Category Archives: Flood Insurance

Study Quantifies Future Climate Change Impact
on Flood Losses

A new study from the nonprofit First Street Foundation projects the impact climate change may have on U.S. flood losses.

The report – The Cost of Climate: America’s Growing Flood Risk –finds that, when adjusting for the long-term impact of a changing climate, nearly 4.3 million homes have “substantial” flood risk that would result in financial loss.

“If all of these homes were to insure against flood risk through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP),” the report continues, “the rates would need to increase 4.5 times to cover the estimated risk in 2021, and 7.2 times to cover the growing risk by 2051.”

Last year, the foundation released a report indicating that nearly 6 million U.S. properties could be at greater risk of flooding than currently indicated by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps.

The new report is particularly resonant as FEMA prepares to implement Risk Rating 2.0, an initiative to make flood insurance pricing more representative of each policyholder’s exposure and help customers better understand their risks and the importance of having flood coverage. It plans to accomplish this by using industry best practices and technology to deliver rates that “are fair, make sense, are easier to understand, and better reflect a property’s unique flood risk.

Implementation of Risk Rating 2.0 is scheduled to begin in October 2021.

Since homeowners who have federally backed mortgages and reside in FEMA-designated Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA) are required to buy flood insurance, the First Street data serve as an example of an early indicator of who could be most affected by risk-based rate changes in the near term and as the impacts of climate change evolve.

Potential cost consequences of expanded coverage under NFIP – or, worse, of not addressing the existing flood-protection gap – underscore the importance of a multi-pronged approach to mitigation and resilience that includes improved attention to how, where, and whether to build or rebuild and expanded availability and affordability of insurance.  

Californians Warned About Mudslide Risk
as Winter Bears Down
on Wildfire Areas

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is alerting citizens to review their insurance policies in order to protect themselves and their assets in anticipation of winter weather bringing the possibility of  floods, mudslides, debris flows, and other disasters to recent wildfire burn areas throughout the state.

The commissioner issued a notice to insurers reminding them of their duty to cover damage from any future mudslide or similar disaster caused by recent wildfires that weakened hillsides. In particular, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has projected increased likelihood of debris flow for fire-scarred areas of the state in the event of heavy rainfall.

Many Californians may not be aware that homeowners’ and commercial insurance policies typically exclude flood, mudslide, debris flow, and other similar disasters—unless they are directly or indirectly caused by a recent wildfire or another peril covered by the applicable insurance policy. For insurance purposes, it’s important to understand the difference between “mudslides” and “mudflow.” 

Mudslides occur when a mass of earth or rock moves downhill, propelled by gravity. They typically don’t contain enough liquid to seep into your home, and they aren’t eligible for flood insurance coverage.  In fact, mudslides are not covered by any policy. 

Mudflow is covered by flood insurance, which is available from FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and a growing number of private insurers. Like flood, mudflow is excluded from standard homeowners and business insurance policies—you must buy the coverage separately. 

The California Department of Insurance has posted a fact sheet for consumers to answer questions about what their policies cover.

Study Supports Case
for Flood Mitigation
as World Warms

Intensifying rainfall fueled by climate change over the past 30 years has caused nearly $75 billion in flood damage in the United States, according to a study by Stanford University researchers.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shed light on the growing costs of flooding and the heightened risk faced by homeowners, builders, banks and insurers as the planet warms. Losses resulting from worsening extreme rains comprised nearly one-third of the total financial cost from flooding in the U.S. between 1988 and 2017, according to the report, which analyzed climate and socioeconomic data to quantify the relationship between changing historical rainfall trends and historical flood costs.

About 90 percent of natural disasters in the United States involve flooding, and much has been written about the flood protection gap.

“On average nationwide, only 30 percent of homes in the highest risk areas have flood coverage,” according to the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a Triple-I Resilience Accelerator partner. “Less than 25 percent of the buildings flooded by Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Irma had insurance. Indeed, repeatedly after floods there is evidence of the United States’ large and persistent flood insurance gap.”

To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. The foundation identifies “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood designation.

Flood coverage isn’t included in most homeowners insurance policies, so many may not know they don’t have it if their bank didn’t require them to buy it before providing a mortgage. Until recently, flood insurance was considered an untouchable risk for private insurers to write, so FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was the only game in town.

