FEMA says Californians buy record number of flood policies

SAN FRANCISCO – Federal emergency officials reported Tuesday a surge in the number of California residents who have purchased flood insurance, most likely in response to a rainy El Nino winter.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said insurers have written more than 55,500 new policies since Aug. 31, translating into a 25 per cent increase.

The number of new policies topped 27,000 in December alone, astonishing agency officials who say they haven’t witnessed this kind of an increase since the National Flood Insurance Program was created by Congress in 1968.

FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms chalked up the uptick to greater awareness of El Nino, a weather pattern that’s bringing much needed rain to drought-parched California. However, the agency did not report increases in other Western states also affected by El Nino.

Strong El Nino storms drenched parts of California last month, shutting down cable cars in San Francisco and causing extensive flooding in the east end of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

Despite a dry first half of February and record breaking heat throughout California over the holiday weekend, forecasters predict rain this week. A weather pattern change toward the end of February could bring storms across more of California into March.

“It has not been uncommon during past strong El Nino events to go through drier periods, even during the winter months,” said Scott Carpenter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

It’s uncertain whether this season’s rains will rival that of El Nino rains in 1997 and 1998, when storms killed more than a dozen people, washed out highways and wiped out crops.

Simms said flooding is the country’s top natural disaster threat, both in terms of costs and fatalities. A 2,000 square foot home with six inches of water could cost more than $39,000 in flood damages, she said.

Emergency management experts say it’s critical to plan ahead: Document belongings with a quick smartphone video. Stock up on water and sandbags. Have a family evacuation plan.

“It’s a little bit hard when the sun’s out to think about flooding, so preparation is key,” said Janet Ruiz, California representative for the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit trade group.

The National Flood Insurance Program was created to offer flood insurance to homeowners, tenants and business owners through private insurers. Rates are set nationally. As of Dec. 31, there were more than 285,000 flood insurance policies written in California. Nationally, there are about 5.1 million policies.