'We thought we were safe': Kentucky disaster shows how US is ill-prepared and under-insured for devastating floods

Originally Published: 15 AUG 22 07:12 ET

Updated: 15 AUG 22 07:38 ET

By Casey Tolan, CNN

(CNN) -- When Bob and Debbie Smith signed up for flood insurance years ago, they never expected the storm that transformed the little river next to their backyard into a raging, muddy torrent. They never imagined that they and their cat would need to be rescued from their front porch by a neighbor with a boat as the floodwater reached up to their chests.

But after the historic floods that devastated Eastern Kentucky last month, that insurance is now a "game-changer," Bob Smith said. While the more than $32,000 they're set to receive won't make up for the renovations the couple did on their now-ruined mobile home in Letcher County, "it's enough to give me hope," he said. "Other people, they don't know what they're going to do."

The Smiths are in an extreme minority: Only about 1% of properties in the hardest-hit counties of the state have federal flood insurance, government records show, and general homeowners insurance policies don't cover flood damage. That means most of their neighbors are struggling to find funds to rebuild from the deluge that killed 38 people in a rural corner of the state.

The destruction in Eastern Kentucky is a warning for other communities around the US that once-unthinkable floods are becoming more common due to climate change. Federal flood zone maps used by the insurance industry substantially underestimate the risk in many parts of the country, and the nation as a whole is underprepared for the financial ruin left in the wake of powerful floods, experts say.

The Kentucky communities suffering from the damage -- coal mining towns tucked into the bends of winding river valleys -- are especially ill-equipped. They include some of the poorest counties in the US, with little funding for rebuilding or flood resilience projects.

"A lot of these places have never flooded," Donald Mobelini, the mayor of Hazard, Kentucky, told CNN. "These people will not have flood insurance. So therefore, if they lose their home, it's a total loss. There's not going to be an insurance check coming to help that."

In some of the flooded counties, only a few dozen federal flood insurance policies were in effect a month before the storm, according to Federal Emergency Management Association records. Residents without insurance could be eligible for temporary rental housing assistance from FEMA and potentially other aid approved by Congress, but experts said those payments will likely only cover a small fraction of the damages.

Roy Wright, the former head of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA, said that the level of flood insurance in the area was "nowhere near the size and scope you'd hope to see given the risk of flooding."

"The realities are very harsh for a community like this," he said.

'No home is completely safe'

So far, the flood insurance program has paid out more than $1.4 million to insured Kentucky households affected by the flooding, according to FEMA -- likely a tiny fraction of the total damage costs in the region.

"No home is completely safe from potential flooding," FEMA official Paul Huang said in a statement. "With flood insurance, survivors have peace of mind knowing they are covered in the event of a major disaster."

Some of the Kentucky families who suffered damages have been especially shocked because their homes or businesses weren't in a FEMA-designated flood zone, so they never thought they would need flood insurance.

The Kentucky Mist Distillery, which operates out of a nearly 100-year-old building in Whitesburg's tiny downtown, was swamped with several feet of water during the floods, leaving its gleaming steel tanks caked with mud. Colin Fultz, the distillery's owner, estimated that the inundation caused about $150,000 in damage, between ruined equipment and lost moonshine and vodka.

"We weren't in the flood zone, so we thought we were safe," Fultz said. "I never would have dreamed it would get that high."

A growing body of research has found that the maps that people like Fultz rely on underestimate the risk of flooding, especially as climate change gets worse.

According to FEMA's flood maps, about 12% of the properties in three of the hardest-hit Kentucky counties are in what the agency calls a "Special Flood Hazard Area" -- the zone that would be inundated during a 1-in-100-year flood event. When homeowners get mortgages in the area, they're required to purchase flood insurance.

But a more accurate flooding model that takes climate change into account puts 51% of properties in those counties at risk during that kind of flood, according to estimates by First Street Foundation, a climate research nonprofit.

The difference is in part because FEMA's maps don't fully account for the impact of heavy rainfall on small rivers and creeks like those that cover the landscape of Eastern Kentucky, according to Jeremy Porter, First Street's chief research officer.

