Water & Drought

With rain clouds looming, Sacramento residents rushed to buy flood insurance

Aerial views of Sacramento area flooding

Bee photographer Randy Pench flew in a helicopter on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 to document the vast flooding that has occurred over the past week. The views are stunning.
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Bee photographer Randy Pench flew in a helicopter on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 to document the vast flooding that has occurred over the past week. The views are stunning.

Much of the Sacramento region lies in a deep flood plain, bordered by the Sacramento and American rivers and protected by levees. But as the drought dragged on for years, and the risk of flooding receded, thousands of people in the region let their insurance policies lapse.

At least some of those people raced to get coverage back in place when it became apparent that this winter would be a wet one.

Insurance agents said forecasts of an “atmospheric river” heading toward Northern California shortly after New Year’s Day prompted a blizzard of calls and office visits from consumers interested in getting flood insurance – fast.

“There’s always a rush to purchase when it’s in the news,” said Keith Thomas, a State Farm insurance agent in Auburn.

News stories about imminent storms “create an awareness of the situation, and (people) question, ‘What do I have?’ ” Thomas added. “Generally, they want instant coverage. Unfortunately, you can’t get instant flood coverage when you see a big cloud coming.”

Flood insurance policies – purchased through the National Flood Insurance Program – generally require a 30-day waiting period before coverage takes effect. Exceptions include policies bought soon after a property is reclassified as being in a flood hazard area.

Sacramento insurance agent Thomas George of Farmers Insurance said many consumers aren’t aware of the waiting period.

“We definitely have to educate them on that,” he said.

Neither George nor Thomas would say how many policies their offices sold on the bad-weather news, but said the pace of sales has been steady in recent weeks.

The recent interest in obtaining flood insurance follows a decline in policies, prompted in part by years of drought statewide.

In September 2015, when California residents were still adjusting to Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for strict water conservation, NFIP data showed that the number of federal flood insurance policies active in California had fallen by 30,000, or 12 percent, since the drought began in 2012. Sacramento, regularly ranked as one of the nation’s most flood-prone cities, saw its number of policies fall by almost 6,000, also about 12 percent, in that period. Coverage numbers increased slightly in 2016.

Flood insurance policies generally range in price from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 annually, depending on risk.

In some historically vulnerable spots in the area, homeowners are required have flood insurance. Much of Sacramento has been removed from this high-risk flood plain because of about $2 billion in levee improvements and other flood fortifications made in the past 20 years. Flood insurance is no longer required in those neighborhoods, but the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency still recommends people have it.

More than 121,000 properties in the city and county are protected by levees. According to SAFCA, most of those levees just barely exceed the minimal federal standard of providing 100-year flood protection – meaning they could withstand a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

Natomas is one large swath of the city where homeowners are still required to carry flood policies. That stretch of suburban Sacramento lies in a deep basin where flood depths could reach 20 feet. It had been removed from the high-risk flood plain because of levee improvements, but in 2008 it was put back into the high-risk category after the Federal Emergency Management Agency adopted stricter levee standards following Hurricane Katrina.

The reclassification imposed a de-facto building moratorium on the fast-growing area. It was lifted in 2015 as a result of progress on levee improvements.

Natomas is now classified as an A99 flood zone, considered to be high risk but no longer as dangerous as before.

Natomas residents are still required to have flood insurance, even with the A99 flood zone designation. But the revised designation made them eligible to purchase preferred-risk policies.

Local agents said a standard PRP for a primary residence in Natomas goes for $450 annually and includes a $1,250 deductible, $250,000 in building coverage and $100,000 for contents.

Costs can be significantly higher in extremely high flood-risk areas, topping $2,000 annually, according to several local agents.

Farmers Insurance agent George said calling up a prospective flood insurance policy buyer’s address is the first step in the process of obtaining a policy. That address inside or outside the sweeping, federally drawn flood plain typically determines the cost.

“Most people are going to base (the policy purchase) on the price,” he said.

George said the PRP price remains in effect within nine days of the quote.

Regional flood plain maps and more information can be seen at fema.gov and floodsmart.gov. More information also can be found at the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency site – safca.org. The NFIP flood center can be reached by phone at 800-427-4661.

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover

Flood insurance policies

The number of active federal flood insurance policies declined in most local counties during the drought, but agents report that recent storms have consumers buying coverage again. The latest data on the number of policies in effect:

Area

Dec. 2012

Nov. 2016

Change

El Dorado County

473

487

3.0%

Placer County

1,251

1,648

31.7%

Sacramento County

59,585

53,704

-9.9%

City of Sacramento

47,175

42,223

-10.5%

Rest of county

12,410

11,481

-7.5%

Yolo County

5,875

4,919

-16.3%

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

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