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Protection Against the Rising Waters

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They're heart-wrenching images: Aerial scenes of cities and towns blanketed with water, families wading through waist high waves, motorists caught unawares of torrential rains filling once-dry gullies.

More than that, floods aren't limited to the coast, bayous and massive rivers. They take can place in every state along creeks, from melting snow and in seemingly dry places downstream from burst dams, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood history records.

"Floods are the nation's most common and costly natural disaster and cause millions of dollars in damage every year," FEMA notes on its website.

Rising water overflowing its banks and levies, rushing into homes, businesses and whatever was in in its path, has plagued America at least since the mid-19th century.

Serious floods in the Midwest around 1950 lead Missouri native and then President Harry Truman to propose a nationwide program to cover flood damage. But it wasn't until 1968, spurred by Hurricane Betsy and other natural disasters in preceding years, that the National Flood Insurance Program came into being.

Under the auspices of FEMA, the program for decades covered disaster claims and paid its bills. Legislation that mandated coverage for many mortgages in flood prone areas boosted its profile. The program handled hurricane coverage in the Carolinas in 1989 from Hurricane Hugo, although some policyholders in hard hit areas disputed what was flood damage as payable through the federal insurance program and what was caused by catastrophic winds, pop-up tornados and blistering rains -- covered by homeowners policies.

"Buildings that had been built to meet the NFIP’s requirements for flood-plain management performed well (in Hugo), demonstrating the effectiveness of the require¬ments in reducing flood damages," the report says.

A succession of major storms in the 2000s including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy piled billions of dollars in debts on NFIP. The first move to ready its financial ship was to boost premiums to more closely match up with risks while also taking away discounts and lower rates "grandfathered in" from decades ago. But the sudden jump in costs drew outcries from policyholders and legislators. The price hike was abandoned and rates rolled back to earlier levels, and have left the program in a financial hole. Congress promises to mend the system and take care of the shortfall.

Flood insurance still remains readily available, averaging less $700 a year and available through private agencies that manage the policies and collect premiums. