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Do you know if you're in a floodplain?

Last month while on vacation visiting family in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York, my uncle took me on a little driving tour of the countryside. It wasn't meant to be a sad day, but with gathering rainclouds above us, we passed through village after village seeing high water lines, noting where buildings used to be, and talking about the stories of destruction caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The discussion that day followed a week of stories of historic flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, and with conversations about flooding during the American Meteorological Society's Broadcast Meteorology Conference still fresh on my mind, I took mental notes about how much FEMA had to step in and how few people had flood insurance because they didn't think they needed it or even know it was available.

On Tuesday to satisfy my curiosity and help formulate this particular blog entry, I posted the link to an informal, unscientific survey on my Facebook page and sent it to my coworkers. I just wanted to get an idea of how many people understand what an 100-year floodplain is, whether they had flood insurance, or even whether they knew they needed it and if it was available. The results were no surprise, and again, I would like to reiterate that the survey was not scientific, but I do think it is pretty representative of the lack of knowledge about flood insurance of many in the general public.

Seventy-one people responded in just under 48 hours. There were five questions on the survey:

Q: Do you know what is meant when we say the "100-year flood"?

  • A flood that happens every 100 years. (11 chose)
  • A flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. (35 chose)
  • A flood that can happen no more than once every 100 years. (25 chose)

Q: Have you ever heard of an 100-year floodplain?

  • yes - 38
  • no - 33

Q: Do you know if you live in a floodplain?

  • yes - 44
  • no - 27

Q: Do you have flood insurance?

  • yes - 9
  • no - 62

Q: If you answered "no" to "Do you have flood insurance," why did you decide not to buy flood insurance?

Answers ranged from "not in a flood plain" to "I didn't know it was available" to "I rent, so I don't need it."

So what were the "right" answers? Technically, the first question could have two answers. With respect to recurrence, a 100-year flood is a flood that typically happens every 100 years, but when talking about floodplains and insurance, what it really means is a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. That definition shows that it is possible, although not likely, that two 100-year floods could occur within two years. Similarly, a 500-year floodplain, means that a flood there only has a 0.2% probability of occurring any given year.

The rest of the questions were intended to get a sense of people's understanding about floodplains and insurance. Over a third of the respondents didn't know whether they lived in a floodplain or not - an important point of discussion among meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency management and other officials. The federal government as part of the "Ready" initiative has a website you can visit to find out this information. Go to ready.gov/flood and follow the hyperlink to the flood hazard maps in the third paragraph to find out if you're home or business is in a floodplain.

To learn more information about flood insurance, I spoke with Marie Brewer, Account Executive, at Chas Lunsford Sons and Associates. I asked her how often she sells flood insurance, and she answered, "Flood Insurance is one of the least requested coverages, yet the peril of flood damage is a standard exclusion under the terms of all property policies." She told me that it is available for both commercial and residential properties, and you don't have to be the property owner to buy it. Renters can buy flood insurance for their possessions.

Another fact that may be a surprise to many is that you do not have to live in a floodplain to buy flood insurance. It's true! Think about the way flood maps are created based on land elevation and proximity to a water source, and updated only after a place has flooded. Plus, consider that flooding can happen in many different ways beside just a creek or river overflowing its banks such as snow melting (not usually a problem here), extended periods of heavy rain, and new development creating runoff problems.

Where the insurance industry is concerned, Brewer said, " Everyone is in a flood zone with some degree of risk, it just depends on whether you are in a low to moderate or a high risk area." She explained that the "rates are directly affected by the Floodplain (Flood Zone from an insurance prospective), but they  are also affected by the type and style of construction of your home or building and the elevation of the building in correlation to the land it's on."

Unfortunately, Brewer also confirms that most people she serves start their conversation with "the bank is making me purchase flood insurance," and they often think it's a waste of money. She asks, "but is it?" and adds, "we often perceive an area not to be at risk for flooding based on our perceptions or past experience. Flooding doesn't just occur next to bodies of water. We fail to take into consideration extraordinary or stalled weather patterns or how communities are now built and developed as that impacts  wastewater runoff as well, especially given our propensity to grow in high density areas."

We know from interviews with victims of hazardous weather that most people naturally have an attitude of "it won't happen to me," and yet, there they are being interviewed because it happened. Insurance is a way to protect your investments just in case it does actually happen to you.

So, my questions to you, my readers, are do you know if you're in a floodplain and have you ever thought about flood insurance?

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