Kentucky residents struggling to rebuild after a flood are facing financial hardship because almost no one in the state has flood insurance.
The area affected by the floods that began in late July and killed at least 37 people is home to many low-income families.
Only 17,250 Kentucky homeowners have state flood insurance, state records show. The public program provides a comprehensive plan for flooding in the United States.
The current Federal Emergency Management Agency report found that Kentucky has the lowest flood risk and ranks behind New Mexico in the number of homes with flood insurance.
In the 10 counties in eastern Kentucky that suffered the most damage from flooding in recent weeks, only 2,485 property owners have received help through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, an E&E News analysis of federal records shows. That’s about 2.3 percent of families in the 10th district.
Many Kentuckians are reluctant to buy flood insurance because they think the premiums are too expensive and the risk of flooding too remote, said Britney Hargrove, a spokeswoman for Knott County, which suffered the worst of the flood.
“A lot of families don’t have the extra money to pay for something that may or may not happen,” Hargrove said.
Flood insurance costs about $1,000 a year through FEMA. The median household income in Knott County is $32,500 – half the national median of $65,000.
Flood coverage is sold separately from homeowner’s insurance and is considered the most important part of disaster recovery because insurers can collect up to $250,000 in coverage. Federal disaster aid, on the other hand, only pays residents a few thousand dollars and only temporarily repairs homes.
The lack of flood insurance and limited funding from FEMA is forcing people to rely on charities, Hargrove said.
“That’s what makes or breaks the district — the foundation and the amount of donations that come in,” Hargrove said.
Another obstacle to the purchase of flood protection is that FEMA’s flood maps have greatly reduced the risk of flooding in eastern Kentucky, according to a landmark 2020 analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
Nationwide, the foundation found, there are 14.6 million properties that face a high risk of flooding — more than the 8.6 million properties that FEMA says are in flood zones.
FEMA’s map was wrong especially in eastern Kentucky, the foundation found.
“There’s a large portion of people out there who don’t know they’re in a flood zone because they’re not in a FEMA special hazard zone,” said Jeremy Porter, director of research for First Street.
In seven of the 10 flooded counties in Kentucky for which property records were available, First Street found that 40,300 properties faced a high risk of flooding. FEMA’s flood maps showed only 12,800 properties in the seven counties that were in the flood zone.
FEMA’s National Risk Index says every 10 states have a “low” or “moderate” risk of river flooding.
FEMA has acknowledged that its flood maps can be misleading and has warned for years that people living outside designated flood zones could still experience flooding. People who live in a FEMA flood zone and have a mortgage loan are required to have flood insurance, although many people ignore the requirement.
When flooding from Hurricane Ida drowned 11 people in New York City last year, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said that the homes that were submerged were outside FEMA flood zones in areas considered to have flood water. risk (ClimatewireOct. 6, 2021).
One of the problems with FEMA’s flood maps is that they only show coastal flooding or major rivers. They don’t count floods like the one that recently devastated Kentucky, which are caused by storms that overflow small streams or municipal sewers.
“They also focus on major rivers and coastal flooding, not rainfall or small waterways,” Porter said. “This leaves large parts of the country susceptible to flooding due to rain.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell admitted last year to Maloney that the agency’s flood maps are “out of consideration. [overflows of] hurricane systems.”
The First Street Foundation’s flood analysis covers both rainfall and flash floods.
The decline in flood insurance in eastern Kentucky reflects long-standing problems with the affordability of flood policies. FEMA has warned for years that low-income households are less likely than higher-income households to purchase flood insurance.ClimatewireApril 6, 2021).
In the 10 states affected by the flooding, the median household income is $33,960, according to an E&E News analysis of Census Bureau data. That’s about half the national median income of $65,000.
Federal lawmakers led by House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have sought to create a subsidy program that would help low-income families purchase flood insurance. But Waters’ legislation has been stalled amid widespread disagreement over reforming the federal flood insurance program.
Hargrove, the Knott County spokeswoman, said the flood insurance assistance program “would be very helpful to the people of Kentucky.”
When asked about the limited flood response in Kentucky, FEMA said in a statement to E&E News that it is focusing on “recovery efforts and helping survivors register for more assistance.”