This epidemic isn’t reserved for coastal areas—floods can happen anywhere. But large-scale protective solutions are in the works, and there’s plenty you can do to help keep yourself safe in the meantime.
On July 30, 2016, rain poured down on Ellicott City, Md.—as many as 8 inches in just three hours. It turned the town’s historic Main Street into a barreling river that swept away cars, leaving them stacked atop each other. It smashed through storefronts. It destroyed homes. It opened gaping holes in the earth. It claimed two lives.
FLOODING IN AMERICAThis epidemic isn’t reserved for coastal areas—floods can happen anywhere. But large-scale protective solutions are in the works, and there’s plenty you can do to help keep yourself safe in the meantime.
The Big PictureIn the world of natural disasters, flooding stands alone. It’s the most common natural disaster in America, and no place is immune from its wrath; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recorded flooding in all 50 states and 98 percent of all U.S. counties. Floods are also brutally destructive, causing an average of about 90 fatalities and $8 billion in damages every year, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). That doesn’t all happen as a result of infamous, headline-grabbing hurricanes. In fact, catastrophic disasters are just one piece of the puzzle. “When rain falls faster than the ground can absorb it, the result is a flood,” says Kate Abshire, National Flash Flood Services Lead at the NWS. “And it can happen even in an area you might not think it would.” For example, you would expect that high tides and winds could cause flooding along a coastline. But, says Abshire, the risk also extends to urban areas (where rains can overwhelm drainage systems); mountainous areas (where melting snow can result in overflowing rivers); and southwestern deserts (where monsoon rains can fill riverbeds). Even the street outside your home can be at risk. That sewer drain? If it gets backed up with leaves and a storm hits, floodwaters could result—and end up in your basement.
The Cost To YouA flooded basement isn’t just a headache—it can be expensive. The damage and loss from just one inch of water in an average one-story home can total more than $26,000, according to FEMA; with two feet of water, the cost soars to more than $85,000. And floods aren’t covered under most homeowners insurance policies. That’s where the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) comes in. The U.S. government created the NFIP back in 1968 specifically to help cover losses from flooding. This financial lifeline—which paid out almost $9 billion in claims in 2017 alone—comes with one important caveat: It usually takes 30 days to go into effect, so you don’t want to wait until a storm is approaching to purchase a policy. (Get a quote on flood insurance now through the GEICO Insurance Agency.) Flood insurance may actually be required by your lender if you live in an area at a high risk for floods. (Input your address here and see if you do.) Risky areas are more common than you may think; one study found that 41 million people live on “100-year” floodplains—areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. (A “1,000-year” flood means there’s a 0.1 percent chance.) Those may seem like long odds, but try telling that to the residents of Ellicott City. Flood insurance can be a smart move for everyone, since floods can happen anywhere, and without warning. In fact, more than 25 percent of the NFIP’s flood insurance claims are for structures outside of high-risk zones. “Floods don’t discriminate,” says Abshire. What’s being done to help protect America from this epidemic? And what can you do now to help protect yourself? The answer to both questions: Quite a bit.
3 COMMON TYPES OF FLOODS
SURGE FLOODTrue to their name, these types of floods happen on the coast and next to a sea, ocean or other large body of water. They happen as a result of severe weather—say, a hurricane—when high winds and low atmospheric pressure combine to create a “storm surge” and push water onto the land.
RIVER FLOODWhen heavy rains pour down into rivers and creeks, overflowing banks result in fluvial floods. Other causes of rising water and overflowing stream banks might include dam failures, heavy snowmelt or ice jams.
SURFACE FLOODFloods don’t require a nearby ocean, river or lake. If heavy rains overwhelm a city’s drainage system, for example, urban flooding is the result. Pluvial floods can also occur when a hillside can’t absorb rainfall, which may happen shortly after forest fires. Floods that occur very rapidly are known as flash floods.
WHAT IF AN EVENT LIKE HURRICANE SANDY HAPPENED AGAIN IN A CITY WITH SO MANY PEOPLE AND SO MUCH INFRASTRUCTURE? THE AREA HAD TO BE BETTER PREPARED.