When the Waters Rise, Flood Insurance Speeds Recovery

Inland Flooding 6/1/1998 Gwinnett County

Lilburn , GA – Still recovering from a historic drought that began in 2006, few Georgia residents have had flash flooding on their mind, let alone flood insurance. In mid-September 2009, four days of heavy rainfall broke nearly a century-old record at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, inundating Fulton County (including downtown Atlanta) as well as 22 other counties in northwest and middle Georgia.

Just after midnight on September 21, Rebecca Rush of Lilburn in Gwinnett County woke to crackling lightning and the sound of pounding thunder and her two dogs barking excitedly. The heavy storm system that had pounded the Atlanta metropolitan counties for four days, dumping up to 22 inches of rain, was reaching its strongest point.

“I got up and saw the yard flooding and water up to the door of my car,” said Rush. “I knew things would be messy, but I figured I would deal with it in the morning. Even at that point I did not sense that I could be in danger.”

Within 30 minutes of waking, Rush was knee-deep in floodwaters. Escaping from her home through 10 feet of rushing rapids in her front yard, she was forced to cling to her front porch support column to keep herself from being carried off by the water. Four police officers, who had come to her rescue, were also caught in the flood. Two managed to get to her roof, while the others were forced to hold onto a tree limb in her front yard. It took nearly three hours for the rescue and emergency teams to get to them, and during the wait, both of Rush’s dogs were swept away. Sadly, only one returned.

The storm forced numerous rivers and creeks to overflow, flooding hundreds of homes, and causing significant damage to public infrastructure. There were widespread power outages. Hundreds of area residents were evacuated from their homes, many losing nearly everything they owned, forcing evacuees to seek shelter for relief. Tragically, 10 lives were lost during the flooding, and the state received a Federal disaster declaration for 23 counties.

After years of driving past the single-level house located just a few doors down from her daughter’s home, Rush knew the property sat in the lowest-lying area in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, she purchased her house in 1998 and moved in to be close to her daughter. As the house is located in the Special Flood Hazard Area with a small tributary meandering along the edge of the property, her mortgage company required that she purchase flood insurance in addition to her homeowner’s insurance policy.

Congress established the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) with passage of the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968. The program is designed to mitigate development in floodprone areas and reduce losses. The NFIP is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A prerequisite to purchasing flood insurance through the NFIP is that local communities must agree to adopt and enforce floodplain management ordinances to help reduce future flood losses.

“I knew the house was in a flood zone, but being forced to buy flood insurance was aggravating. Money was tight,” said Rush. “Besides, the house already sat on cinder blocks, nearly 36 inches off the ground. When it rained the yard would flood, but when it stopped, the water always went down again.”

Long-time neighbors in the community assured Rush that even though her house is in a low-lying area, they never saw floodwaters actually enter the home. However, not long after Rush moved in, severe storms in September 2004 brought floodwaters into the crawlspace and caused major damage to the heating and air conditioning units there. To mitigate future flood damages, Rush moved the units to the attic.

“Two days after being rescued from clinging to the tree, I returned to the house and could not walk through the front door,” said Rush. “You know it’s going to be bad, but when you actually see everything, you just cry. The floodwater line on the walls reached nearly seven feet. Everything was covered in thick mud and sludge. It smelled like a sewer. Everything was contaminated.”

Under the NFIP, the maximum coverage available for a residential structure is $250,000; contents coverage is $100,000. The cost of a flood insurance policy is determined by what is covered, the amount of coverage purchased, the deductible, and the risk associated with insuring the structure.

“I was convinced at the time I bought the policy that I didn’t actually need flood insurance,” said Rush. “That’s the reason I just bought what I had to—coverage for the structure and not my contents. Looking back, that was not the wise thing to do.”

Within days of the event, the flood insurance appraisers had visited Rush’s property and filed a report. For an annual flood insurance premium of $815, Rush received $78,000 (out of a maximum coverage of $93,000) for structural damages incurred during the flood.

“Everyone has been so wonderful; my friends, the local emergency people, and FEMA,” Rush stated. “They’ve all helped to make this bearable. I’m moving forward and once the work is complete, everything will be new. My advice to people who don’t want to pay for flood insurance is—be happy to pay. It’s worth it.”