Insurance sought outside flood plain
Inexpensive move brings peace of mind
Monday, June 05, 2006
By Meghan Gordon
West Bank bureau
Even though homes in the lowest-risk areas are predicted to flood less than once in 500 years, Hurricane Katrina's images of roofs peaking above waves have scared homeowners into putting money on the odds that the same could happen to them.
New Orleans area insurance agents said that no matter how high a property's ground elevation, clients outside the flood plain have flocked to them like never before with requests for flood policy quotes. And unlike the near-impossibility of securing homeowners insurance in the region, federally subsidized flood insurance policies are easily obtained as long as the home meets the current elevation standard and wasn't substantially damaged by Katrina, agents said.
"I've never sold so much flood insurance in my life," said Chris Paulin of Independent Insurance Underwriters in Metairie.
Homes in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's B, C and X zones are considered to be outside the 100-year flood plain; therefore, mortgage companies don't require owners to carry flood insurance.
Older flood maps classified the areas with less than .02 percent chance of flooding in a given year as C zones, while the fractionally more flood-prone B zones were considered vulnerable to inundation by a 500-year flood. New FEMA maps combine the two designations into the X zone.
Pockets of higher ground across the south shore bear the less risky B, C and X designations, but they nevertheless depend on levees and remain vulnerable to major hurricanes. For instance, parts of the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish swamped by Katrina were labeled zone B in the current FEMA flood map, which was drawn in 1984.
"I still have people who absolutely insist that they don't need it," said Laura Donnaway, past president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Greater New Orleans. "I would think anyone, no matter what zone they're in, would see the need for flood insurance. We live in a bowl."
Similarly, Katrina showed the north shore that tidal surges can plow several miles inland, just as Lake Pontchartrain swallowed half of Slidell.
Paulin said that image has fueled queries from his clients, one of whom recently bought a flood policy for his Folsom home nearly 20 miles from Lake Pontchartrain and 24 feet above sea level. Paulin said his customers with homeowners policies told him they were uneasy about the impending hurricane season after Katrina reminded them about the risks of living in southeast Louisiana. After hearing that the lower-risk areas carry inexpensive flood insurance policies, Paulin said, clients typically sign up without hesitation.
A policy for a $250,000 house in an X zone, for instance, costs $317 a year -- compared with thousands for more flood-prone areas.
"To not have to worry about it for $317, it's worth doing," Paulin said.
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has gone a step further by recommending that every Louisiana resident take out flood insurance to guard against the range of possible water threats, including tidal surges, flash floods and overflowing rivers.
"Needless to say, in south Louisiana I get total agreement," Donelon said. "In north Louisiana, I get a more dubious response on the flood insurance issue."
During his statewide informational campaign this month, Donelon tried to persuade residents to take advantage of the federally subsidized program from which Louisiana, Florida and Texas have disproportionately benefited.
Donelon said homeowners shouldn't simply abide by the requirements set by mortgage lenders when it comes to flood insurance. He said owners with small or no mortgages should heed the same advice and insure the full values of their properties up to the $250,000 federal maximum, or up to $335,000 if legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, to increase the flood insurance cap becomes law.
"When a lender tells you it's not required, that sends a signal to a consumer that it isn't necessary," Donelon said. "That just is not true in our state."
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Meghan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3785.