Recent flooding in the region and across the state has prompted more property owners to wonder if they either have, or need, flood insurance.
The truth is flash flooding can occur anytime and anywhere. Even homeowners who do not live in a high-risk area stand a chance of their home and household possessions being wiped out by rapidly rising flood waters.
A flash flood on Aug. 19 killed four people who had been in cars on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park, and recent historic flooding in the eastern half of the state caused extensive property damage and 12 deaths.
Many people believe they are covered against flood damage by their homeowners, condo or renters insurance policy, but that can be a costly misconception, according to industry experts.
Flood insurance is in a class of its own. It must be purchased separately through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“Banks often require flood insurance,” said Janet Scott-Buckley, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency in North Andover, Mass. “We are seeing it more now than before.
“Part of that is due to the National Flood Program doing a remapping of flood zones, and also because banks are a lot more careful and are looking deeper into what coverage a customer has.
“Flood insurance is one of those coverages they are starting to insist on,” she said.
According to FloodSmart.gov, the official site of the National Flood Insurance Program, the average flood policy costs about $600 a year. From 2001 to 2010, flood insurance claims averaged just over $2.6 billion over the nine-year period, and the average flood insurance claim paid in the U.S. was $48,000.
Pennsylvania reported the 10th highest number of flood insurance claims in 2010 at 1,094 total claims.
For those property owners who plan on just letting the federal government bail them out in a national flood disaster, Ms. Scott-Buckley pointed out that most disaster assistance comes in the form of low-interest loans, not grants.
And when property owners do receive financial assistance from the federal government following a presidentially declared disaster, they may then be required to purchase flood insurance coverage.
Some homes, such as those that back up on a creek or sit in a low-lying area, seem logical candidates for flood insurances. But the homeowners uphill might want to consider it, as well.
People living outside of high-risk areas file more than 20 percent of claims under the National Flood Insurance program and receive one-third of disaster assistance for flooding, according to FEMA.
“People not in special flood areas should still consider flood insurance because there’s a significant chance they will be flooded,” Ms. Scott-Buckley said.
Yet, even when a homeowner has followed all the rules, there are still circumstances where flood insurance will fall short, according to Stanley Olenn, a State Farm insurance agent in Mt. Lebanon.
He said one key criterion of a flood policy is that two or more adjacent properties must be affected by the water in order to qualify as a flood.
“That means if water came down a hill and damaged only one of three adjacent homes, it would not be a flood and the policy would not pay,” Mr. Olenn said. “There is no criteria for how far the homes are separated.”
For those without flood insurance, a typical homeowners policy does not cover damage from ground water and surface water.
Ground water damage occurs below the surface and would include water seeping through basement walls. Surface water is water that flows on the surface of the ground during a flood.
Homeowners have a choice of the kind of flood insurance they buy. They can choose to insure their personal property only, such as furniture and electronics or buy coverage for both the building and the contents.
Coverage for the building generally includes damage to the heating, plumbing and electrical systems, cabinets, wall-to-wall carpets, flooring, walls and foundation.
One surprise for many homeowners is the limitations on that basement-level family room where everyone sprawls on couches and watches movies on the big flat screen.
While flood insurance will cover personal possessions in any other part of a house, many items such as electronics and furniture damaged or destroyed by flooding in a basement are not covered.
“If you have a finished basement and you think your carpet, furniture or flat screen TV is covered, you are sadly mistaken,” Ms. Scott-Buckley said.
“But on the other hand, your washer and dryer located in the basement is covered.
“I tell people that if you know a flood is coming, remove your belongings from the basement. But you won’t have to lug your washer, dryer or freezer upstairs because those items are covered in the basement.”