In the midst of Tropical Storm Claudette and the rainstorms covering the Southeast this week, flooding has been common in our region. On Saturday alone, the Pensacola area received at least 4” of rain. To the observant, flooding is rather predictable. If you live directly on the water, it is expected that storm surge and heavy wave action from a tropical storm will bring in higher water levels. If you live near a creek, river, or just at the lowest area in a hilly neighborhood, you may also expect standing water after heavy rains. Unfortunately, many unwitting Florida residents purchase homes unaware of their property’s history—whether the area has flooded before, proximity to current or former wetlands, and historic hydrologic conditions.
Keep in mind that changes in the landscape around your home can affect the amount of floodwater you receive. Increased construction that removes trees and open space, replacing them with roads and buildings, will reduce the amount of rain absorbed into the ground. This can change the way water flows and result in increased runoff and potential flooding. Older or clogged stormwater systems also increase flooding, so it is important to maintain clean roadsides and clear debris from drains if you observe this during a storm. Small creeks and water crossings may swell with floodwater even 2-3 days after a heavy rain, particularly if areas upstream receive heavy rainfall. In addition, we have seen tragic damages from failed dams, levees, and retaining walls that failed during heavy storms. Be aware of the locations and role of these structures in any potential neighborhood you live or consider buying a home in.
While other states have coastal regions vulnerable to hurricanes, the entire state of Florida lies within FEMA’s highest designation of storm frequency. With hurricane season just beginning, it is wise to consider flood insurance. Regular homeowners’ insurance policies do not cover damage related to flooding. I have spoken with many homeowners foregoing flood insurance because their home is “high and dry” or “not in a flood zone.” It can be argued, however, that as a Floridian, particularly one in a region of the state with the highest annual average rainfall, you are in a flood zone—it’s just a matter of high or low risk.
Flood insurance is only required in areas define by FEMA as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA), which are designated as A, V (100-year flood), or X (500-year flood) zones on the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). SFHAs are often waterfront homes, low-lying property, creek floodplains, or located on barrier islands. The terms “100-year” and “500-year” flood can be deceiving, giving the impression that the area in question will only flood once during a 100 or 500-year period. In reality, it means that in any given year there is a 1% chance (1 out of 100) or 0.2% (1 out of 500) chance that the area will flood. However, big rain events may (and often do) happen much more frequently than that, and the statistical chances can change with differences in land use. In fact, a local stormwater team found that the Pensacola area experienced four “100-year” floods in the past 80 years.
So, don’t let the absence of a SFHA designation on your property lull you into complacency regarding flood insurance. Many of my friends and neighbors experienced this firsthand during the unanticipated storm of April 2014. Our area received more than 20” of rain in 24 hours, and damage was hurricane-like in its scope. Many residential homeowners not in “flood zones” were flooded out. The good news is, flood insurance is often very inexpensive for those outside of officially designated Special Flood Hazard Areas. Rates can be as low as $130/year for basic coverage in a low-risk area. According to the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) website, a quarter of NFIP flood insurance claims and third of Federal Disaster Assistance each year goes to residents outside a mapped high-risk flood zone. When the expenses related to flooding–including removal of flooring, walls, furniture, and damage to plumbing and wiring–are taken into consideration, flood insurance can be a smart investment.
Timing is important, too, because a 30-day waiting period is often required before flood insurance coverage kicks in. If you are also looking at windstorm insurance, be aware that policies will not be sold if a storm is in the Gulf. It is important to act sooner than later, but if you start now, you can have coverage in place before August and September, when our most severe storms historically occur after the Gulf has had all summer to warm up.