“A Fool and His Money are Soon Parted” – A Look at the Need for Flood Insurance

Terri l Turner, AICP, CFM

This week the calendar marked the one year anniversary of the Metro Atlanta flood event.
 Austell, GA flooding, Sept. 2009  Courtesy: Melissa Tuttle-Carr, Meteorologist  
The event was noted in the history books for local rainfall records (the greatest being 21.03 inches near Douglasville, GA), unprecedented flash flooding and record-setting river flooding, with some rivers being 15 to 20 feet above flood stage. Sadly 10 people lost their lives to the event and over 100 rescues from homes and vehicles had to be performed. “In some areas, the floodwaters were so powerful that homes were pushed off their foundations. Vehicles and anything in the path of the ferocious waters were tossed around like toys. Roads and bridges were literally ripped apart.” (http://www.weather.com A Year Later: Metro Atlanta Floods of September 2009; Daniel Dix, Senior Meteorologist). Flooding occurred well beyond the mapped 100 year floodplain and damages figures soared to a staggering 300 million dollars.  
Some 3,671 claims (filed between Sept 18, 2009 and December 18, 2009) have been filed associated with the Metro Atlanta flood event in hardest hit counties – Cobb, DeKalb and Douglas – accumulating a whopping $133 million dollars in damage (ajc Value of Flood Insurance Debated September 21, 2010). Still, several more Metro Atlanta counties were involved in the record-setting September flood event.

In June of 2009, three months before the event, there were 16,384 flood policies in force in Metro Atlanta. By June of this year, 21,620 flood policies were in force in Metro Atlanta – an increase of 5,236 policies or a 25% increase in policies in the past year. Overall, Georgia added some 12,000 + policies, while still only insuring less than 2 percent of its residents against flood losses (ajc Value of Flood Insurance Debated September 21, 2010).  

I have to wonder where the other 98% of the population was during, and for days and weeks after, the Metro Atlanta flood event. You could not turn on a radio, switch on the tv, or pick up a newspaper that did not expound on this devastating event in all of its ugliness and gore. Words like “epic”, “catastrophic” and “rare” were being thrown around by all of the media outlets and meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency management officials and floodplain managers were scrambling to understand what had just happened to the Atlanta area. FEMA and GEMA mobilized to offer assistance to communities and homeowners, municipalities were doing substantial damage estimates, repairing vital infrastructure, and hauling off garbage (debris and lost contents due to the flood), interestingly enough estimated to be in the neighborhood of 968 tons in Douglas County alone. Many were mourning their loss – their loved ones, their homes, their businesses, and their way of life.
Austell, GA    Courtesy: Melissa Tuttle-Carr, Meteorologist
After witnessing first-hand what “could” happen and what “did” happen in Atlanta, why are so many homeowners still unwilling to purchase flood insurance ? The reasons are as varied as the people themselves. For some, it is cost – put quite simply, they can’t afford it. Tough economic times have put a strain on their wallets and confronted with whether or not to put food on the table or buy flood insurance, well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what issue will lose that battle.

For some, it is assumed knowledge of the “facts” or ignorance of the “reality” (depending on who is doing the viewing). For those, it is the “line on the map”. The thought is that because they don’t live in a 100 year floodplain, or a 1% annual chance flood hazard area, or a regulatory floodplain, or a high risk zone or whatever the folks in Washington are calling it these days, that they are immune to flooding. “I don’t live in a floodplain so why do I need to buy flood insurance. I will never flood !” Foolish, foolish, people. The National Flood Insurance estimates that 20-25% of all of their claims come from those outside of those so-called high-risk zones (the mapped floodplain). Still, people refuse to believe it will happen to them.

