‘We thought we were safe’: Kentucky disaster shows how unprepared and uninsured US is for floods

First published: 15 AUG 22 07:12 ET

Updated: 15 AUG 22 07:38 ET

By Casey Tolan, CNN

(CNN) — When Bob and Debbie Smith signed flood insurance years ago, they didn’t expect the storm that turned the small creek near their yard into a muddy, muddy river. They never thought that they and their cat would have to be rescued from the porch of their house by a neighbor with a boat when the floodwaters reached their chests.

But after the flood of history it destroyed Eastern Kentucky last month, the insurance is now a “game changer,” said Bob Smith. While the more than $32,000 they’re eligible for won’t cover the repairs the family made to their damaged mobile home in Letcher County, “it’s enough to give me hope,” he said. “Some people, they don’t know what they’re going to do.”

The Smiths are very few: Only about 1% of properties in hard-hit counties are covered by flood insurance, state records show, and homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover flood damage. This means that many of their neighbors are struggling to find money to rebuild the flood that killed 38 people in rural areas of the state.

The destruction in Eastern Kentucky is a warning to other areas around the US that unplanned flooding is becoming more common as a result of climate change. Federal flood maps used by insurance companies underestimate the risk in many parts of the country, and the country as a whole is not prepared for the economic damage left by the powerful floods, experts say.

Kentucky’s blighted communities — coal-mining towns along meandering rivers — are unarmed. They include some of the poorest counties in the US, with little money for rebuilding or flood relief projects.

“A lot of these places have never flooded,” Donald Mobelini, the mayor of Hazard, Kentucky, told CNN. “These people are not going to have flood insurance. So, if they lose their home, it’s a total loss. There’s not going to be an insurance check coming to help them.”

In some flood-prone states, only a dozen insurance claims were made a month before the storm hit, according to the Federal Emergency Management Association. documents. Uninsured residents can receive temporary housing assistance from FEMA and other assistance that may be approved by Congress, but experts said the payments will only cover a small portion of the damages.

Roy Wright, who was the director of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by FEMA, said that the amount of flood insurance in the region “was nowhere near the size and scope that you would expect to see because of a flood hazard.”

“It’s really hard for a community like this,” he said.

‘No house is completely safe’

So far, the flood insurance program has paid out more than $1.4 million to insured families in Kentucky affected by flooding, according to FEMA – perhaps a small portion of the total damage costs in the region.

“No home is safe from flooding,” FEMA Director Paul Huang said in a statement. “With flood insurance, survivors have peace of mind knowing they are covered in the event of a major disaster.”

Some of the Kentucky families who suffered damage were shocked because their homes or businesses were not in a FEMA flood zone, so they never thought they would need flood insurance.

The Kentucky Mist Distillery, which operates out of a nearly 100-year-old building in the small town of Whitesburg, was inundated by floodwaters, leaving its gleaming steel tanks filled with sludge. Colin Fultz, the garden’s owner, estimated that the flood cost about $150,000, between damaged equipment and moonshine and vodka.

“We weren’t in a flood zone, so we thought we were safe,” Fultz said. “I never dreamed it would go up like this.”

Numerous studies have found that the maps people like Fultz rely on reduce the risk of flooding, especially as climate change worsens.

According to FEMA’s flood maps, about 12% of the land in Kentucky’s three hardest-hit counties is in what the agency calls a “Special Hazard Area” — an area that will flood during a 1-in-100-year flood event. When homeowners take out a loan in the community, they must purchase flood insurance.

But the most accurate flood model that takes into account climate change puts 51% of properties in those states at risk of this type of flooding, according to estimates by First Street Foundationa non-profit climate research organization.

The difference is partly because FEMA’s maps don’t adequately describe how much rain falls on small rivers and streams like those that cover parts of Eastern Kentucky, according to Jeremy Porter, director of research for First Street.

And Kentucky is no exception: Statewide, nearly 6 million homes are at risk of damage in a 1 in 100 year flood even if they are not in the First Street flood zone. found.

“There is a huge gap between the number of people who are at risk and those who know they are at risk,” Porter said.

In a statement, a FEMA spokeswoman said the agency’s maps use the most advanced technology and that First Street’s assessment can go beyond the flood risk. FEMA’s flood maps show past flooding, not future risk, the spokeswoman said.

Some research has also raised questions about the magnitude of the flood risk. North Carolina State University research printed in February found that about 85% of the flooding incidents reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration between December 2006 and May 2020 occurred outside of FEMA’s disaster zones.

“It’s expensive and time-consuming to update our flood maps,” said Georgina Sanchez, an NC State researcher and one of the study’s authors. “Most of the maps are very old … and they don’t account for the changes we’re facing because of climate change.”

In Kentucky, FEMA flood maps for the three hardest-hit counties — Breathitt, Clay and Perry — haven’t been updated in more than 14 years, according to federal records.

Climate change is forcing homeowners to make difficult decisions

Videos and photos of the flooding reviewed and posted by CNN show that some areas that have flooded in recent weeks were outside of the area designated by FEMA, from the suburbs of Whitesburg to villages in the mountain valleys outside the town of Jackson. .

The storm that flooded the world has passed he explained and meteorologists like a 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event — so FEMA’s map, which shows areas at risk for 1-in-100 years and 1-in-500 years, will never hold. flood zones.

But as climate change progresses, “what used to be a 1-in-100-year flood when these maps were made may now become a 1-in-50 or 1-in-40 year event down the road,” Porter said.

Even an up-to-date and accurate flood map wouldn’t allow many people in Eastern Kentucky to get flood insurance because many people don’t have enough credit to buy it, experts said. In less affluent rural areas like Kentucky’s floodplains, new housing is rare, and many homes are given to relatives rather than sold.

“If you don’t have a mortgage, regardless of whether you’re in a high-risk flood zone, it’s a homeowner’s choice whether or not you have flood insurance,” said Wright, the former FEMA director.

Bob Smith, a Letcher County homeowner who was rescued from his porch, said he and his wife decided to keep their flood insurance even after paying off their mortgage because they live next to a river.

A good flood insurance system can help homeowners understand the relative level of risk, rather than simply the difference between property inside and outside the flood zone, Wright said.

FEMA has admitted to mistakes with its flood insurance program, and soon urged the Congress to advance reforms that would allow it to change its flood risk management system and offer flood insurance to low-income homebuyers – helping more people get insurance in poor areas like Eastern Kentucky. Flood insurance premiums cost about $760 a year on average, but vary based on risk and other factors, according to the agency. data.

The flood insurance program “continues to operate as it was built 50 years ago,” said David Maurstad, a FEMA official. he said Senate committee in June, saying the agency wants to “change the way we measure and communicate flood risk” and “make sure more Americans have flood insurance.”

The Biden administration and Democrats originally included funding for flood mapping and flood insurance for low- and low-income families in their Build Back Better package. But the money was cut during negotiations, and is not included in the final climate and health bill that Congress passed on Friday.

Angie Hatton, a state representative who lives in Whitesburg, said the lack of flood insurance was especially difficult because her community is picking up the pieces and turning to charity. “We face the horrors of every Appalachia person because we hate asking for help, especially from outsiders,” he said.

His fear, he said, is that some of his neighbors who aren’t getting insurance checks to rebuild their damaged homes will minimize the damage and leave — accelerating the decline of a population that has already declined in recent years.

“Sometimes their home is where they were kept,” he said. “If the house can’t be rebuilt, they may never come back.”

How safe are you to flood? Check the FEMA flood zone your home is in by entering your address Hereand see the First Street Foundation’s estimate of your flood risk Here.

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