With a powerful El Niño already underway in the Pacific Ocean and chances increasing for strong winter rains, federal emergency officials have urged Californians to buy flood insurance before it’s too late.
Purchasing insurance is the most powerful action residents can take against El Niño, said Roy Wright, FEMA's deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, on Friday.
"If there was ever a time to buy flood insurance, this is the time," said Mr. Wright at a press conference. "You cannot get it at the last minute. There's a 30-day wait period for new flood insurance policies to go into effect," he said.
Flood insurance is funded through the federal government, due to a 1968 law enacted after many private companies declined to offer policies following heavy losses.
According to Wright, flood insurance policies for people in high-risk areas can cost $1,000 or a more a year. Policies for people outside those high-risk areas, which are called "preferred risk" policies, are cheaper and can range from about $140 to $500 a year.
"That is often within someone's reach in terms of the kind of investment they can make to buy down their risk," he said. "Even if you buy that policy for only one year, this is the year to buy it."
California residents can rate their flood risk and get insurance quotes on FloodSmart.gov, hosted by FEMA.
In the Bay Area, preparations for the storm season are already underway.
Resident Jason Alarid told the San Jose Mercury News that he's talking with his insurance agent about his flood policy.
"With this El Niño, we think we need more coverage, just in case," he said. "You never know what will happen."
In recent weeks, flash floods across the United States have provided devastating reminders of the power of rising water. Last week, a flash food carried debris and mud onto Interstate 5, north of Los Angeles, blocking traffic and stranding hundreds of motorists.
El Niño – Spanish for 'the boy' – forms every two to seven years and brings heavy rains, floods, and landslides. The last strong El Niño happened in 1997-1998 and is estimated to have caused between $10 billion and $25 billion of losses in the US.
The 2015 El Niño, expected to start this winter, is forecast to be historic.
It has a greater than 90 percent chance of continuing through the winter of 2015-16, warned NOAA officials this summer, and an 80 percent chance of lasting into early spring 2016.
For years, California has been mired in the worst drought on record, and the expected wet season could offer much needed relief. Last year forecasters had predicted a major El Niño event, but it failed to materialize plunging California into extreme drought.