With the strongest El Niño conditions in nearly 20 years already underway in the Pacific Ocean and chances increasing for heavy storms this winter, federal emergency officials on Friday urged Californians to buy flood insurance — even those who don't live near creeks or rivers.
"We encourage everyone to take the threat seriously," said Roy Wright, a deputy associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. "If there ever was a time to buy flood insurance, this is that time."
Many property owners who live in "high hazard" areas on flood maps that FEMA publishes are required to buy flood insurance as a condition of receiving a mortgage loan. But because there are large numbers of renters and people who have paid off their mortgages living near rivers, creeks and shorelines, only 30 to 50 percent of people living in high hazard areas nationwide have flood insurance, Wright said.
Most homeowner's insurance policies cover damage if a tree falls through a roof or storms cause other harm, such as blowing patio furniture through a window. But they usually do not cover the damage from flood waters.
"People always say 'I never thought this would happen to me,'" said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance. "But if it does, are you prepared to recover without insurance? It can be thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Flood insurance policies for people in high-risk areas can cost $1,000 or a more a year. Policies for people outside those high-risk areas, which are called "preferred risk" policies, are cheaper and can range from about $140 to $500 a year, Wright said.
"That is often within someone's reach in terms of the kind of investment they can make to buy down their risk," he said. "Even if you buy that policy for only one year, this is the year to buy it."
FEMA has posted its flood risk maps and tips to reduce flood risk at www.floodsmart.gov.
In recent months, a number of flash floods and episodes of heavy rain have served as reminders of the risk of rising water. Last week, flash flooding trapped nearly 200 cars and trucks in mudslides up to 6 feet deep on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County and Highway 58, 30 miles east of Bakersfield.
A month ago, 20 people died in flash floods along the Utah-Arizona border. Those killed included 13 children and a sheriff's deputy.
Unlike most other kinds of insurance, which consumers buy from private insurance companies, flood insurance is funded through the federal government, due to a 1968 law enacted after many private companies declined to offer policies following heavy losses.
Jamie Court, a consumer advocate, said that people should consider buying flood insurance this year, and everyone should at least check their policies, although some residents probably don't need to worry.
"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all, but this is a wake-up call," said Court, who is president of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica. "People do have to re-evaluate their insurance coverage. This won't affect me because I live on top of a hill with good drainage. I'm very unlikely to sustain flood damage. But on the other hand, people who aren't in flood zones could flood if they are at the bottom of a hill or close to a storm drain."
Experts said Friday that homeowners should check their roofs for areas that could leak, caulk drafty windows and doors, and trim dead trees that are near buildings. They also should take videos of their possessions in every room and store that video out of their home, either in the Internet cloud or another location. And they should update emergency kits with flashlights, battery-powered radios, bottled water and other supplies.
"Now is the time to do it. Once we get into the rains, it becomes much more difficult to act after the fact," said Ken Katz, national property risk control director at Travelers Insurance. "Do it now. Take it seriously."
In the Bay Area, some people are already at work.
Jason Alarid, whose family owns Henry's Hi-Life, a restaurant in downtown San Jose near the Guadalupe River, which flooded in 1995, said he already had crews check his roof, and he's talking with his insurance agent about his flood policy.
"With this El Niño, we think we need more coverage, just in case," he said. "You never know what will happen."
Readying for EL NIÑO storms:
Check insurance policies
Trim back dead branches near home
Caulk doors and windows
Update emergency kit
Bring in patio furniture
In heavy rain, avoid driving through water more than 6 inches deep
Source: FEMA, Travelers Insurance
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.