In wet California, few homeowners have flood insurance

Michael Phillis and Adam Beam, The Associated Press

Posted Saturday, January 21, 2023 8:50AM EST

ACAMPO, Calif. (AP) – On Sunday morning, Kyle Starks woke up to flooding that reached the door of his Jeep after another heavy rain that drenched California. Emergency crews met with boats to evacuate Starks and other residents of his mobile home park in Acampo to safety.

Beyond the physical damage, the storm can pack a financial blow: Starks doesn’t have flood insurance.

“I didn’t think it would flood this bad,” he said from an emergency room, concerned about water damage to wiring and air conditioning equipment.

In California, only 230,000 homes and other buildings have flood insurance coverage, other than homeowners insurance. This means that only 2% of properties are protected from flooding. The federal government is the insurance for most of them – about 191,000 in December. Private insurers provided the rest, according to the latest state data from 2021.

In California, 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow have fallen since Christmas. The water washed away roads, knocked out power and created mud by irrigating volcanoes. It caused damage in 41 of the state’s 58 districts. At least 21 people have died.

More research is needed to determine the role of climate change in specific weather conditions, but warmer air means more storms like the ones that have battered California in recent weeks. where there can be more water.

But California’s drought has weakened people’s sense of the danger of flooding. People tend to buy insurance after disasters when the risk is visceral, said Amy Bach, chief executive of insurance broker United Policyholders.

“People think that the only people who need flood insurance are people who live right on the beach or on the banks of a river that has a history of flooding,” Bach said. In fact, more people are at risk of rushing or high water.

When you buy a home, the main document is the official Federal Emergency Management Agency map that tells you if it’s in a high flood risk zone. If so and you have a federally backed mortgage, you will be required to purchase flood insurance for about $950 a year. Many banks also require it.

But FEMA maps are limited and only deal with specific types of flooding – they don’t accurately predict flood risk. Floods caused by heavy rains to restore storm drains are not counted, for example. The limits mean that flood risk is considered low in the country. Maps are particularly low in the likelihood of accidents in California, according to Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation, a risk research organization.

FEMA maps do not show Stark’s mobile home in a high-risk area. And three years before his neighbor Juan Reyes bought his house, a series of storms dumped record rainfall on the state and flooded their neighborhood.

Reyes knew this, but he never bought flood insurance. It was too expensive, he said, and it was unnecessary. Also, he thought that the local officials had improved the storm drain so that such a flood would not happen again. But it was done and Reyes had to be rescued by boat. He’s staying in the same shelter, hoping his house isn’t too badly damaged.

The storms damaged thousands of homes so badly that they must be repaired before people can live in them again. But Nicholas Pinter, a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies water sources, said that California needs to prepare for bigger events and that it needs more investment in flood protection and more awareness of its danger.

“It is a concern because of the amount of damage as it is for serious but not dangerous floods,” he said.

State officials say that even when there are no floods, they try to help people pursue claims – flooded cars, for example, are sometimes covered under auto insurance.

They are also trying to figure out how to rebuild David Enero in Merced, a community of about 90,000 in California’s Central Valley that was badly flooded. The water was ankle high in his house. The laminate floor in her living room floated.

“It’s like walking on a wave or a trampoline,” he said. The house smells like a mixture of dirt, rotting grass and an overflowing septic system.

Enero lives in a high risk area where people buy flood insurance. He said paying for such damages would be unimaginable. Looking back, he wishes he had insured his property as well.

Although the maps encourage Enero and others in some areas to buy advertising, FEMA no longer uses its popular maps to set prices.

The agency updated its value in 2021 to more accurately reflect risk and called it Risk Rating 2.0. FEMA says these updated rates — not flood maps — are what inform consumers of flood risk. The old system was more defined by simple criteria – the height of the building and whether it was in a geographical flood zone. Hazard Rating 2.0 takes into account distance to water, damage caused by heavy rain and many other factors. It raises prices for about three-quarters of policyholders and offers price reductions for the first time.

FEMA has long said the new signs will attract new policyholders to rates that reflect a property’s true risk, and that’s more accurate. But since it went into effect in California, the number of policies has dropped by about 5%, continuing the declining years across the country.

Some are unaware of their risk.

Jay Laub, one of the neighbors of Reyes, was also saved from the flood, he said that when he bought his house the insurance companies were trying to sell him earthquake insurance. He said he thought his house was flooded. He found out this week that it wasn’t.

Laub said he is worried his mobile home may sink into the wet ground, and may need to be rebuilt. He said he wasn’t sure how he would pay.

“What are you doing? You’re on public safety, like me,” he said. “But you know what? You take one step at a time. You just have to persevere. strong.”

Trevor Burgess, CEO of the private insurance company Neptune, said there is a trend in new systems with hurricanes. In the first 10 days of 2022, the company sold 53 in California. This year, Neptune sold 313 – about a 500% increase.

“Hurricanes, even if they are this terrible disaster – human and property disasters – have the effect of reminding people that they are vulnerable and need to protect themselves,” he said. of Burgess.


Phillis reported from St. Louis.

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