Why Some of the Nation’s Top Hurricane Experts Bought Flood Insurance
Editor’s Note: Today, May 9, is Day 4 of National Hurricane Preparedness Week. Today’s theme is “Get an Insurance Checkup,” and two hurricane experts talk in this blog post about why they decided to get flood insurance for their homes. For more information on flood insurance, you can visit http://www.floodsmart.gov or re-read our previous blog post on securing an insurance checkup.
By now, billion-dollar flood disasters in the U.S. are something of an overlooked seasonal rite-of-passage. The Midwest flooding of April 2017 feels like a distant memory, as does the California flooding two months before it, Hurricane Matthew’s historic flooding the fall before that, the devastating floods in Louisiana the summer before that, and Texas and Louisiana — again — the spring before that. Some 500,000 homes damaged or destroyed at a cost of more than $150 billion in two years from those events alone. No one expected that kind of flooding to affect them. They never do.
For Hurricane Harvey, its Category 4 winds at landfall were just a prelude of things to come. Harvey wasn’t even a hurricane by the time its heaviest rains reached Houston. Though the tropical storm’s still-high winds hampered rescue efforts, the winds were not at the forefront of the minds’ of residents living through the unimaginable. The magnitude of the flood nightmare caught even Houston, no stranger to big floods, by surprise. Three to five feet of rainwater poured down from the skies above in what would become the worst freshwater flood in United States history. The residences of nearly one-in-three people in America’s fourth-largest city were under water.
In Harvey’s wake lay a dizzying disbelief of devastation. More than 120,000 homes in Harris County, where Houston is located, were damaged by floodwaters. What’s more, an estimated 70 percent of those homes were uninsured for floods., That meant the majority of Houstonians, not the insurance companies, were on the hook for the bill. The best-case scenario for uninsured survivors was Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance (typically ranging $3,000–$8,000) or a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) low-interest federal loan (up to $200,000 for home repair). In reality, covering the cost of repairs for most came from a combination of federal assistance and personal finances, which for many meant adding to or incurring new consumer debt.
It was never intended for the federal government to bail out the uninsured after a disaster— in fact, quite the opposite. When the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was established 50 years ago, its goal was to help insure the uninsured before a disaster. Flooding is the most common and expensive type of disaster, and insuring high-risk flood areas often demands an astronomical price tag. Back in the 1960s, private market flood insurance simply wasn’t available. This is where the NFIP came in. Through the NFIP, the federal government began offering largely affordable policies to the residents of participating communities who adopted and enforced floodplain management ordinances in high-risk flood areas to reduce future flood risk. In theory, securing and insuring high-risk communities reduces the reliance on federal post-disaster assistance and saves the government (and U.S. taxpayers) money, which is a good thing.
Flood insurance, once voluntary, is today required for all properties with federally-backed mortgages in high-risk flood areas. To define these high-risk flood areas, FEMA routinely conducts flood hazard analyses to identify land areas at risk of being inundated by a flood that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. Since 1 percent is interchangeable with 1-in-100, these high-risk floods have become known as 1-in-100 year (or 100-year) floods. FEMA designates these so-called 100-year floodplains as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs).
Which brings us back to Houston. When Harvey’s floodwaters receded, some 2-in-3 survivors had no insurance to cover their flood losses.1,2 The vast majority of flooding during Harvey happened outside of the SFHA. The storm widened rivers and reservoirs to a point where roads became riverbeds. When everything’s flooded, flood zones feel a little meaningless. But one of the lessons Harvey taught is that flood zones, and our understanding of them, do matter — more so today than ever.
The so-called 100-year floodplain can be understandably confusing. A 1 percent chance of anything happening in a given year feels remote, but most of us don’t live in our houses for a single year. Consider, for example, a 30-year mortgage. The odds of one of those 100-year floods happening over the period of a 30-year mortgage is about 1 in 4. A 25 percent chance of a devastating flood over the period of your mortgage are higher than the odds of a devastating house fire, and you probably wouldn’t go 30 years without installing smoke detectors in your home.
