Costs, Confusion Keep Iowan Flood Insurance Numbers Low

July 10, 2008

A combination of costs and confusion keeps many Iowans from buying federal flood insurance.

Only about 1 percent of Iowans owned flood insurance when last month’s record flooding struck.

More than 4,000 homes in Cedar Rapids were damaged or destroyed, but only 777 homes in Linn county were protected against flooding.

After the floods of 1993, the National Flood Insurance Program spent $20 million in a marketing campaign that urged homeowners to buy flood insurance. Nonetheless, few people carry the coverage.

There are some obstacles to buying the coverage.

First is the cost. The average policy in Iowa costs about $500 a year. Second, its coverage is narrow — it only covers flood damage and nothing else, not even damage caused when a basement drain backs up because of flooding.

There also is some confusion — by buyers and sellers — over who can buy flood insurance.

Some Iowans said they have been told they could not buy flood insurance. The truth is, anyone can buy it if their community participates in the National Flood Insurance Program. About 500 Iowa cities and counties participate.

Burrell Montz, a flood expert and geography professor at Binghamton University in New York, said some residents also believe there is little if any risk that their home will be flooded.

Dana Ellis thought the $700 a year she paid for her flood insurance on her Cedar Rapids home was too much, but her lender wouldn’t approve a mortgage without it.

Now that her ranch-style home was destroyed by flooding from the Cedar River, she’s happy she had the insurance.

Her home has a red tag on it. “That means they’re going to bulldoze it,” Ellis said.

She said she doesn’t plan to rebuild. Instead, she will use whatever she gets from her flood insurance to pay off her mortgage and buy a house in an area where flood insurance isn’t needed.

Butch Kierney, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said flood insurance pays off.

He said if a home sustains $50,000 in damage and the owner borrows that much from the government, they will pay more than $75,000 over the 30-year repayment schedule. Annual premiums of $600 for flood insurance will cost about $18,000 over that same period.

Bob Skow, director of the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa, said a typical homeowner’s policy costs much less than flood insurance, yet covers more kinds of damage. That leads to the perception that flood insurance is costly for what it covers.

“Maybe (federal officials) need to make it more affordable,” Skow said.

Flood insurance, unlike homeowner’s insurance, doesn’t provide lodging for people who have been displaced.

Even if someone wants flood insurance, sometimes agents who sell the coverage aren’t properly informed.

Jack Coon, of Cedar Rapids, said that insurance agents told him he shouldn’t, or couldn’t, buy it because his home is outside the 100 year flood plain. That was 30 years ago and Coon said no agent or banker has ever suggested he buy it.

Tracy Sherzer, an agent at Tapken Insurance Agency in Cedar Rapids, said an agent would not usually discuss flood insurance with someone who lives outside a 100-year flood plain.

Montz, the Binghamton University professor, said flood plain maps drawn up 30 years ago are now outdated because of changes in upstream development. There are no plans to update the maps, she said.

Montz also said many homeowners find themselves out of a flood plain when a levee is built.

“That’s a false sense of security,” Montz said.

Source: The Des Moines Register.

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