In many of the localities most vulnerable to flood damage, fewer than five percent of property owners carry flood insurance. Statewide, just three percent do.
Gov. Ralph Northam named this week the state’s first Flood Awareness Week, meant to educate Virginians about the potential risks of flooding and encourage homeowners to purchase flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States, yet most Virginians are not aware of their risk or prepared for the devastating impacts a flood could have,” Northam said in a statement.
“Recent record-breaking rains remind us how unpredictable and destructive flooding can be. I urge all Virginians to understand how flooding could affect them and take the appropriate precautions to protect their property and their families.”
Most homeowner insurance policies don’t include flood damage coverage and flooding has cost Virginians at least $723,271,034 since 1978, according to data from FEMA.
FEMA’s numbers aren’t a complete count of how prevalent and expensive flooding is because it only keeps track of claims that come in through the NFIP.
Not every homeowner is required to carry flood insurance and in coastal Virginia, flooding has increasingly occurred outside of designated floodplains. In those areas, flood insurance is optional.
Cities in Hampton Roads, on the middle Peninsula and Roanoke have filed the most flood insurance claims through the NFIP since 1978, suggesting a vulnerability to flooding.
FEMA data tracking how many of those residents hold a flood insurance policy show the insured rate in those localities run from 1-4 percent of the local population, with some outliers.
In Hampton, 7 percent of property owners carry flood insurance while about 58 percent of property owners in the 3,000-person town of Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore hold a policy.
Virginia Beach residents have filed the most claims in the state through the NFIP, according to FEMA’s data. The city also has the most residents paying into the program — 24,000 of nearly 440,000 residents — and there have been $101 million worth of claims in the city since 1978.
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 damaged thousands of homes in one Virginia Beach neighborhood, many belonging to people who weren’t required to have flood insurance.
Outside of Hampton Roads, Roanoke has had the most most expensive flood-related losses, with almost $20 million worth of claims.
There, the city sits in a valley that captures runoff from surrounding mountains, said Marci Stone, the deputy chief of the Roanoke Fire Department who also oversees emergency management.
Unlike some areas in Hampton Roads where flooding has become more frequent and severe, Roanoke has always had the same flood risk, Stone said.
In 1985, 10 people died when the Roanoke River crested at 23 feet and six inches of rain fell, according to a recent story by The Roanoke Times. It cost the city $200 million in damages and prompted new flood mitigation measures to be taken, Stone said.
Using federal grant money, Roanoke has purchased some flood-prone properties and turned it into natural recreational space. The city couldn’t get every property, and some people still live in flood-prone areas without insurance, Stone said.
Flood insurance can be expensive for residents of the most vulnerable areas and prices are set to keep increasing.
Not everyone can afford it, Stone said, so city officials try to keep a watchful eye over those residents when there’s potential for a flood, leaving warnings on their doors and making sure emergency services can respond quickly to those areas.
And when there isn’t an imminent threat of flooding, the city tries to remind people the importance of purchasing a policy.
“Even though you may not think you need flood insurance … if you’re in a floodplain you have potential to experience a flood,” Stone said. “If you don’t choose to get that insurance, the liability lies on you for rebuilding your home.”