No one is recommending, yet, that Californians start building arks in the backyard in anticipation of a heavy El Niño, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has strongly urged residents to purchase flood insurance NOW, even if they live in a low-risk zone.
“If there ever was a time to buy flood insurance, this is that time,” FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator Roy Wright said at a press conference.
Standard homeowner insurance policies don’t cover floods and insurance companies are loath to offer it to customers, so the federal government took responsibility in 1968. Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which sets rates and conditions for the 80 or so insurance companies that administer the policies nationwide.
“Rates are set nationally and do not differ from company to company or agent to agent,” according to NFIP. “These rates depend on many factors, which include the date and type of construction of your home, along with your building’s level of risk.”
FEMA wants folks to insure now because, unlike other types of insurance, there is a 30-day delay before coverage becomes effective and El Niño is expected to arrive this winter. Customers have to pay for a year’s worth of insurance; no bailing out when the rains stop.
NFIP has a website, FloodSmart.gov, where people can get a risk-profile of their property and an estimate on the cost of insurance. There is one caveat. “In order to qualify for flood insurance, the home or business must be in a community that has joined the NFIP and agreed to enforce sound floodplain management standards.”
That information does not appear to be readily available on the website.
The National Weather Service is currently predicting “an approximately 95% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, gradually weakening through spring 2016. . . . The forecaster consensus unanimously favors a strong El Niño.”
Scientists say all the conditions are present for El Niño to rival the 1997-98 event, which was as large as any recorded. Although Californians tend to think of El Niño as a state phenomenon, its effect can be felt globally. The last big one is blamed for an estimated $35 billion in damage and 23,000 deaths worldwide, including Peru, India, Australia and Singapore.
California sustained more than half a billion dollars in damage and 17 people died.
Even if this year’s El Niño turns out to be as powerful as many scientists expect, there is no guarantee that California will get a lot of rain, or even a respite from its four-year drought. Distribution of El Niño’s effects is as difficult to predict as its very existence.