Few natural disasters have the potential to do more damage to homes--and the valuables within--than floods. However, unlike more geographically localized natural disasters like tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes, flooding can happen almost anywhere and affect anyone. In the past decade, floods have occurred in all fifty states, with the recent Spring 2019 flood that struck the central United States being some of the worst in recent history.
While completely preventing floodwaters from invading your home may be impossible in the event of heavy rains, there’s a lot you can do to reduce the damage flooding can have on your home and possessions. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the key steps to take in order to safeguard your home from the worst effects of flooding, how to react quickly and effectively when a flood occurs, and what to do after the flood is over. With climate change triggering an influx of extreme and unpredictable weather all around the world, this knowledge has never been more important.
Flood facts and statistics
An understanding of the key facts about flood is necessary before going into the details about how to prepare for them. Take a look at these 10 striking flood facts and statistics:
Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States.
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, flood-related natural disasters accounted for over 70% of presidential disaster declarations from the years between 2008-2017. An important lesson to take from this is that floods are the inevitable and most damaging after-effect of more headline-grabbing natural disasters such as hurricanes or heavy storms.
Flooding is more likely to occur in landlocked states than in coastal ones.
The same PEW article details that, contrary to popular belief, 8 of the 10 states to experience the highest number of flood-related disaster declarations in the past ten years were inland, rather than along the coast.
A majority of flooding in the U.S. occurs between spring and fall.
There is no set “flood season”, so the time when your home is most at risk depends on the region of the country you live in. However, for most areas, seasonal thunderstorms in spring and summer are the most common cause of flooding.
98% of US counties have been impacted by a flooding event.
FEMA (short for The Federal Emergency Management Agency) has a handy data visualization page where you can view how many flooding events your (or any in the US) county has experienced. Good luck finding those lucky 2% of counties yet to record a flood.
Since 2015, over one hundred people have died annually due to floods.
This is a significant increase in deaths compared to the recent past: the average annual flood deaths over the past 30 years was 86. For the past decade, that number went up to 95 deaths per year.
In the U.S., flood damages tally up to nearly $8 billion a year, on average.
The high price tag on flooding makes it the nation’s costliest natural disaster. Floods were responsible for over $260 billion in damage between the years of 1980 and 2013, with government agencies and insurance companies struggling to keep up with the high price tag.
Most homeowners are not insured against flooding.
Despite what you may think, flood damage is not included in standard homeowner’s insurance and renter’s insurance policies. To get flood coverage, you’ll have to take out a separate policy from the Nation Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), or a flood protection policy from a private insurer.
The average cost of a flood insurance policy provided by the NFIP is $700.
That may seem like a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the average annual car insurance premium, which is $1,457. $700 is a small price to pay considering the heavy damage that a flood can do to a home.
Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island all have the highest average flood insurance rates, with each hovering around $1,390. Florida’s average flood insurance rate is the lowest, at $550.33.
Northeastern states having higher average premiums than states with frequent flooding (e.g., Florida, Louisiana) may seem counterintuitive. However, while it is true that most homes in coastal states have flood insurance (with good reason) and many in northeastern states don't, the cause of the price discrepancy is actually due to a layer of reasons beyond the simple supply-and-demand curve. Experts on the matter have confirmed that reasoning for price differences is complex and layered, and that "NFIP premiums are not based on the number of policies in the state."
Nevertheless, what evidence does show is that regardless of the state you find yourself in, hazard mitigation literally pays off in the long run. Across the country, every $1 that's put towards flood protection saves $7 in post-disaster rebuilding, as shown in the latest NIBS Mitigation Report. FEMA reports have also shown that insurance premiums reduce considerably when property owners make their buildings FEMA compliant and have them removed from high-hazard flood zones through a "LOMA," or a "Letter of Map Amendment." See extensive FEMA resources and information here.
As of 2017, Florida has the highest number of active NFIP flood insurance policies, with 1,759,052.
That’s nearly three times higher than the number of active policies in #2 Texas. Home and business owners in Florida take flooding very seriously, and with good reason.
According to FEMA, the average year-over-year flood insurance claim totals up to $43,000.
That $700 flood insurance premium doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
Safeguarding against floods before they happen
Floods happen quickly. Therefore, taking preventative measures against flooding before it occurs is crucial to protecting your home. Waiting until a flood happens to take action is not going to cut it, so pay heed to these 10 important steps any homeowner should take to shore up their home before a deluge hits.