It’s easy to see the need for flood insurance when it’s required; it’s not as clear when it isn’t. So what about those living in high-risk areas without a federally-backed mortgage? Or what about those living outside the high-risk, 100-year floodplain? After all, a moderate chance of flooding hardly implies you’re safe. In fact, FEMA estimates that nearly 1 in 4 of all federal flood claims occur outside of high-risk areas. As every billion-dollar flood disaster shows, floods can be some of the most egregious rule breakers.
Financial decisions, including whether to insure your home and belongings from a flood, are deeply personal family issues. They often aren’t easy decisions, even for those most familiar with the threat. Below, two of the nation’s leading hurricane experts discuss their own experiences living in places where water is a stark reality. Though the aim of their livelihoods is piecing together the clues of Mother Nature’s next step, they’ve each lived through the unpredictable moments. The billion-dollar floods don’t get any easier, and as coastal populations soar, neither will the decisions that shield us from Mother Nature’s most unpredictable moments.
Bill Read, Former Director, National Hurricane Center
I think a big problem people have is differentiating between “requiring” and “needing” flood insurance. My first exposure to the issue of “needing” flood insurance occurred when we moved from Maryland to League City, Texas, in 1992. The house we decided to purchase was (barely) outside the floodplain indicating the 100-year elevation. However, I was concerned about the risk mainly due to storm surge, as data indicated a Category 3 hurricane or above would bring water levels above the level of our home’s foundation. Our realtor and our lender were both adamant in telling us we didn’t “need” flood insurance. I asked our insurance agent at USAA and he was spot on in differentiating between “required” and “needed”. We chose to follow our insurer’s advice. When we decided to move to a new house in 2005, I found a development on the lowest flood risk land in League City, a parcel that sat outside the 500-year elevation. While no longer in a storm surge risk area, I was concerned about flooding from an “off the charts” rain event. Interestingly, my realtor for this move was savvy about flooding along the Gulf coast and advised us to keep flood insurance, as did USAA, which I had already decided I would do based on the many floods I had witnessed outside the 100-year risk areas in Houston since 1992. Along came Harvey, and although we did not flood from the 45 inches of rain we received, the water reached our porch and was one inch from entering the house. Six of my friends were not as fortunate, and two of them did not have flood insurance. Needless to say, when my policy came up for renewal in February, I quickly did so!
Jamie Rhome, Storm Surge Specialist, National Hurricane Center
I recently purchased a home in South Florida, and while going through the mortgage approval process, was informed that the home was outside of the high-risk area (aka the 100-year flood zone) and thus flood insurance wasn’t “required.” I’m also far enough inland to prevent storm surge (saltwater) inundation. However, the home is situated near a freshwater lake, and South Florida often experiences very heavy rains, sometimes exceeding 10 inches in a day. One can easily envision a scenario where debris, from heavy rains or winds, clogs the storm water drains and water pools in the street, eventually coming up the driveway and ultimately wetting the bottom floor of my home. Indeed, South Floridians are very accustomed to this very issue as it frequently occurs during our rainy season. Without flood insurance, I as the homeowner would be responsible for all the damage, which can easily climb into the thousands of dollars. Imagine replacing floors, walls, furniture, possessions, etc., and then taking steps to prevent mold. Given the small cost of flood insurance, the decision was an easy one and I determined that flood insurance was “needed” even if it wasn’t “required.” I was also lucky enough to have a realtor who was well-informed on flood insurance and overall flood risk. He encouraged the purchase of flood insurance citing his experience living in Florida and personal experience with freshwater flooding. Not all home buyers benefit from such well-informed or well-intentioned realtors and home buyers often navigate these complicated waters on their own. If in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
— Michael Lowry (UCAR Visiting Scientist), Jamie Rhome and Robbie Berg (NHC)
 Preliminary analysis of Hurricane Harvey flooding in Harris County, Texas. California WaterBlog. Available at https://californiawaterblog.com/2017/09/01/preliminary-analysis-of-hurricane-harvey-flooding-in-harris-county-texas/
 Hurricane Harvey: 70% of home damage costs aren’t covered by insurance. CNN Money. Available at http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/01/news/hurricane-harvey-cost-damage-homes-flood/index.html
Education: The Best Hurricane Preparedness Tool
It’s been an extremely busy hurricane season, and even though there are still two months left, we’re already starting to get ready for the hurricane “off-season.” It’s no surprise that the National Hurricane Center (NHC) spends the hurricane season issuing forecasts, watches, and warnings for tropical cyclones to protect lives and property, but people often wonder what we do when it’s not hurricane season. An earlier blog entry discussed some of the main activities during the “off-season”. However, one item that was not discussed was NHC’s interaction with students and the general public. To engage and educate students and the general public, NHC organizes and is involved with numerous outreach events.
