The horrifying images are hard to forget: homes, cars, belongings and even lives swallowed up by the angry waters of Hurricane Sandy.
Here in California, with the winter rainy season under way, the devastation is a not-so-subtle reminder that flooding could happen anywhere to any of us.
"There are always communities that get flooded every single year in California because they're flood-prone," including parts of Sacramento and Marin counties where streams or creeks overflow, said Edie Lohmann, a flood insurance specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, based in Oakland.
With damage from late October's superstorm Sandy estimated as high as $20 billion, now's a good time to consider whether you should have flood insurance.
"Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that everyone should consider their need for flood insurance," said Roger Wildermuth, a spokesman in Sacramento for USAA insurance company, which caters to military families. "Plenty of people in Manhattan surely thought they didn't require it."
Consumer calls to USAA offices about flood insurance tripled in the weeks surrounding Hurricane Sandy, he said. Those contemplating getting flood insurance "should consider their own needs and their own tolerance for risk."
First, let's clear up a common misperception about flood insurance: Your basic homeowner's policy does not cover flooding.
Flood insurance covers "rising water" coming from the ground, such as overflowing creeks, rivers or oceans. Homeowner's insurance covers damages from "falling water," including rain, hail, felled trees and burst pipes.
"If it's coming from the sky, it's your homeowner's (policy); if it's coming from the ground, it's flood insurance," said Tully Lehman, a Walnut Creek-based spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.
In recent years, Tully said, the number of flood insurance policies in California has dropped slightly, which could partially be due to recession- clobbered consumers seeking to cut back financially.
For insurance industry folks such as Lehman, paying for flood insurance is a no-brainer. Last year, the average U.S. claim for flood-related damage was $28,300, according to the National Flood Insurance Program.
Given that some homeowners' flood premiums can cost about $2 a day, "If you do suffer any sort of flood losses, it would definitely be worth it," Lehman said.
For homeowners, flood insurance typically covers up to $100,000 in personal belongings (clothes, furniture, electronics) and up to $250,000 for the structure (includes electrical, plumbing, appliances, carpeting). For nonresidential structures, the limits are up to $500,000 each.
Premiums vary, based on deductibles and the property's federally designated flood risk. Coverage is limited for basements and for exterior features, such as decks, pools, hot tubs and landscaping.
And another note: Mudflows, where rivers of muddy water flow through streets or into buildings, are covered by flood insurance. Mudslides, where rain-soaked hillsides come undone, are generally not covered by either homeowner's or flood insurance.
Flood insurance is mandatory if you have a federally backed home loan and live in a high-risk flood zone. For everyone else, it's optional. But note: New policies do not go into effect until 30 days after purchase.
Since 1968, the federal government has run the National Flood Insurance Program, which oversees policies issued by 86 private insurance companies. Its website FloodSmart.gov makes it easy to check the flooding risk to your home or business. Type in the address and ZIP code and it'll instantly tell you what type of flood zone you're in, plus estimated annual flood premiums and names of local insurance agents.
The city and county of Sacramento have earned some of FEMA's highest ratings nationwide for flood protection measures, such as levee improvements. That pays off for consumers when it comes to buying flood insurance: Sacramento residents are eligible for a 25 percent discount on a standard flood insurance policy for structures located in high-risk flood areas; Sacramento County policyholders can get a 30 percent discount.
"People always say, 'It's never going to happen to me,' " said FEMA's Lohmann, who grew up on Long Beach Island, one of the New Jersey areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Some of her friends in the area had flood insurance; others did not. Those without it, she said, lost not only treasured family homes filled with memories but now must cope with applying and waiting for federal disaster assistance to help recover their losses.
"Absolutely, no question, the people who had flood insurance will be way better off than those who did not," Lohmann noted. "They're going to get back on their feet and back in their homes a lot quicker."
FLOOD INSURANCE FACTS & FIGURES
Everyone lives in a flood zone, whether it's a low-, moderate- or high-risk area.
Every home has some flooding risk, from heavy rain to rising creeks to melting snow.
Two feet of floodwater can carry away a car.
Even an inch of floodwater can cause costly damage.
Basic homeowner's policies do not cover flooding.
Number of current U.S. flood policies: 5.5 million.
Number of California policies: 259,000.
Number of Sacramento County policies: 59,830.
California ranks No. 4 in the country for most flood insurance policies, behind Florida, Texas and Louisiana.
Average annual U.S. flood insurance premium: $613 (both homes and businesses).
Average California premium: $800 (partly due to higher home values).
Bargain rates: As low as $129 annual premium for Cali- fornia homes in low-to-moderate risk areas; renter policies as low as $51 a year (contents only).
Number of major U.S. flood disasters in 2011: 53.
Average flood claim: $28,300.
The federal National Flood Insurance Program oversees flood policies sold by insurers to homeowners, renters and business owners. Type in your home or business address to calculate the flood risk, find insurers and get estimated annual premiums. Or call (888) 379-9531.
The state Department of Insurance site covers all aspects of California home and business insurance, including a home inventory guide and consumer tips. Or call (800) 927-4357.
Sponsored by Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, with tips on flood-proofing your home or business, as well as preventing or recovering from any natural disaster.
Facts, tips and info on floods and other disasters from the Insurance Information Institute, plus a free "Know Your Stuff" home inventory kit.
Source: FEMA and FloodSmart.gov