1. Educate yourself about flood risks in your area.
Use the resources available to you to learn when floods are likely to hit your community. If you live in the foothills of a mountain range, this could be in early spring when warmer temperatures melt accumulated winter snowfall. If you live in a coastal area, summer and fall hurricane season is the most vulnerable period. Those unlucky enough to live in a floodplain may have a year-round risk of flooding. Communicate with your local government to learn the history of flooding in your area, and follow their recommendations.
2. Open a flood insurance policy.
While some homeowners may feel safe enough to skip this step, most are advised to take out flood insurance. A majority of Americans acquire flood insurance through the NFIP, although you must go through an insurance agent or insurer participating with the NFIP rather than buying it directly. You can call the NFIP Referral Call Center at 1-800-427-4661 in order to find an agent near you to assist.
Private flood insurance is another option. While not as common as federally-backed NFIP insurance, it’s a better alternative for homes and businesses valued above $350,000, and it may even be cheaper in your area.
3. Elevate utilities and electrical appliances.
Keep water heaters, furnaces, electrical outlets, and other utilities above the base flood elevation level. This may be a difficult process, however in the case of a flood it will save you a lot of grief and money. These utilities may become irreparably damaged by floodwaters and require replacement.
4. "Flood proof" your basement.
This step includes all measures that will keep water out of your basement or the lower level of your home, like sealing the walls to prevent flood water seepage and installing a sump pump and back-flow valves on sewer lines so that nasty sewer water doesn’t back up into your home. Completing these procedures will likely require professional assistance.
5. Keep important or expensive items off the ground.
Save yourself the trauma of losing priceless family photo albums and important documents by storing them on high-level shelves or in the attic rather than in boxes in your basement. You’ll save yourself from that moment of panicked hauling of materials to higher ground when a flood hits.
6. Prepare an emergency kit.
This kit should include waterproof flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, and other essential items in the case of an emergency. Keep it in a safe place and let everyone in the home know of its location.
7. Have an emergency flood plan worked out.
It’s likely that your community will have officially designated areas where folks can seek shelter and ride out floods and other emergencies, so learn where they are and plan an evacuation route. Drill the steps you’ll take when a flood hits so that in the case of the real thing, everything goes smoothly and without hiccups.
8. Practice first aid procedures with your family.
You’ll want to be ready for anything, so make sure you and your family members (of an appropriate age) learn CPR and how to treat wounds of all varieties. Practice dealing with all first aid scenarios several times a year.
9. Pay close attention to weather forecasts.
Particularly during high-risk periods, keep tabs on upcoming weather events so you won’t be caught off guard. You don’t want to miss a flood watch warning or be the only one in town who doesn’t know a hurricane is on the way.
10. Build barriers outside your home to keep flood water out of your home.
This may seem a bit “extra” but if a hurricane or severe thunderstorms are on the way, constructing barriers using sandbags and other materials around the perimeter of your home is an effective means of reducing the amount of water that filters through.
Reacting to a flood
If it's a flash flood, get to higher ground as quickly as possible and call for help.
Flash flooding can be devastating and strike with very little warning. When they occur, all other priorities fall by the wayside. Keep the radio on, follow the evacuation plan, and get to a safe place immediately.
Relocate any furniture, electronics, or valuables to a higher level.
If a flood presents no immediate danger to you and your family, you can take the time to move any furniture or personal items in the basement or lowest level of the house to the second floor, or somewhere that the flood cannot damage them.
Stay tuned in to the latest weather reports and advisories.
During extreme weather conditions, the circumstances can change in an instant. Be sure to check in frequently with weather reports and adjust your plans accordingly.
If necessary, evacuate!
When weather conditions reach the point when staying in your home poses a threat to you and your family, then it’s time to go. Follow your evacuation plan and relocate to the nearest designated shelter as safely as possible.
Switch off the electricity, as well as the water and gas.
Leaving utilities on during a severe flood can have serious consequences, and make the post-flood recovery a more difficult proposition. Don’t forget to shut everything down before you leave the home since you can’t be when you’ll be able to return safely.
Before evacuating, shut all windows and lock all doors.