In recent years, however, Congress adopted new laws to support the emergence of a robust domestic private flood insurance market.  Last year, regulators provided rules that allowed private carriers to offer flood policies outside of NFIP and to qualify for the mortgage flood insurance requirement. Carriers and reinsurers are expanding their use of sophisticated models to underwrite flood risk, driving the growth of private sector flood insurance.

Triple-I has more information about flood insurance in our Spotlight on: Flood insurance article.

Expanded Triple-I
Flood Risk Maps Provide Richer Perspective

The Triple-I Resilience Accelerator’s flood risk visualization tool is being enhanced with:

  • National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) data on “take-up rates” by U.S. county from 2010 to 2021,
  • Differences between take-up rates inside and outside of flood zones, and
  •  in different proximities to flood zones.

These additions will expand the Accelerator’s visualization from covering only the current year to providing an historical perspective on how take-up rates have changed over time. 

Take-up rates and resilience

Insurance take-up rates represent the percentage of people eligible for a particular coverage who take advantage of it. In the case of flood insurance, they are calculated as the number of insurance policies in force in a certain geography over the total number of eligible properties for which insurance can be bought.

Understanding flood insurance take-up rates is essential to assessing and improving communities’ ability to rebound from damaging events. About 90 percent of natural disasters in the United States involve flooding, the NFIP says, and much has been written about the flood protection gap.

“On average nationwide, only 30 percent of homes in the highest risk areas have flood coverage,” according to the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a Triple-I Resilience Accelerator partner. “Less than 25 percent of the buildings flooded by Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Irma had insurance. Indeed, repeatedly after floods there is evidence of the United States’ large and persistent flood insurance gap.”

But understanding that gap to a degree that will support meaningful action requires comprehensive, granular data only NFIP can provide. It also requires the data to be available in easy-to-use formats. This is where the Triple-I/NFIP collaboration comes into play.

Key considerations to keep in mind when looking at take-up rates are year-over-year changes; whether the rates are by city, county, or state; and whether they are for all homes or homes in flood zones alone. During the first quarter of 2021, Triple-I’s Resilience Accelerator’s flood map will be updated with four options for users to visualize:

  • Annual take-up rates from 2010 to 2018,
  • 2019 take-up rates based on 2018 renewals only,
  • County-wide and flood-zones-only take-up rates estimates for 2020, and
  • County-wide share of dwellings in close proximity to flood zones.

Historical perspective

In 2019, NFIP started publishing historical data on NFIP insurance coverage, policies, and claims. NFIP’s decision to publish this data was a transformative point for industry practitioners, academics and those involved with flood insurance analysis. The Triple-I’s visualizations use NFIP’s full- and part-year data from 2010 to 2019 and our own estimates, based on this data, for 2020.

Dr. Michel Léonard, CBE, Triple-I vice president and senior economist says: “We’ve worked closely with NFIP to ensure that our visualizations reflect the most current, accurate information available on flood insurance take-up rates. In addition, we wanted to add to the discussion surrounding NFIP take-up rates by providing less common yet insightful ways to understand and visualize take-up rates, such as take-up rates for properties in flood zones only or the share of a country’s property in different proximities to flood zones.”

Flood coverage, as opposed to water damage from mechanical breakdown inside a house, isn’t included in most homeowners insurance policies, so many homeowners may not realize they don’t have it if their bank didn’t require them to buy it before providing a mortgage. Until recently, flood insurance was considered an “untouchable” risk for private insurers to write, so the NFIP was the only game in town.

In recent years, however, Congress adopted new laws to support the emergence of a robust domestic private flood insurance market.  Last year, regulators provided rules that allowed private carriers to offer flood policies outside of NFIP and to qualify for the mortgage flood insurance requirement. Carriers and reinsurers are expanding their use of sophisticated models to underwrite flood risk, driving the growth of private sector flood insurance.

 “We want to acknowledge and stress how significant the NFIP Policy and Claims data is to increasing our understanding of flood risk,” Léonard said. “Good data takes a lot of work, and NFIP’s commitment to making this data available is a perfect example of public-private partnerships delivering concrete value.”  

