El Niño means it's a good time to buy flood insurance

The El Niño weather pattern is expected to bring heavy rain across the southern United States and along both coasts. Whether or not you decide to buy flood insurance, it’s best to consider it before the heavy rains begin.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP/File
French Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of World Meteorological Organization, WMO, informs the media about the El Nino, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.

If you think you don’t need flood insurance, you could be proven wrong this winter. That’s thanks to an El Nino weather pattern that meteorologists expect to be among the strongest on record.

“We encourage everyone to take this threat seriously,” said Roy Wright, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, at a prewinter news conference. “If there ever was a time to buy flood insurance, this is that time.”

Experts expect increased rain across the southern United States and along both coasts.

What’s in store

El Nino refers to times of particularly warm sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. This creates unusually warm, dry weather in some places and unusually cool, wet conditions in others.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the 2015-16 El Nino will be among the three strongest since 1950, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the agency’s Climate Prediction Center.  Winter is predicted to be more than 50% wetter than usual from Central and Southern California and across most of the southern United States, to Florida. Most of Florida, along with the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, are predicted to be 73% wetter. Conditions will be moderately wetter to equally wet in the more northern regions of each coast, according to NOAA. The rain could hit as soon as late November.

In California, recent drought and wildfires could make things worse, Wright warned. Drought leaves hard ground that cannot easily absorb water, so it makes flash flooding more likely. Wildfires leave black scars that are almost like asphalt, Wright added. “When the rain hits them, it just conveys straight down very, very quickly. It can cause a tremendous amount of damage as water and debris move.”

As an example of the higher risk that major El Ninos pose, FEMA noted that the seasons with the two strongest ones on record — 1982-83 and 1997-98 — accounted for 37% of all flood insurance claims paid in California since 1978. Counting floods and other impacts, the El Nino of 1982-83 was blamed for 161 deaths nationwide and losses of more than $2 billion, while the El Nino of 1997-98 was blamed for 189 deaths and losses of more than $4 billion. Both dollar totals are not adjusted for inflation.

The average residential flood claim is more than $39,000, according to the latest data from FEMA.

How to protect yourself

Flash floods are the top cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, according toready.gov. The FEMA-sponsored site provides disaster statistics and can help you craft an emergency plan and preparedness kit in case of flooding.

FEMA also recommends flood insurance, because standard homeowners insurance doesn’t pay for flood damage. Regular insurance pays only for damage from water that enters a home from above, such as rain that comes in through a blown-out window or a hole created by a falling tree limb. Homeowners and renters need a flood policy to protect against damage from a rising river or water that rolls down a hillside.

Almost everyone who has a mortgage in a high-risk flood zone is required to buy flood insurance. But if you live in low- and moderate-risk zones, you might also want coverage, especially in a year like this one, Wright said.

FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program in partnership with about 80 insurance companies, which sell and service policies for both homeowners and renters. Flood insurance premiums averaged about $700 per year in 2014, although people in low- and moderate-risk zones can buy coverage for $140 to $500 a year, according to Wright.

“Even if you bought that policy for only one year, this is the year to buy it,” he said.

Don’t wait until flooding is imminent to buy insurance. Nearly all policies have a 30-day waiting period before coverage takes effect, Wright noted.

And remember that your home might not be the only thing affected by flooding. Comprehensive car insurance coverage will protect your vehicle against not only flooding but also animal encounters, vandalism and theft.

A variety of companies offer flood insurance, and NerdWallet has created a list of the top service providers. Whether or not you decide to buy coverage, it’s best to consider it before the heavy rains begin.

Aubrey Cohen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:acohen@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @aubreycohen.

This article first appeared in NerdWallet.

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