Unfortunately, looting is a common concern during floods and other natural disasters. Don’t make it easy for thieves by leaving the back door unlocked. When you must evacuate, secure your home is well as you can before departure.
Avoid driving into flood waters or other potentially dangerous areas.
While you may think your car can handle a little standing water, it’s best to err on the side of caution: getting stuck or experiencing engine failure in the midst of extreme weather can leave you and your family in a desperate situation. Listen to radio reports to determine which roads are in the best condition and stick to the safest routes on your way to emergency shelter.
Steer clear of downed power lines and don’t touch electrical equipment.
Heavy winds can knock down power lines, which combined with heavy flood waters, creates an extremely dangerous situation. Avoid them at all costs. Best to avoid all electrical equipment in general during flooding/extreme weather as the risk of electrocution is real.
What to do after a flood
Wait until local authorities confirm that it is safe before returning home.
While waiting around an emergency shelter can feel like purgatory, it’s best to wait for the official word that returning home is safe as even if the weather has calmed down and things appear to be okay, there may be untold dangers that you aren’t aware of.
Return home carefully, avoiding debris and remaining flood waters.
As we’ve learned by now, flooding can lead to considerable damage to infrastructure, creating obstacles in roadways, and presenting other novel dangers, especially if you live near a body of water. Even after official confirmation that it’s safe to return home, stick to designated routes and proceed with caution.
Avoid standing water in your home.
Floodwaters are a cesspool of bacteria, sewage, and other contaminants that pose a serious health concern. Don’t wade into flood water in the home unless you must, and be sure to wear adequate protection if you do so.
Take pictures of all damaged areas and possessions.
For insurance purposes, creating a photographic record of flood damage is essential to making a claim. Take pictures of everything with a good camera and make backup copies of everything.
Tend to damaged leaching systems and septic tanks.
If your home’s leaching system or septic tank was damaged or rendered inoperable by a flood, call a professional and have it fixed as soon as possible. When down, these systems become a serious biohazard.
Dry, clean, and disinfect all areas of the home and possessions that have come in contact with flood water.
Be as thorough as possible during post-flood cleanup, leaving no proverbial stone unturned. If something is unable to be cleaned completely, i.e. rugs, carpets, or furniture, it’s best to throw it away rather than run the risk of putting you or your family’s health in danger.
Use a dehumidifier to rid your home of remaining moisture and mitigate mold damage.
Even after you think the cleanup task is complete, excess water under carpets or in the walls can lead to mold and other nasty issues. A dehumidifier is effective at ridding your home of this excess moisture, helping to eliminate odors, and making the environment safer for loved ones with respiratory issues.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Floodwater Safety - This CDC page goes into gritty detail describing the possible contaminants in flood water, and the health hazards they pose. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but full of useful information.
- Fema.gov: Data Visualization: Historical Flood Risk and Costs - An interactive tool allowing you to view the number of recorded flood events in any county in the United States. Very useful for understanding the flood risk in your area and the costs involved.
- Fema.gov: The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) - FEMA’s official NFIP page goes into the history of the program and details their mission statement. If you do not have flood insurance, this page will convince you why it is necessary and go into detail on how homeowners can acquire it.
- NOAA Weather Radio - A nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting a 24/7 stream of the latest weather information and alerts. During the event of a flood, NOAA Weather Radio is your best source of up-to-date information so make sure you know where to tune-in when the time comes.
- Youtube: 2011 Missouri River Flood Documentary - This hour-long documentary produced by South Dakota Public Broadcasting tells the day-to-day story of the massive 2011 flood, chronicling the heroic efforts of those tasked with averting potential crises and protecting those in harm’s way. A must-watch for those looking for a real-time big picture examination of a major U.S. flood in the modern era.
- Weather.gov: Active Alerts - This page allows you to view weather warnings in any state, as well as outlooks on fire and tornado weather. You can also sign up for wireless emergency alerts on your cell phone to ensure you are up-to-date on potential weather hazards, wherever you are.
Not to be alarmist, but the danger posed by flooding in the United States every year is difficult to exaggerate. Additionally, as climate change continues to impact our environment and weather patterns, extreme weather will become more and more common. Of all the things homeowners should be prepared to deal with, flooding should be at the top of the list.
In summary, we hope that you never have to experience the consequences of severe flooding in your region, but the statistics are undeniable, therefore we must also caution you to prepare for the worst.