ACAMPO, Calif. (AP) — Kyle Starks woke up Sunday morning to floodwaters that reached the door of his Jeep after another heavy rainstorm flooded California. Emergency crews showed up with boats to float Starks and other residents from his rural mobile home park in Acampo to safety.
Beyond the physical destruction, the storm could have a financial impact: Starks does not have flood insurance.
“I didn’t think there would be such a flood,” he said from an evacuation center, fearing the water would damage wiring and air conditioning equipment.
In California, only about 230,000 homes and other buildings have flood insurance policies, which are separate from home insurance. This means that only around 2% of properties are covered against flooding. The federal government is the insurer of the majority of them – about 191,000 in December. Private insurers issued the rest, according to the most recent state data for 2021.
In California, 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow have fallen since Christmas. The water washed away roads, knocked out electricity and created mudslides as it soaked hills charred by wildfires. It caused damage in 41 of the state’s 58 counties. At least 21 people have died.
It takes focused study to know the role of climate change in specific weather patterns, but warmer air means storms like the ones that have flooded California in recent weeks can carry more water.
Still, drought in California has dulled people’s sense of flood risk. People typically buy insurance after a disaster when the risk is visceral, said Amy Bach, executive director of insurance consumer group United Policyholders.
“People think the only people who need flood insurance are people who live directly on the beach or on the banks of a river that has a history of flooding,” Bach said. In reality, many more people are threatened by rainfall or rising waters.
When buying a home, a key document will be the official maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency which will tell you if it is in a high-risk flood zone. If so, and you have a federally backed mortgage, you need to purchase flood insurance which costs an average of $950 per year. Many banks also require it.
Still, FEMA maps are limited and only take into account certain types of flooding – they don’t really predict flood risk. Floods caused by heavy rains that back up storm drains are not counted, for example. The limits mean that the risk of flooding is underestimated on a national scale. According to Matthew Eby, executive director of the First Street Foundation, a risk analysis organization, the maps particularly minimize disaster risk in California.
FEMA maps do not show Stark’s mobile home in a high-risk area. And three years before neighbor Juan Reyes bought his house, a series of storms dumped record amounts of rain on the state and flooded their neighborhood.
Reyes knew this, but he still hadn’t purchased flood insurance. It was too expensive, he said, and it was unnecessary. Moreover, he believed that the local authorities had improved the stormwater drainage system so that a similar flood would not happen again. But he did and Reyes also had to be rescued by boat. He stays in the same evacuation center, hoping his house isn’t too damaged.
The storms have so damaged several thousand homes that they will need to be repaired before people can live there again. But Nicholas Pinter, a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies watersheds, said California needs to be prepared for even bigger events and that requires a lot more investment in flood defenses and a greater awareness of its danger.
“It is worrying that there was as much damage as there was for extreme but not catastrophic flooding,” he said.
State officials said even without flood coverage, they try to help people pursue their claims — flooded cars, for example, are sometimes covered by auto insurance policies.
READ MORE: How to Help California Storm Victims
David Enero in Merced, a community of about 90,000 in California’s Central Valley that was severely flooded, is also trying to figure out how to recover. The water was ankle-deep in his house. The laminate floor in her living room was floating.
“It was kind of like walking on a wave or a trampoline,” he said. The house smells of a mixture of mold, rotting hay and septic tank overflow.
Enero lives in a designated high-risk area where people must purchase flood insurance. He says paying for the damage alone would be unimaginable. In retrospect, he would have liked to have insured his property as well.
Although the maps force Enero and others in certain regions to purchase coverage, FEMA no longer uses its infamous maps to set prices.
The agency updated its pricing in 2021 to more accurately reflect risk and called it Risk Rating 2.0. FEMA says these revised prices — not flood maps — are what communicate flood risk to consumers. The old system placed more emphasis on simple measurements – a home’s elevation and whether it was in a mapped flood zone. The 2.0 risk rating takes into account distance to water, damage from heavy rain and many other factors. It raises rates for around three-quarters of policyholders and offers price cuts for the first time.
FEMA has long said the new ratings will attract new policyholders with prices that reveal a property’s true risk and are more accurate. Yet since taking effect in California, the number of policies has dropped about 5%, continuing a multi-year decline nationwide.
Some are unaware of their risk.
Jay Laub, one of Reyes’ neighbors who was also rescued from floodwaters, said when he bought his house, insurance companies were mainly trying to sell him earthquake coverage. He said he assumed his house was covered in flooding. He learned this week that no.
Laub said he was worried his mobile home would sink into the soggy ground, which might require him to level it. He said he didn’t know how he would pay for it.
“What are you doing? You’re on Social Security, like me,” he said. “But you know what? You take it one step at a time. You just gotta stay strong.
Trevor Burgess, CEO of private insurer Neptune, said there had been a rush for new policies with the storms. In the first 10 days of 2022, the company sold 53 in California. This year, Neptune sold 313, an increase of about 500%.
“Storms, even though it’s this terrible tragedy – a human tragedy and a property tragedy – have the effect of reminding people that they are vulnerable and need to protect themselves,” Burgess said. .
Phillis reported from St. Louis.