Mudslides Often Follow Wildfire; Prepare, Know Insurance Implications

As wildfires continue to burn in California, Oregon, Colorado, and elsewhere – and people pray for precipitation to help firefighters in their efforts – another threat looms: mudslides.  

Wet weather is in Oregon’s forecast, and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office warned that mudslides and falling trees will be a big concern with so much burned land in the county. Areas that could be seriously affected include Mill City and Gates, where much of the towns have been destroyed by wildfires

The sheriff’s office said people need to pay attention to what happens around them and listen to alerts from local authorities. 

“We’re really concerned about as those high winds pick up, some of those coming down and creating more hazards along the roadway, more than we would see in a typical windstorm,” Sgt. Jeremy Landers with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.  

He added that it’s important that people have a plan in place in case the weather becomes dangerous. 

Santa Cruz County, Calif., also is preparing for mudslides in the aftermath of the CZU Lighting Complex fire in August. Carolyn Burke, senior civil engineer, said during a special meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors,  “The only effective means of protection” is early warning and evacuation. 

The fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains burned 86,509 acres – and while Cal Fire on September 22 said it was 100% contained, risk remains of fires igniting and the subsequent danger of mudslides when rain comes. Rainy season there has a history of starting from September to November. 

In Colorado, cooler temperatures, rain, and snow have helped suppress the fires that have been  raging across that state. Alaska Incident Management Team Incident Commander Norm McDonald wrote, regarding his team’s work on the Grizzly Creek Fire, “While our assignment ends with the Grizzly Creek Fire at 91% containment, we realize there is still much work to be done and the ramifications of this fire will be long-lived with the potential for mudslides and flooding.”  

For insurance purposes, it’s important to understand the difference between “mudslides” and “mudflow.” 

Mudslides occur when a mass of earth or rock moves downhill, propelled by gravity. They typically don’t contain enough liquid to seep into your home, and they aren’t eligible for flood insurance coverage.  In fact, mudslides are not covered by any policy

Mudflow is covered by flood insurance, which is available from FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and a growing number of private insurers. Like flood, mudflow is excluded from standard homeowners and business insurance policies—you must buy the coverage separately. 

If It Can Rain, It Can Flood: Buy Flood Insurance

Rivers swollen by Hurricane Sally’s rains have devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama, and the storm’s remnants are forecast to spread the flooding to Georgia and the Carolinas.

Many of the properties damaged will doubtless be found to be uninsured, compounding homeowners’ misery.

A well-known coverage gap

The flood insurance protection gap has been well documented. A recent Triple-I paper –  Hurricane Season: More Than Just Wind and Water – states that “about 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding” and cites experts strenuously urging everyone to buy flood insurance.

“Any home can flood,” says Dan Kaniewski — managing director for public sector innovation at Marsh & McLennan and former deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Even if you’re well outside a floodplain…. Get flood insurance. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter or a business — get flood insurance.”

Dr. Rick Knabb — on-air hurricane expert for the Weather Channel, speaking at Triple-I’s 2019 Joint Industry Forum — is similarly emphatic.

“If it can rain where you live,” he said, “it can flood where you live.”

Despite such warnings, even in designated flood zones, the protection gap remains large. A McKinsey & Co. analysis of flood insurance purchase rates in areas most affected by three Category 4 hurricanes that made landfall in the United States — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — found that as many as 80 percent of homeowners in Texas, 60 percent in Florida, and 99 percent in Puerto Rico lacked flood insurance.

To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the nonprofit First Street Foundation found the United States to be woefully underprepared for damaging floods. The report identified “around 1.7 times the number of properties as having substantial risk,” compared with FEMA’s designation.

“This equates to a total of 14.6 million properties across the country at substantial risk, of which 5.9 million property owners are currently unaware of or underestimating the risk they face,” the foundation says.

A more recent Triple-I analysis, conducted in advance of Hurricane Sally, found that flood insurance purchase rates in the counties most likely to be affected by the storm were “remarkably low.”

“In Taylor County, Ga., for example, just 0.09 percent of properties are insured against flooding,” Triple-I wrote.

NOT covered by homeowners insurance

Flood damage is excluded under standard homeowners and renters insurance policies. However, flood coverage is available as a separate policy from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, and from a growing number of private insurers, thanks to sophisticated flood models that have made insurers more comfortable writing this once “untouchable” risk.