For others, it is the thought that while it may have happened once, “surely it couldn’t happen to me again”. These economically savvy people (or so they think), weigh the value of flood insurance and think the cost far outweighs the benefits. “OK, so it flooded my house once, but because I have flooded once, now it won’t flood here again for another 100 years.” Yet, for scores of Metro Atlanta residents, this was not their first dance with Mother Nature and her ravaging flood waters and it had not been the expected 100 years since their last flood occurrence. Far from it, many Atlanta area residents flooded as recently as 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis. Still, it is shocking to see how many people drop their flood insurance policies within the first two years following a flood event that impacted their lives and destroyed their homes. Foolish, foolish, people.
Veterans highway – Austell, Ga   Courtesy: Melissa Tuttle-Carr, Meteorologist 
I have to conclude that a vast majority of the American public is going around with their head stuck in the sand. While most of the public carries homeowners insurance, car insurance and health insurance, those same careful people fail to acknowledge that flooding can and will affect them in their lifetime. Trends in flood damages have seen the biggest increase in damages of all of the other natural disasters including earthquakes, wildfires and windstorms (both hurricanes and tornadoes). Low-probability, high-consequence flood events account for millions, and often billions, of dollars in flood damages each and every year. “Just a few inches of water from a flood can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage” to a structure and its contents, according to Floodsmart.gov. “Over the past ten years, the average flood claim has amounted to over $33,000.” Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a spare $33,000 laying around to pay for flood damages should my home ever flood ! Yet, there is a 26% chance of flooding for my home (and every home in the United States) during the lifetime of my 30 year mortgage. Quite frankly, I don’t view those odds as “arbitrary”, “unpredictable” or “unlikely”, yet those are the exact terms that community leaders and every-day citizens refer to when talking about the subject of flooding. Foolish, foolish, people.
Sweetwater Creek flooding – Sweetwater Creek State Park – Lithia Springs, GA
Courtesy : Melissa Tuttle-Carr, Meteorologist

In many of those same communities, the current policy of development promotes intensification in risk areas, ignores changing conditions, ignores adverse impacts to existing properties, both up and downstream, and undervalues the natural and beneficial functions of our nation’s floodplains, wetlands and sensitive areas. Current approaches deal primarily with how to build in a floodplain – vs – how to minimize future damages to all affected property owners. Again, foolish, foolish, people.

Two things have to happen to curb this devil-may-care attitude that the public in general has towards flooding. First, our community leaders must prepare in advance if they wish to gain the upper-hand on the devastating effects of flooding on their community. They must hone their best boy-scout skills and “prepare for the unexpected” and they must utilize manpower and resources to plan now how to avoid or minimize future flood events. Localities have the opportunity to shape their future development patterns – to reach a greater level of sustainability by engaging in progressive planning and practicing sound management of their natural resources thereby minimizing their exposure to the most damaging of natural hazards – flooding. Communities, through strategies like the Association of State Floodplain Managers’ No Adverse Impact (www.floods.org/NAI), must encourage local decision making to ensure that future development impacts will be identified, considered on a watershed-wide basis, and mitigated –a truly comprehensive strategy for reducing the losses, costs, and human suffering caused by flooding.
Second, the American public must recognize that floods can and will happen. You don’t have to believe me on this issue – just ask the folks in Kansas, Arkansas (2 events), Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, New Jersey (2 events), New York (2 events), Alabama, North Carolina, California, North Dakota (2 events), Arizona, Minnesota, Maine, West Virginia, Rhode Island (2 events), Massachusetts (2 events), Minnesota, Nebraska, Connecticut, Mississippi (2 events), Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and South Dakota – who have amassed a whopping 33 declared events in 26 states (through 5/14/2010). Let’s face it, the only defense against flooding is a good offense.

While the federal, state and local governments must take some responsibility, ultimately “the buck stops here” and we, as the American public, must protect ourselves. We must continue to encourage good sound sustainable development in our communities. This can be achieved by better land use doctrine, good planning, and higher standards in building codes, as a wholesome and realistic starting point. The late Gilbert F. White said it best: “Floods are acts of nature, but flood losses are largely acts of man.”  

Most importantly, we must protect ourselves against the threat of flooding by purchasing flood insurance. Flooding is, and continues to be, the # 1 natural hazard and most of us are already protecting ourselves (through our homeowners insurance) against the other major hazards (fire, earthquake, hurricanes and tornadoes, etc). Just because you haven’t experienced a flood in the past, doesn’t mean you won’t experience one in the future. Especially, since any piece of ground on this continent can flood given the right circumstances (not just those in the mapped floodplain ! ). Our home is the biggest investment some of us will ever make, yet it could be devastated in the blink of an eye by a flood event. There is good news, however. You are eligible to purchase flood insurance as long as your community participates in the National Flood Insurance Program. It’s your choice to protect yourself against flooding. The question is, what will you choose to do? 
 The author, Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM is Assistant Zoning and Development Administrator for the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission in Augusta, Georgia, Terri is the past Chair of the Georgia Association of Floodplain Management (GAFM) , the current ASFPM Region 4 Director, the current ASFPM No Adverse Impact Committee Co-Chair and was honored with the 2010 ASFPM Local Floodplain Manager of the Year award.







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