Own a home? Tips on how to prepare for flooding

Emmet Pierce

No one likes to think about natural disasters, but when the spring thaw comes, it's time to prepare your home for flood season.

When frozen ground warms each year, melting snow and heavy spring rains seep more easily into the soil, increasing the chance of flooded rivers and streams. The fact that you've never had a flood in your community doesn't mean it won't eventually happen.

Typically, there's a 30-day waiting period before a flood insurance policy for your home takes effect, so the time to prepare is before waters rise.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA) says 90 percent of major natural disasters in the U.S. involve flooding. One of the lessons of Superstorm Sandy is that areas with low to moderate risks of flooding can experience major water damage during a storm.

"The main reason to get flood insurance is your standard homeowner's policy will not cover a flood-related loss," says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. "That was something that too many people learned after Sandy hit in the Northeast."

It's important to ask your insurance agent about the need to supplement your homeowner's policy or renter's policy with flood insurance, he says. Coverage is available from FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program NFIP) and through some private insurers.

The NFIP provides coverage for up to $250,000 for home structures. Homeowners and renters can buy coverage of up to $100,000 for personal possessions. Usually, NFIP policies can be purchased from agents who sell home insurance.

Additional or "excess" flood insurance is available from private insurers for property owners who need protection above NFIP's limits, or for those whose communities don't take part in the federal program. According to FEMA, nearly 22,000 U.S. communities participate in NFIP and more than 2,100 don't. You can determine your flood risk by visiting FloodSmart.gov.

Don't count on federal aid

Many people mistakenly believe that the federal government automatically will step in with aid, if a home is destroyed or seriously damaged in a natural disaster, says Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California. If you aren't in a declared federal disaster zone, he says, you could be on your own hook for the repair bills. Even if you do receive disaster assistance, it likely will be through a loan that must be repaid with interest. Unlike disaster loans, flood insurance claims don't need to be repaid.

Barry says not everyone can afford flood insurance, which costs an average of $600 a year. Residents in moderate- and low-risk areas may be eligible for cheaper policies, however.

"Not everyone has the disposable income to buy maximum coverage limits, but you should at least explore the possibility," Barry says.

Rebecca Byrom, owner of a San Diego insurance agency that specializes in flood coverage, says many people in high-risk areas buy flood insurance only because their mortgage lenders require it. W. Richard Burr, a public claims adjuster in Pennsylvania, says flood insurance isn't for everyone. You've got to weigh the risks, he says.

If the chance of flooding is very low where you live, flood insurance is a waste of money, Burr says.

James Whittle, assistant general counsel and chief claims counsel of the American Insurance Association trade group, disagrees. He says it's important to recognize that even areas where risks are small can be devastated by floods.

"People learn the hard way," Whittle says.

Surviving a flood

Here are some flood survival tips from FEMA and the Borough of Lavallette in Ocean County, N.J.

  • Avoid living in a floodplain, unless your home has been elevated and reinforced against flooding.
  • If you live where flooding is likely, elevate your furnace, water heater and electric panels to keep them above the waterline.
  • To avoid damage to important papers and household items, store them on the highest level of your home.
  • If you have a basement, seal the walls with waterproofing.
  • Consider installing backflow valves to prevent water from backing up into drains and toilets.
  • Buy plywood, sandbags, plastic sheeting and lumber for water-related emergencies.
  • If a flood occurs, pack important items, including medication, in case you need to evacuate.

See how much you could save today on your home insurance. Get your free home insurance quotes today!