent slide. In many cases, knowing the signs of an impending slide can determine your physical safety. While vigilance is always encouraged, it is especially important during times of heavy rain or snowmelt.

Some of the signs you should look for are changes in your landscape, such as small slides, flows or progressively leaning trees, as well as new cracks that have appeared in plaster, tile, brick or foundations. Another sign for homeowners is if doors or windows stick or jam for the first time, or if outside walls, walks or stairs begin pulling away from the building. If fences, retaining walls, utility poles or trees tilt or move, it’s time to carefully consider if a slide has the potential to occur. Similarly, keep any eye out for slowly developing, widening cracks on the ground or on paved areas such as streets or driveways, as well as water breaking through the ground in new locations.

RELATED: American Red Cross: What to Do After an Earthquake

Get Out Alive
In the event you witness a slide, the obvious point to make is to get away. Avoid being caught in the slide at all costs. If you are trapped, however, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of survival and to minimize injury.

If you are in a building, try to get under a table or other sturdy object, then attempt to move to the second story of the structure. Curl yourself into a ball and protect your head. If you are in your vehicle, stay inside until the slide has stopped. As the slide slows, be on the lookout for material still falling down the slope.

After the flow has stopped, there is potential for danger. Be very cautious as you proceed and follow these simple guidelines. Move away from the slide area. There may be danger of additional slides. Check for injured and trapped persons nearby but do not attempt to move around the slide area too much. It could possibly begin to move again. If you know of others in the slide, direct rescuers to their locations. Watch for other dangers such as broken electrical, water, gas and sewage lines and damaged roadways and railways. If your home was in the slide, do not attempt to re-enter it until it is declared as safe by emergency personnel.

Prep Your Home
Heavy rains cause many mud and landslides, loosening soil until it gives way. In many cases where homes and structures are lost, it comes down to building location and land management. If you build a home on a high-angled slope, the chances of a slide causing damage can be very high. If you choose to live in a slide zone, then vigilance is required. Regular and thorough inspections of the property and structure are a must. Even then, the chances of a devastating slide still remain.

There are a few helpful tips you can follow if you do choose to build in a danger area. Get regular ground assessments on your property. If problems are found, then consult a professional expert for advice on corrective measures. Minimize home hazards by having flexible pipe fittings installed to avoid gas or water leaks, as flexible fittings are more resistant to breakage. It is always best to have professionals install any water or gas fittings.

Mud and landslides are disasters we should take seriously. A heavy rain can turn beautiful countryside into a flowing river of mud and slurry. Moving at avalanche speeds, landslides can travel several miles from their source and destroy everything in their path. Take the danger seriously and have a plan in the event it occurs. Through planning and preparing, you can minimize the danger to you and your loved ones.

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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