By Steve Garbacz
Only about 15 percent of homes located in hazardous flood zones are covered by a flood insurance policy across the four-county area, according to a data analysis provided by The Associated Press.
In total, less than 2 percent of all homes in northeast Indiana are protected by flood insurance.
The AP analyzed data from the National Flood Insurance Program in the wake of extreme flooding that struck Texas due to Hurricane Harvey. The AP’s analysis showed that the number of active flood insurance policies nationwide has dropped about 14 percent since peaking in 2009, even in flood-prone areas that were already significantly underinsured.
In Noble, DeKalb, LaGrange and Steuben counties, a total of 3,871 homes are located in hazardous flood zones — areas that are at a 1 percent risk of flooding every year. Of those, just above 15 percent — 585 homes — carry an active flood insurance policy.
Of all homes in the region, very few properties carry flood insurance policies. DeKalb County has the fewest active policies at just 0.4 percent of all homes, while LaGrange County is the highest at 1.7 percent.
Property owners who have borrowed to buy property are required by their lender to carry flood insurance if they live within a flood zone. But once a mortgage is paid off, the homeowner can choose whether to continue that coverage.
Many property owners apparently don’t keep the coverage.
Why people who live in flood zones don’t maintain coverage is a huge unanswered question, one that vexes officials who work in flood mitigation like Maumee River Basin Commission Executive Director Rodney Renkenberger, who is also a former elected Noble County surveyor.
The Fort Wayne-based river group works primarily in flood control, and the Maumee basin contains almost all of DeKalb County, the eastern third of Steuben County and a portion of southeast Noble County.
“That’s the million-dollar question all of us in floodplain management would like to answer,” Renkenberger said. “Statistically, if you’re in a mapped flood zone, the chances of your house being damaged by flood is much greater than being damaged by fire, but yet people still refuse. It’s like if there’s one thing they’re going to do without its the flood insurance.”
Cost is likely an issue, as flood insurance policies can be expensive. In the four-county area, average policy costs range from $769 per year in Noble County to $1,353 in DeKalb County. All four counties have seen the average price of flood insurance premiums increase since 2012, when prices ranged from $622-$934.
Another issue is that many homes that were built in flood zones likely were built before national flood maps were created. They were built at a time prior to flood regulations, so they’re at risk but have been around so long they don’t fall under the mandatory coverage requirement with lenders, Renkenberger said.
“You look at the demographics of the typical home in a flood zone, it’s probably built between the ’20s and the late ’50s, early ’60s. It was what we call pre-flood insurance rate map,” he said. “A lot of those homes have been kept in the family for three, four generations, and they’re bought and paid for and they have no reason or no desire to carry the flood insurance.”
The low flood insurance coverage rates are likely also a symptom of complacency, that if homeowners don’t see a flood as an imminent threat, they’ll drop insurance. That’s exemplified by something the West Lakes community west of Rome City experienced during a greater than 100-year flood this summer.
West Lakes Association President Diann Scott said she heard a version of that multiple times this summer, when several inches of water washed out hundreds of homes and caused a full sewer system shutdown.
“There were homes that had water in them that haven’t had water in them since the 1940s. Had they been covered by flood insurance since the ’40s, they would say it hasn’t been worth it,” she said. “Insurance is one of those things you pay it and hope you never have to use it, but, man, when you need it, you really wished you had it.”
Scott doesn’t know how many of the approximately 500 homes on the flood-prone lakes chain have flood insurance. It’s definitely not 100 percent. Noble County Emergency Management Agency Director Mick Newton told county commissioners this week that he’s confident it’s less than 50 percent and maybe about one-third.
That would be better than the national and county average, but considering West Lakes has suffered two major floods in the past three summers, $800 a year is a small price to pay when it could protect an owner from suffering several thousands of dollars in damages.
While photos from Hurricane Harvey showed floodwater up to the roofs on some homes, Renkenberger said it doesn’t take nearly that much water for a house to be a total loss. Once water soaks into the walls, it will naturally wick upward, usually requiring drywall to be torn out and replaced.
With 2 feet of water, a house is going to suffer substantial damage, Renkenberger said. If the water hits 3 feet, it’s almost guaranteed water is going to wick up and require a total tear-out of the walls.
“At that point, you’re ripping everything out, and the mold and mildew you have to fight,” he said.
On top of protecting against damages, the flood insurance program can provide up to $30,000 toward elevating a home out of the floodplain, which can cover a good chunk of the cost to prevent future flood damage. If a home is substantially damaged and a property owners wants to take advantage of a federal buyout program, a person will flood insurance also will have a much easier time with that process.
“From a standpoint of someone who has helped to bail out those where their homes were substantially damaged and beyond habitation, it’s a huge difference between someone who has flood insurance and someone who does not,” Renkenberger said. “The folks who have flood insurance, we can get them into a new home much quicker than someone who doesn’t.”