One of the largest public turnouts was in April 2017 for an open house at NHC and the Miami NWS Weather Forecast Office (WFO). Over 1,000 people showed up to learn more about NHC and WFO operations and how to be hurricane ready. Similar experiences were provided during several office tours that were open to the public and schools outside of hurricane season. NHC forecasters also make efforts to interact with students and teachers at career days at schools in South Florida, and participate in outreach events at local museums, boat shows, and colleges to help get the message out about weather hazards and preparedness. For a virtual tour of NHC’s operations, visit http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/nhctour.shtml.
Since many areas in the United States and internationally are affected by hurricanes, the NHC takes their outreach efforts on the road to reach more hurricane vulnerable locations. NHC plays a critical role in two annual Hurricane Awareness Tours (one in the Caribbean/Mexico and one in the United States/Canada). The Hurricane Awareness Tours are an opportunity for NOAA and its partner agencies to visit locations that are vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. At each location along the tour, the public can get an up-close look at the NOAA and U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft and meet some of the crew that fly into hurricanes. In addition, NHC and other partners discuss the importance of having a personal hurricane plan at each stop of the tour, including knowing whether or not you live in an evacuation zone. The events provide an opportunity for NHC to spread the hurricane preparedness message through local media and emergency managers, with the main goal being to increase public awareness of hurricane threats and ensure that communities and families in hurricane prone areas are better prepared to face the next storm. Over 13,000 people showed up for the 2017 U.S./Canada Hurricane Awareness Tour, the most successful turn out in its history.
To take advantage of today’s high-tech society, NHC has moved a portion of our outreach efforts into the virtual world. To reach students, NHC has teamed up with the University of Rhode Island and NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center to conduct educational webinars for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. These webinars provided an overview of hurricane history and hazards, and we quizzed students on their hurricane knowledge. The webinars also featured videos of the Hurricane Hunters and allowed students to directly ask questions. During the past five years, the webinars have reached more than 40,000 students from around the country and beyond. For more information please visit http://www.hurricanescience.org/resources/nhcwebinar/.
During the past few years, NHC has also partnered with NOAA’s Southeast and Caribbean Regional Collaboration Team to offer a series of webinars that are intended to improve the understanding of NHC and local NWS Weather Forecast Office tropical-cyclone-related products and services. These webinars are geared toward the general public, emergency managers, and media partners. Recordings of these webinars can be found at http://www.regions.noaa.gov/secar/index.php/highlights/noaas-2017-hurricane-season-awareness-webinars/.
These are just some examples of how meteorologists at NHC interact with the public and students. It has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job, as I know that I am providing a valuable education to those that live in hurricane vulnerable locations. In addition, some of these events have inspired students to want to learn more about weather, hopefully encouraging the next generation of meteorologists. So if you are interested in attending some of these events for the next “off-season”, stayed tuned to hurricanes.gov for updates.