Invest in resilience

If it seems as if you’ve heard me beat this drum before, you’re right.  I take flood and flood insurance very personally.

After Hurricane Irene flooded my inland New Jersey basement in August 2011, destroying many irreplaceable items, it was my flood insurance that enabled me to have a French drain and two powerful pumps installed that have since kept my historically damp basement bone dry – even during Superstorm Sandy the following year.   

Poll: Homeowners Gain
in Disaster Prep; Coverage Understanding Still Lags

The 2020 Triple-I Consumer Poll found that homeowners are protecting their properties against disasters like flooding and hurricanes at a higher rate than previously reported, a welcome development as the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and is expected to produce a higher-than-average number of storms.

 “The insurance industry’s focus on resilience is starting to pay dividends as more Americans recognize the very real risks their residences face from floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters,” said Sean Kevelighan, CEO, Triple-I. “There is still time to act. Hurricane Sally today became the eighth named storm to make landfall in 2020 but the Atlantic hurricane season continues through the end of November.”

However, the poll also found that greater consumer understanding on insurance coverage is still needed.

In something of a surprise, 27 percent of homeowners surveyed reported they have flood insurance, the highest level of flood coverage reported since the Triple-I began asking Americans this question in 2007. Most insurance industry and FEMA National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) sources estimate anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of U.S. residences are covered under a flood insurance policy.

It is possible a number of Triple-I Consumer Poll respondents with homeowners insurance believe they have flood coverage when they actually do not. The discrepancy between those who have flood insurance and those who think they do gives insurers an opportunity to inform their customers about the need to purchase flood insurance, either from the NFIP or a private insurer, according to the Triple-I.

In addition to floods and hurricanes, the poll looked at how Americans assessed their risks from wildfires and earthquakes and surveyed the percentage of U.S. drivers who received auto insurance premium relief this year after the pandemic reduced miles driven nationwide. 

The poll was conducted in July and is available here.

Ahead of Hurricane Sally’s Rains, Many Lack Flood Insurance

As Hurricane Sally slowly moves over the Gulf Coast in the next few days, historical flooding is predicted from rainfall for parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas.

National Weather Service published a map of areas in Gulf Coast states most at risk for flash floods. Triple-I estimated the percentage of properties in these counties that are covered by flood insurance and found that purchase rates are remarkably low in some areas.  In Taylor County, GA for example, just 0.09 percent of properties are insured against flooding.

Standard homeowners and renters insurance policies do not cover flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and a growing number of private companies sell the coverage. However, NFIP policies purchased now would take 30 days to take effect. Private companies have shorter waiting periods, about 14 days.

To see our interactive map click here.

For more information on flood insurance click here.

Hurricane Season:
More Than Wind & Water

Under the best of circumstances, the Atlantic hurricane season is a challenging time. Despite improved forecasting and analytical tools, pre-storm communication, and engineering, hurricane-related losses continue to climb.

But the 2020 season hasn’t come during the best of circumstances. This extremely active season arrived on the heels of a pandemic that hasn’t ebbed, accompanied by civil unrest and atypical wildfire activity that could draw attention and resources away from preparation and post-storm aid.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, it falls in the middle of what is arguably the most contentious, chaotic U.S. election year in modern history.

To say these new variables complicate resilience would be a gross understatement in a year whose (to use the technical insurance phrase) “general weirdness” would be difficult to overstate.

So, in a paper published today we review the current state of hurricane resilience – how forecasting, modeling, preparation, and mitigation have evolved – and how the insurance industry is working to help communities bounce back from hurricanes.

Demographics more than climate change

Nine of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have occurred since 2004, and 2017, 2018, and 2019 were the largest back-to-back-to-back insured property loss years in U.S. history. Many would instinctively chalk up such numbers to climate change. But a careful look at the data suggests climate change isn’t the predominant driver of losses.

U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the number of housing units in the United States increased most dramatically since 1940 in areas that are most vulnerable to weather-related damage. They also show that new homes are bigger and more expensive than in past decades.

