Waking up on Sunday, Kyle Starks saw floodwaters reaching the door of his Jeep after another severe storm in California. Rescuers came with boats to rescue Starks and other residents of his trailer park in the city of Acampo.
Beyond physical destruction, the storm could have a financial impact: The Starks don’t have flood insurance.
“I didn’t think it would flood this much,” he explained from an evacuation center, concerned that the water would damage wiring and air-conditioning equipment.
In California, only about 230,000 homes and other buildings have flood insurance policies, separate from homeowner’s insurance. This means that only 2% of the properties are covered against floods. The federal government is the insurer of most of them, about 191,000 as of December. Private insurers issued the rest, according to the most recent state figures for 2021.
145,474,880 cubic meters (32 billion gallons) of rain and snow have fallen in California since Christmas. The water washed away roads, knocked out power and caused landslides as it drenched hillsides burned by wildfires. It caused damage in 41 of the state’s 58 counties. At least 21 people have died.
A more specific study is needed to determine the role of climate change in certain types of weather, but warmer air means that California’s storms in recent weeks may be bringing more water with them.
Despite this, the drought in the state has dampened the risk appetite of the people in the face of possible floods. People often buy insurance after disasters when they act on an emotional response, said Amy Bach, executive director of the insurance consumer group United Policyholders.
“People think flood insurance is only needed by people who live on a beach or along a river that has a history of flooding,” Bach said. In fact, many more are at risk of torrential rain or flooding.
When a person buys a home, one of the key documents is official maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which indicate whether it is in an area at high risk of flooding. If so, and you have a federally backed mortgage, you will need to purchase flood insurance which costs an average of $950 a year. Many banks also require this.
However, FEMA’s maps are limited and only take into account certain types of flooding; They do not really predict the risk of their occurrence. For example, flooding caused by heavy rains is not taken into account when storm drains are blocked. Those limits mean that the risk of flooding at the national level is underestimated. The maps overestimate the likelihood of disaster, especially in California, according to Matthew Abbey, executive director of the First Street Foundation, a risk analysis organization.
The FEMA maps do not show that Stark’s mobile home is in a high-risk area. And three years before his neighbor, Juan Reyes, bought his home, a series of storms dumped record amounts of rain on the state and flooded their neighborhood.
Reyes knew this, but still didn’t buy flood insurance. It was too expensive, he said, and was not needed. In addition, he thought that local authorities had improved storm water drainage systems so that a similar flood would not happen again. But it happened and Reyes also had to be rescued from the boat. He’s staying in the same evacuation center, hoping his house isn’t too badly damaged.
The storm damaged several thousand homes so badly that they would need to be repaired before people could re-occupy them. But Nicholas Pinter, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who researches watersheds, said California needs to prepare for even more severe events, and that requires greater investment in flood protection and increased awareness of their threat. There is a need for more awareness.
“It is concerning that the damage was as severe as the extreme flood, but not catastrophic,” he said.
State officials said that even without flood coverage, they try to help people file claims with insurers. For example, cars with waterlogging are sometimes covered by auto insurance policies.
Another is trying to figure out how David Enroe can recover in Merced, a community of about 90,000 in California’s Central Valley that was badly flooded. The water inside his house was knee-deep. The laminate floor was floating in her living room.
“It was like you were riding a wave or a springboard,” he said. The house smelled like a mix of mildew, rotten grass, and a septic system overflow.
Jan lives in a high-risk area, requiring people to buy flood insurance. He says paying for the repairs himself would be unimaginable. Lastly, I wish I had insured your belongings as well.
Although the maps forced Jan and others to buy coverage in some areas, FEMA no longer uses its famous maps to set prices.
The agency updated its rating in 2021 to more accurately reflect risk, calling it Risk Rating 2.0. FEMA says it’s the revised values — not the flood maps — that tell consumers about flood risk. The old system placed more emphasis on simple metrics: the height of a house and whether it was located in a mapped flood zone. The risk rating 2.0 takes into account distance to water, damage caused by heavy rain, and many other factors. Raises rates for nearly three-quarters of policyholders and offers price cuts for the first time.
FEMA has long said the new ratings will attract new policyholders with prices that reveal the real risk of a property, and are more accurate. However, since they went into effect in California, the number of policies has dropped by about 5%, continuing a decline in those purchases nationwide for years.
Some are not aware of the risk they face.
Jay Laub, one of Reyes’ neighbors who was also rescued from the flood, said that when he bought his home, insurance companies were frantically trying to sell him earthquake coverage. He said he assumed his house was covered against floods. This week he learned that he was not.
Laub said he’s concerned that his RV has sunk into marshy ground, which may need to be re-leveled. He said he was not sure how he would pay for it.
“What do you work? You’re enrolled in Social Security just like me,” he said. “But you know what? You just take it one step at a time. You just have to stay strong.”
Trevor Burgess, CEO of private insurer Neptune, said the storms have led to a surge in new policies. During the first 10 days of 2022, the company sold 53 cars in California. This year, Neptune sold 313, an increase of nearly 500%.
Burgess said, “Storms, even as they unfold this terrible tragedy – human tragedy and property tragedy – have the effect of reminding people that they are vulnerable and need to protect themselves.”
Phillies reported from St. Louis.
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