— John Cangialosi
Complete Your Written Hurricane Plan
Get a Plan!
Director, Florida Division of Emergency Management
@BKoonFDEM / @FLSERT
A lot of the advice you hear in advance of hurricane season includes some variation on “Get a Plan”. And you may have thought, “Why? How difficult can it be?” The truth is, it’s really not difficult. Most of the things that I want you to consider when dealing with a natural disaster such as a hurricane are basic, common-sense issues that you deal with every day of your life. The problem is that when a hurricane or other severe weather is bearing down on you and your family, the things that you normally take for granted may be in short supply, and you’ve got to get a lot done in a very short period of time. In those circumstances, having gone through the planning process with your loved ones, and developing a written plan to help guide your actions, could save your life.
Simply considering developing a plan is a very good first step. It will help you think about the hazards where you live. Are you close to the ocean and potentially in a storm surge zone? Do you live in a flood plain? Do you live in a house likely to be damaged in high winds? Are the roads you rely on to get to the grocery store or the pharmacy prone to flooding? Knowing how a storm can affect you will help determine what kind of plan you should develop.
Once you know how a hurricane will affect your physical environment, consider what that means for your loved ones. Do you care for young children or elderly relatives? Do you have pets or livestock that you need to care for? Think about how a prolonged period without power or water will affect them. What would you do if you couldn’t get to the grocery store for a few days, or if the gas station ran out of fuel?
Once you’ve thought about these issues, though, take the next step and write down your answers. When a hurricane is coming, having a written plan will help ensure that you’re taking care of the most important things. And by going through the planning process together, you and your family will be more confident that you’ll be able to survive the storm and get your life back to normal as quickly as possible. Having a guide to make sure you’ve taken care of the essentials will give you peace of mind and allow you to focus on keeping your family safe.
Will everything go exactly as you planned it? Probably not. There are so many variables in a hurricane and so many unknown factors that you’ll likely have to improvise. But it’s much easier to deviate from a well-considered plan than it is to try to develop a course of action from scratch during the middle of the event.
There are a lot of resources to help you. In Florida, try www.flgetaplan.com. In South Carolina go to http://www.scemd.org/planandprepare/preparedness/famdiasterplan, and in Texas a good resource is http://www.texasprepares.org/. Other great sites include The Red Cross and FEMA’s Ready.gov site. And there are many more; simply search “disaster plan” on the internet and you’ll find plenty of options. All of them are very good, and any one of them will help you accomplish your goal of getting you ready. Kids can even get involved by helping their parents fill out a family communication plan.
Hurricanes are a fact of life, and their impacts can be catastrophic. If you are well prepared for them however, the likelihood that you will survive and be able to recover quickly are tremendously improved. That preparation starts with developing a plan to guide you through the situation. An hour or two spent now on writing your plan could save your life!
Identify Your Trusted Sources of Information
Identifying Trusted Sources for a Hurricane Event
Dr. Gina Eosco
Senior Social Scientist/Risk Communication Specialist, Eastern Research Group
@WxComm / @ERGupdate
Hurricanes are dangerous! Extreme winds, storm surge, inland flooding from heavy rains, and tornadoes can all be life threatening. Understanding your risk from these threats is important—and a trusted, credible source for hurricane information can help.
When a storm is threatening your area, there are many places to go for information to determine if you are at risk….
- The National Weather Service, including the National Hurricane Center
- TV stations
- Social media
- And others… like friends and family
But, are all sources of weather information the same? Are all sources trustworthy?
To answer that question, you first have to define what is meant by “trustworthy.” As it turns out, several factors contribute to people’s perceptions of trust, including the source’s knowledge and expertise, openness and honesty, and concern and care.[i] Using these factors of trust, here are some tips to identify trusted sources of hurricane information:
Does your source have hurricane knowledge and expertise? Knowledge and expertise are gained through a combination of study and practical experience. Does your source hire staff with degrees in meteorology? In addition to formal degrees, the American Meteorological Society certifies individuals who have “achieved a high level of competency in communicating complex weather.” The National Weather Association also offers a certification program. These certifications and corresponding logos are shown on TV next to a broadcaster’s name, online, or in someone’s biography.