And Kentucky isn't unique: Nationally, almost 6 million properties are at risk of damage during a 1-in-100-year flood even though they aren't in the flood zone, First Street found.

"There's a huge discrepancy between the number of people that are at risk and the people who know they're at risk," Porter said.

In a statement, a FEMA spokesperson said the agency's maps use the best available technology and that First Street's analysis may overstate flood risk. FEMA's flood maps reflect past flooding conditions, not future risk, the spokesperson said.

Other research has also raised questions about the extent of flood risk. A North Carolina State University study published in February found that almost 85% of the flood damage events reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration between December 2006 and May 2020 took place outside FEMA's flood risk zone.

"It's expensive and time-consuming to update our flood maps," said Georgina Sanchez, a researcher at NC State and one of the study's authors. "Many of the maps are quite old ... and are not accounting for the changes we're currently experiencing due to climate change."

In Kentucky, FEMA flood maps for three of the hardest-hit counties -- Breathitt, Clay and Perry -- haven't been updated in more than 14 years, according to federal records.

Climate change forcing homeowners to make tough choices

Videos and photos of flooding reviewed and geolocated by CNN show that some of the areas that flooded in recent weeks were outside the current FEMA-designated flood zone, from parts of downtown Whitesburg to stretches of homes lining river mountain valleys outside of the town of Jackson.

The storm that deluged the state has been described by meteorologists as a 1-in-1,000-year rain-event -- so the FEMA map, which designates zones at risk during 1-in-100-year and 1-in-500-year floods, wouldn't necessarily capture all the flooded areas.

But as climate change advances, "what was a 1-in-100-year flood when these maps were created might now be a 1-in-50 or 1-in-40-year event going forward," Porter said.

Even more up-to-date and accurate flood maps wouldn't necessarily have led to far more people in Eastern Kentucky getting flood insurance because many residents don't have mortgages that would have required them to buy it, experts said. In less affluent rural areas like the flooded Kentucky counties, new housing construction is rare, and many homes are passed on to family members instead of being sold.

"If you don't have a mortgage, regardless of whether you're in the highest hazard zone of flooding, it is the homeowner's choice whether or not to have flood insurance," said Wright, the former FEMA official.

Bob Smith, the Letcher County homeowner who was rescued from his porch, said he and his wife decided to keep their flood insurance even after they paid off the mortgage on their home because they live directly adjacent to a river.

A better flood insurance system would help homeowners understand their relative level of risk, instead of making a simplistic distinction between properties inside and outside of a flood zone, Wright said.

FEMA has acknowledged shortcomings with its flood insurance program, and recently urged Congress to pass reforms that would allow it to update its procedures for mapping flood risk and subsidize flood insurance for low-and-moderate-income homebuyers -- helping more people afford insurance in poorer areas like Eastern Kentucky. Flood insurance premiums cost about $760 annually on average, but that varies depending on risk and other factors, according to the agency's data.

The flood insurance program "continues to operate on a construct developed over 50 years ago," David Maurstad, a FEMA official, told a Senate committee in June, saying the agency wanted to "reform how we measure and communicate flood risk" and "ensure more Americans are covered by flood insurance."

The Biden administration and Congressional Democrats initially included funding to improve flood maps and subsidize flood insurance for low-and-moderate-income households in their Build Back Better package. But that money was cut during negotiations, and isn't present in the final climate-and-health spending bill that Congress passed on Friday.

Angie Hatton, a state representative who lives in Whitesburg, said the lack of flood insurance was a huge challenge as her region picks up the pieces and turns to charity. "We are facing every Appalachian person's nightmare in that we hate to ask for help, especially from outsiders," she said.

Her fear, she said, is that some of her neighbors who aren't getting an insurance check to rebuild their damaged homes will cut their losses and leave -- hastening the decline of a community whose population has already fallen steeply in recent decades.

"Sometimes the family home was the thing that was keeping them here," she said. "If that home can't be rebuilt, they might not be coming back."

How safe are you from flooding? Look up what FEMA flood zone your home is in by entering your address here, and see First Street Foundation's estimate of your flood risk here.

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