Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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State officials answer questions about Whatcom flood insurance and damage assistance


BELLINGHAM — Flooding in recent weeks has destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced families in Whatcom County. In addition to the emotional toll the disaster has taken on the community, the price tag is astonishing: Damages could reach up to $50 million, according to Whatcom County officials.

As communities begin to recover and with more winter storms ahead, flood insurance may be on the mind of many residents: Should I get it? If I have it, how do I get my money? If I didn’t have it, is there any way for me to get financial assistance now?

Here are the answers to your questions about flood insurance and aid, from state officials and insurance experts.

How does flood insurance work?

If you have flood insurance, you can access funds to replace and repair your property in the wake of flooding.

Floods are devastatingly expensive, said Kenton Brine, president of the nonprofit NW Insurance Council. An inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage, according to FEMA.

The primary provider of flood insurance in the United States is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The agency manages the National Flood Insurance Program, which was launched in 1968 to reduce future flood damage and protect property owners.

The National Flood Insurance Program is available to anyone living in a community that has chosen to participate and passed the necessary ordinances, explained David Radabaugh, the state National Flood Insurance Program coordinator at the Department of Ecology. The program is accessible to all Whatcom County residents.

Whatcom County participates in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System, allowing residents in unincorporated areas of the county to get flood insurance at a 20% reduced rate.

Flood insurance is required for buildings that are within FEMA’s mapped floodplain and have a federally backed mortgage, which most mortgages are, Radabaugh said. But even residents outside the floodplain can purchase flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

There is also a smaller private flood insurance market.

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program isn’t perfect, Brine said. It’s heavily subsidized with tax dollars, and the amount of money it brings in is not enough to pay for the flood damage that happens.

The program has run a chronic deficit since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Radabaugh, and it is currently more than $20 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Members of Congress have proposed reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, and in October, FEMA requested public input on certain revisions to the program.

I had flood insurance before this month’s flooding. How do I get my money?

File your claim as soon as you can, Radabaugh urged residents impacted by the flooding. There are cutoff dates for when claims are to be filed. For the National Flood Insurance Program, it’s usually 60 days after the damage was done, he said.

There have already been hundreds of National Flood Insurance Program claims filed in the wake of recent flooding, he said.

Folks who have FEMA flood insurance may be eligible for up to an additional $30,000 through Increased Cost of Compliance coverage. This injection of funding is offered to policyholders in high-risk flood areas to help them invest in building changes to reduce future flood damage, according to FEMA.

That could mean raising buildings above community-adopted flood elevation levels, relocating buildings, demolishing flood-damaged buildings or flood-proofing a building (which is available primarily for non-residential structures).

More information about how to file an Increased Cost of Compliance claim is available on FEMA’s website.

People should also stay tuned in to the news, Radabaugh said — if more financial assistance is available, state and local officials will do their best to disseminate that information.

My property was damaged, but I didn’t have flood insurance. What now?

For many Whatcom families, this is a crucial question. Recent flooding was historic, touching areas that homeowners may not have thought needed flood insurance. Radabaugh knows it’s frustrating for affected residents to hear, but he said state and local officials are still figuring out how to get relief funds for individuals.

“We don’t really budget for a big flood,” Radabaugh said. “At the state level, we are working on that right now.”

He predicts that Gov. Jay Inslee will ask President Joe Biden to make a disaster declaration, which would open the gates for federal funding to flow into Whatcom communities. If that happens, there will be immediate federal funding available to repair public infrastructure such as roads and wastewater treatment systems.

A disaster declaration could also mean individual financial assistance, which is sometimes doled out after bigger disasters, but Radabaugh was hesitant to make any promises.

“I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” he said.

Should I get flood insurance?

You should seriously consider it, Brine and Radabaugh both said. Folks might not realize it, but flood insurance is likely not included in homeowners insurance.

“If there is a risk of flood damage, people should get flood insurance,” Radabaugh said. “For most folks, their home is their biggest investment.”

Nearly half of all National Flood Insurance Program policies in Washington are held by people outside of FEMA’s mapped floodplain, he said. That sometimes makes Radabaugh question whether the federal flood maps are the best indicator of whether someone should get flood insurance.

“I have to ask ‘Do the residents know more than we do, the folks mapping and doing the technical work?’” Radabaugh said. “And they may.”

People can purchase flood insurance by contacting their insurance company or agent and asking about the program, according to FEMA. There is a 30-day waiting period for National Flood Insurance Program policies to go into effect.

Brine recommends that people get multiple flood insurance quotes, from both private insurers and the National Flood Insurance Program, before selecting one.

People considering flood insurance should know that there is a very real potential for rates to increase in the near future, Radabaugh said.

Rates have been going up in recent years, he said, prompting Congress to pass the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014. Under current law, most rates are not allowed to increase more than 18% each year. In practice, most rates have gone up less than 10% a year, Radabaugh said. It’s not a huge number, but can add up quickly.

“I would not be surprised to see rates go up in the future,” Radabaugh said.

The National Flood Insurance Program is currently rolling out a new pricing methodology called Risk Rating 2.0, which takes into account more flood-risk variables than the former methodology. FEMA says the change is intended to make the insurance program more equitable, since policyholders with lower-valued homes are paying more than their share of risk, considering that their rebuilding costs are lower.

It’s still unclear exactly how Risk Rating 2.0 will impact policyholders, but Radabaugh said the expectation in Washington is that about 30% of policies will have lower rates, less than 10% will have significantly higher rates and the remaining nearly 60% of policyholders will see somewhat higher rates, but not too much.

How does climate change impact flood insurance?

Human-caused climate change is expected to bring more frequent, intense precipitation and flooding to the region, scientists say. Areas that may have been untouched by Nooksack River flooding in the past could start to see waters creep in during big storms, and residents might have to deal with flood damage more frequently, Brine said.

That’s worrisome news for the already overexposed National Flood Insurance Program, he said.

“If everyone in the program isn’t paying to cover the cost of floods, and we are having more floods, that’s just not a math equation that works,” Brine said.

FEMA’s flood maps do not account for climate change, said Radabaugh, so they are not the only resource people should use when considering flood insurance. Brine echoed this sentiment: Residents should look at the real damage in their community and ask themselves whether they perceive a risk.

“The biggest problem is if someone has owned a home for a long time that didn’t see flooding historically and is now seeing flooding nearby,” Brine said.

What’s next for Whatcom?

Whatcom County is asking all residents, whether they have flood insurance or not, to report damage through the online damage assessment report or by phone at 360-788-5311. These reports will help support the county’s request for aid from the state and federal governments.

If a disaster declaration is made, there could also be federal dollars available for community hazard mitigation projects, which would make Whatcom more resilient to future flood damage. But those projects will have to make their way through a winding bureaucratic process, Radabaugh said, and they might not be completed or even have broken ground before the next big storm.

“That is several months away at best,” Radabaugh said. “Those grants, getting them reviewed, getting them through the FEMA review process, that can take years.”