Of equal importance is how many years of experience does your source have? Hurricanes are like fingerprints. No two storms are the same. Forecasters must observe, collect, and analyze complex data to determine the hurricane track, intensity, and potential impacts, like storm surge. It stands to reason that the more experience a source has with different storms, the more knowledge and expertise that individual has gained over time.
Determining if a source is open and honest is a bit more subjective. Here are a few guiding thoughts.
Does your source convey what he or she knows and doesn’t know? There is always some uncertainty with a storm. Communicating uncertainty is vital to an open dialogue about the risk of hurricanes. For example, during Hurricane Joaquin in September and October of 2015, the National Hurricane Center issued a new “key messages” section in their Tropical Cyclone Discussion and also sent it out on Twitter, at one point stating, “Because landfall, if it occurs, is still more than three days away, it’s too early to talk about specific wind, rain or surge impacts from Joaquin in the United States.” NHC openly shared what it did and did not know about the storm.
The last factor that leads to trust is perceiving that a source has concern and care for you. You might get the impression that a source feels concern and care by his or her tone of voice or word choice—but how do you really know? One way to gauge concern and care is by understanding the source’s mission. For instance, the National Hurricane Center explicitly states that its mission is
“To save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts and analyses of hazardous tropical weather, and by increasing understanding of these hazards.”
Hurricanes can be fearful experiences to live through, and evacuation decisions can be equally as stressful. Hurricane risk information from a trusted source can calm those fears and provide the details you need to make an informed decision that is right for you.
Hurricanes may vary in their strength, but with trusted sources by your side, you can always remain #HurricaneStrong.
[i] Peters, R. G., Covello, V. T., & McCallum, D. B. (1997). The determinants of trust and credibility in environmental risk communication: An empirical study. Risk analysis, 17(1), 43-54.
Strengthen Your Home
President and CEO, Federal Alliance For Safe Homes (FLASH)©
@LCHenderson / @FederalAlliance
If you’ve been following along with us this National Hurricane Preparedness Week and joining us to get #HurricaneStrong, you’ve already moved through the first four steps on your path to the ultimate state of readiness. You’ve determined your risk, developed an evacuation plan for your family, secured an insurance check-up, and assembled your disaster supplies.
So, now it’s time to focus on our message for Day Five–Strengthen Your Home. This may be the most challenging of the critical steps to preparedness, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Having a strong home will give you the peace of mind that comes with feeling safe and sound.
If you have a strong home, and reside outside of a storm surge evacuation zone, you should be able to take shelter in your home. This will keep you, your family, and your pets together, off the roads, and out of the shelters. This is especially important as shelter space is limited, and should be reserved for those that must evacuate.
Also, if a hurricane strikes, your strong home can be the key ingredient for a swift recovery after the storm because strong, high-performing homes resist the wind and water that come with a hurricane. They suffer less damage, save you money, and reduce or eliminate repair time.
So how can you get a strong home?
First, it is important to understand the different ways that hurricanes can damage a home.
Hurricanes can cause damage to buildings and homes in a variety of ways:
- High winds put pressure on the home and its connections
- Windborne debris batters and breaks windows, doors and garage doors
- Wind-driven rain enters through openings like windows and doors
- Rising waters flood inside homes, damaging appliances, electrical systems, flooring, and more
- Waves and storm surge batter a home, causing it to break apart or even wash away
High winds exert extreme pressure on your home, and cause four types of building failure. Uplift occurs when the wind moves over the structure pulling upward, especially on the roof. Racking happens when horizontal pressure causes the house to tilt. Sliding occurs when the horizontal wind pressure pushes a house off its foundation. And, overturning occurs when a house resists horizontal pressure, and won’t rack or slide.