Bigger homes full of more valuables, more cars and infrastructure in disaster-prone locales – these, more than climate trends, seem to be the dominant factors driving losses.

Not more, but wetter

Hurricanes may not be more frequent or significantly more intense due to climate change, but they seem to be getting wetter. Inland flooding has caused more deaths in the United States in the past 30 years than any other hurricane-related threat.

Early in the 2020 season, Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall along southeastern Louisiana and triggered flash flooding as far inland as northwest Wisconsin.  

“As the atmosphere continues to warm, storms can hold more moisture and bring more rainfall,” said Triple-I non-resident scholar and Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Dr. Philip Klotzbach. This trend could be exacerbated if, as some experts expect, storms begin traveling more slowly, adding to the moisture they would pick up from the ocean and drop over land.

This is why experts we talk with say, “Get flood insurance.”

We’ve come a long way – and have further to go

Our paper also looks at the evolution of hurricane modeling and forecasting, as well as developments in preparation and mitigation.

Better data and improved modeling have made private insurers comfortable writing coverage, like flood insurance, that was previously considered “untouchable” and enabled the creation of entirely new types of insurance products.

But challenges remain. Experts disagree as to which models are best, and the proprietary nature of these models can make it hard for regulators to determine whether filed rates based on them are unfairly discriminatory.

Hurricane preparation and damage mitigation have benefited from improved communication and public planning.

“Many people still don’t evacuate the way they should,” says Todd Blachier of Church Mutual Insurance, “but states like Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have gotten much better in terms of shutting down inbound roads and creating one-way egress to facilitate evacuation.”

He says officials are acting much more quickly and communicating more effectively, thanks in large part to improved information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other resources.

One area in which improvements could boost resilience is building codes and standards. A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) study quantified the losses avoided due to buildings being constructed according to modern, hazard-resistant codes and standards. In California and Florida — two of the most catastrophe-prone states — FEMA found adopting and enforcing modern codes over the past 20 years led to a long-term average future savings of $1 billion per year for those two states combined.

Swiss Re: A Katrina-like hurricane could cause up to $200 billion in damage today

A memorial cross for the victims of Hurricane Katrina stands in the water near the bank of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet on August 22, 2019 in Shell Beach, Louisiana. According to researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Louisiana’s combination of rising waters and sinking land give it one of the highest rates of relative sea level rise on the planet. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Hurricane Katrina, which struck the United States in August 2005, remains the costliest insured North Atlantic hurricane on record and the most expensive natural catastrophe for the global re/insurance industry.  In 2020 dollars, according to a Swiss Re  report released today, total economic damage from Katrina totaled more than $160 billion.

An identical storm today “could easily reach” $200 billion, Swiss Re says.

To evaluate what Hurricane Katrina might look like in 2020 in terms of insured and economic losses, Swiss Re ran Katrina’s 2005 wind and surge footprint on its U.S. market portfolio using its probabilistic tropical-cyclone loss model.

“If Hurricane Katrina were to hit the U.S. in 2020 with the same wind and storm surge as 2005, but with current exposure information and updated flood protection and vulnerability assumptions, the privately insured losses in the U.S. alone could rise to $60 billion,” the report says. “This is true, despite the city (New Orleans) currently only having 80% of the population it did in 2005.”

Private insurance and the federal flood insurance program covered about $86 billion of the total loss, highlighting a protection gap largely driven by uninsured flood losses. Standard residential insurance policies exclude coverage for flood damage resulting from surface water, including storm surge caused by hurricanes; separate flood insurance policies are available through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program and private insurers.

“With Katrina, and even more recently with Harvey and Sandy and Florence, we’ve seen this profound protection gap where on average only one in six residences in the U.S. have a flood coverage policy,” said Marla Schwartz Pourrabbani, a Swiss Re natural catastrophe specialist and lead author of the report.

Today, a storm like Katrina would cause closer to $175 billion in damage because areas outside New Orleans, especially in other coastal states, have seen both increases in population and increased investments along the coast that add to the financial risk. Rising sea levels also contribute to the potential losses.

Swiss Re says the effects of climate change could drive total costs  higher.

“Considering that sea level in the barrier islands near New Orleans is now rising by over one inch every two years, a six-inch increase in sea level — and an event like this could happen in just over a decade,” the report says.