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Many people hit by Hurricane Florence may not have the flood insurance to pay for damages

Many homeowners who will be hit by devastating flooding from Hurricane Florence might not have the insurance to cover it, according to a new investigation.

Most coastal counties to be hit by Florence have a high percentage of homes carrying flood insurance policies — roughly 50 percent, give or take. But as a McClatchy analysis published Thursday reveals, according to federal data, just a few miles inland from the Atlantic shore, flood insurance coverage drops dramatically.

As of mid-2017, only 3 percent of homes a few miles from the coastline carried federal flood insurance in North Carolina. Meanwhile, just 9 percent of such households carried federal flood insurance in South Carolina.

Yet, experts are warning that Hurricane Florence could cause billions of dollars in damage — costs many households may not be able to get assistance for without flood insurance.

Florence made landfall Friday morning as a Category 1 hurricane. However, like last year’s Hurricane Harvey, it’s the rainfall and storm surge that come with the slow- moving, 400-mile-wide storm that will pose the most risk.

With climate change, storms like Florence are becoming more intense. Passing over warmer waters means hurricanes will become stronger and wetter. Meanwhile, higher sea levels will make storm surges even larger. Climate change also means storms are moving more slowly. Florence is expected to stall along the coastline giving it the chance to dump even more rain.

In fact, a recent study published ahead of the hurricane hitting North Carolina’s coast estimated that climate change may be responsible for increasing the amount of rainfall from Florence by 50 percent.

And according to the latest rainfall mapping published Friday morning by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, virtually the entire southern half of North Carolina can expect anywhere from 6 to 20 inches of rainfall. The northeast of South Carolina can expect at least 10 inches or more. And this isn’t just along the coastline.

NOAA rainfall projections for North Carolina as of Friday, September 14. CREDIT: NOAA

Under the current iteration of the National Flood Insurance program, flood insurance is mandatory — required by banks in order to get a mortgage — for homes in flood hazard areas, which are determined by FEMA through the agency’s flood maps. Because the program is newer than many mortgages and because only financed houses even require the insurance, only about 50 percent of all homes located in  FEMA’s flood hazard areas actually have flood insurance.

Areas located in a 100-year floodplain — an area where a flood is reasonably expected to occur once every 100 years — are required to purchase flood insurance. But as was seen last year with Hurricane Harvey, many individuals impacted by the storm were outside of these areas and as a result did not have flood insurance. Roughly 80 percent of those impacted were not required to be covered by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

According to a 2017 analysis by Bloomberg, many of the country’s flood maps are out of date. This is despite FEMA being responsible for reviewing the maps every five years.

In the Carolinas, some flood risk maps have not been updated since as far back as 1989 or 1999. Maps for other areas, including Wilmington where Hurricane Florence made landfall, haven’t been updated since 2006. And others more recently last year.

Under President Donald Trump, however, FEMA’s most recent Strategic Plan for 2018-2022 does not mention the words “climate change” once. This despite the agency being responsible for mapping risk and overseeing hurricane recovery.

Speaking to McClatchy, R.J. Lehmann, a flood insurance specialist with the Washington, D.C. think tank R Street Institute, estimates that in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia there are 400,000 homeowners who have federal flood insurance policies. This equals $106 billion in coverage. Should only 10 percent of these homes sustain damage, he said, this will mean $10 billion in flood insurance payments.

This will mean a big headache for NFIP, which is tens of billions of dollars in debt. Last year’s Hurricane Harvey was the second largest loss year in the program’s history.

If Hurricane Florence proves to be just as costly, this could mean trouble for NFIP, and pose even more difficulty for families hoping to recover after the storm.


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