These high wind failures can be prevented or effectively lessened when a home is well-connected with the right amount of nails and metal connectors. The key connections to reinforce include the roof-to-upper story; upper story to first floor; and house to foundation. When you make these connections the right way, you will have a continuous load path that ties your home together from the roof to the foundation.
If you are getting ready to build a new home, remember, it is possible to build a hurricane-resistant home from a variety of materials, including wood, engineered wood, and concrete products like concrete block, insulated concrete forms, cast-in-place concrete, and more. Many materials provide the additional benefits of durability, energy savings, and sustainability, so it’s important to research all of your options before you begin.
Windborne debris batters and breaks windows, doors, and garage doors, but this can be prevented by using impact-resistant windows and doors, or tested and approved hurricane shutters. Shutters can be permanently installed, or temporarily. Even the proper thickness of 5/8” plywood cut to fit each window and opening is effective if properly mounted with the right fasteners. Click here to view our videos about hurricane shutters, impact-resistant windows, and how to make temporary, emergency panels.
Wind-driven rain can be kept out of your home if you refresh the caulk around your windows and the flashing around doors at least once per year. Hurricane shutters will also help prevent this damage.
Rising waters flood inside homes, damaging appliances, electrical systems, flooring, and more. Click here to use this calculator and see the potential damage to your home from flooding. What you’ll learn is that only four inches of water can cause nearly $30,000 in damage.
The best financial protection from flood damage is flood insurance, but you must purchase a separate policy as it is not part of your homeowner’s insurance coverage. Also, flood policies carry a 30-day waiting period, so it is important to secure your protection now before the hurricane season begins.
In addition to flood insurance, there are many steps you can take to minimize flood damage. This animation provides a comprehensive overview, and here are some examples:
- Elevate electrical outlets
- Anchor fuel tanks
- Install a floating drain
- Elevate appliances inside and outside
It is also important to keep your gutters and downspouts around the home clear of debris, so they can carry the water away from your foundation.
If flooding is imminent, you should secure sandbags. If they are properly filled, placed, and maintained, sandbags can redirect storm water and debris flows away from a home and other structures. Follow the guidance below to make sure you use and then dispose of them correctly.
- Fill sandbags one-half full.
- Use sand if readily available, otherwise use local soil.
- Fold top of sandbag down and rest bag on its folded top.
- Take care in stacking sandbags.
- Limit placement to three layers unless a building is used as a backing or sandbags are placed in a pyramid.
- Tamp each sandbag into place, completing each layer prior to starting the next layer.
- Clear a path between buildings for debris flow.
- Lay a plastic sheet in between the building and the bags to control the flow and prevent water from seeping through openings like sliding glass doors.
- Sandbags will not seal out water.
- Sandbags deteriorate when exposed to continued wetting and drying for several months. If bags are placed too early, they may be ineffective when needed.
- Sandbags are for small water flow protection up to two feet. Protection from larger flow requires a more permanent flood prevention system.
- Wet sandbags are very heavy and caution should be used to avoid injury.
It is important to consult your local environmental protection department before disposing of used sandbags. Sandbags exposed to contaminated floodwaters may pose an environmental hazard and require special handling.
Storm surge and waves are often the most destructive threats to homes in the path of a hurricane. So, whether you live near the coast where storm surge is possible, or you are inland where rising waters from heavy rains threaten, it is best to build or buy a home that is elevated above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) or the expected level of flooding established by the FEMA flood maps.
No matter where you live, the best protection from hurricanes or any natural disaster is to ensure that your home is constructed to meet or exceed current building codes. Post-disaster investigations have proven again and again that homes built to code have the best chance of surviving. And when you have a strong home that survives the wind and the water from hurricanes, you will become resilient in the face of the storm.