Heartbreak for Some in Colorado With No Flood Policy

September 20, 2013 by Dan Elliott and Matt Volz

Jessica Klauzer-Zimmerman and her children have been sleeping on friends’ couches since floodwaters sloshed into her Boulder townhouse—which wasn’t covered by flood insurance.

“We were told we didn’t need it because we didn’t live on the flood plain,” said Klauzer-Zimmerman, a single mom with three kids.

Now she and thousands of other Coloradans who didn’t buy flood policies for their homes, businesses or farms could face staggering costs to clean up or rebuild after last week’s deadly and devastating floods in the mountains, foothills and eastern plains.

And they might be dismayed to learn that aid from the government is limited and focused primarily on getting them temporary help with renting a new place or paying for relatively minor repairs on their homes.

For those who lack flood insurance to cover bigger, longer-term costs, their only option might be a low-interest government loan or community-based relief groups.

“It’s really a heartbreaking situation for these people,” said Eric Weedin, an insurance agent in Larimer County whose agency has seen a spike in calls from frantic homeowners. “A lot of people don’t have the assets or the savings to repair their house.”

More than 7,200 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in Larimer and Boulder counties, the hardest-hit areas of Colorado, according to county officials. But fewer than 6,000 home and business owners in those two counties had flood insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

It wasn’t known how many of the insured homes and businesses suffered flood damage. Boulder and Larimer counties have a total of 606,000 residents and 261,000 housing units.

Statewide, only about 22,000 homeowners have flood insurance policies, FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said. With 2.2 million housing units in Colorado, according to Census figures, that means about 1 percent of the state’s residences have flood coverage.

Some people don’t realize that standard homeowners insurance doesn’t cover floods. Others gamble that they won’t need flood insurance and decide not to pay for it. In Colorado, adding flood coverage to a homeowners policy costs an average of about $650 a year.

“I think there’s the all-too-human impulse to think it won’t happen to you,” DeFelice said. “I think we’re like that.”

State officials have released no estimates of the costs of the floods, which killed at least six people and left two others missing and presumed dead. But the damage is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Klauzer-Zimmerman is still waiting to hear whether her homeowners insurance includes sewage backups. Even if it does, the coverage is limited to $10,000. She knows she’ll need a lot more than that.

The knee-deep water left her townhouse uninhabitable.

“I’ve got three kids sleeping on a couch, but we’re safe,” she said.

Josh Landwehr of Boulder said he is in the insurance business but has no flood policy because his home is just outside a flood plain.

Water and sewage got into his basement. But Landwehr said flood insurance wouldn’t have helped because it “only covers water that comes through the front door,” not up from the ground.

Deyn Johnson, owner of Whispering Pines Cottages in the tourist town of Estes Park, has flood insurance but couldn’t afford a policy that would cover all of her losses.

Only three of her 11 cottages are usable, her water well and septic system were damaged, and floodwaters carved a 7-foot ravine into the property.

“Flood insurance does not cover any loss of income whatsoever,” Johnson said. She doubts it will cover debris removal, let alone rebuilding the cabins or restoring utilities.

Some of the flooding in Larimer and Boulder counties was worsened by runoff from wildfires scars that had not fully healed and could not absorb as much rain as a healthy forest. Homeowners in those areas had been urged to buy flood insurance, DeFelice said, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many did so.

Homeowners aren’t required to get flood insurance unless they have a federally backed mortgage and live in a 100-year flood plain—defined as an area that could be inundated by a flood so large there is only a 1 percent chance of it occurring in any given year, DeFelice said.

Individual lenders also can require the insurance if they’re worried about flood risk in other areas.

All homeowners should at least consider getting flood insurance, no matter where they live, DeFelice said. And he warned that a 100-year flood plain is more of a concept than a definable geographic area.

“Mother Nature isn’t going to observe that line,” he said.

DeFelice predicts more Coloradans will sign up for flood insurance, but others’ experience suggests they might not keep the policies.

The 1997 Red River flood in North Dakota and Minnesota caused nearly $2 billion in damage just in Grand Forks, N.D., but fewer than 750 Grand Forks homeowners had flood coverage a decade later.

Weedin said his insurance agency is getting five or six calls a day from people asking about flood insurance—up from two or three a month before last week’s catastrophe.

“At this point, it’s mostly people who are scared, not people who have had the loss,” he said.

(Associated Press writers Jeri Clausing and Ivan Moreno contributed to this report.)

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