Early crest creates flood insurance messby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Getting numbers from a disaster area -- like a flood zone -- is always a challenge. Officials say it's too early to know exactly how many homes have been damaged, let alone how much the damage will cost. In Fargo-Moorhead, people are just beginning to tally that information and the calls to insurance agents have begun.
Moorhead, MN — The vast majority of residents do not have flood insurance. That may seem surprising for such a flood-prone area.
The Red River overflows its banks onto a very flat landscape and water covers entire fields. It turns streets into lakes.
At this time of year, it looks like a place where anybody in their right mind would have flood insurance.
But it turns out, only a handful of people are required to buy a policy that protects them from floods. It's all about how close to the river you live.
Right about now, quite a few people who don't have to have flood insurance wish they had it anyway.
Mark Olgard lives on a peninsula, River Oaks Point, which juts deep into one of the many bends of the Red.
"I didn't think I would need to get flood insurance, I'm not in the flood plain so I wasn't required to get flood insurance," Olgard said.
That reference to the "flood plain" is important and we'll come back to that.
Olgard and his family and friends built a sandbag wall four feet high around his house -- six feet on the river side. But the river seeped in under the dike.
"Little did I know that the flood was going to be historically high, and little [did I] know that I would really need it because my dike was not going to hold," he said.
Mark Olgard didn't have to have flood insurance. He got it anyway, but he waited too long. There's a 30-day waiting period and his policy doesn't kick in until April 9, just 12 days too late.
"My concerns are the foundation," Olgard said. "It's a cinderblock wall, that the cinderblocks didn't cave in somewhat. From what I can see, I don't think they have. My furnace is probably destroyed; my electrical may have to be replaced. My water heater, my freezer, miscellaneous items, carpet, I'm going to have to rip all the sheetrock out."
Flood insurance covers damage to the building and permanent fixtures like the furnace and hot water heater.
The only people who have to have flood insurance live inside the boundaries of the 100-year flood plain. Those boundaries are drawn by FEMA, and they generally follow the contours of the river. The people who live there and have a mortgage from a bank that's backed by the federal government are the only ones required to buy flood insurance.
John Eidsness is a Moorhead insurance agent. He said he got a lot of calls this winter, from people with questions about flood insurance.
"We would answer the questions, and make sure they knew there was 30-day waiting period," Eidsness said. "The next question would be, 'when do you think the crest would come,' and we would say we didn't know, better be safe than sorry, the earlier you take it out the better."
But quite a few people, like Mark Olgard, waited too long. In 1997, the Red River flooded Fargo-Moorhead on April 17. This year, the waters came three weeks earlier.
In Moorhead and Clay County, 322 people had flood insurance when the waters came up this year. But the number of people required to have it is even smaller. The city says only 190 homes are inside the 100-year flood plain. That's out of 11,000 structures in the city.
"Folks sometimes forget not too long ago that there was a flood, and think that it would never get that bad again," said Eric Kuklewski of FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program.
He said FEMA periodically revises the boundaries of flood plains. They're doing that now for the Red River.
"There are natural processes that change the flood plains: rivers meander, rainfall, we're getting more rainfall data, natural processes like erosion," Kuklewski said. "And also man-made changes: levies are built, flood walls are built, and subdivisions are constructed on what used to be open field."
At Moorhead City Hall, Leann Wallin works in the Engineering Department. She has a map of the proposed new 100-year flood plain.
We look for River Oaks Point, where Mark Olgard is still pumping out his basement a week after it flooded.
"Here's River Oaks Point right here, and you can see that they're essentially placing that, moving that all into the 100-year [flood plain]," Wallin said. "There are a few little islands, probably that the house does sit high enough, but it would be surrounded by water."
So if one of those little islands is Mark Olgard's house, he still won't be required to have flood insurance.
If the new flood plain map's boundaries are adopted, about 650 houses in Moorhead will be inside the 100-year flood plain.
- All Things Considered, 04/02/2009, 5:20 p.m.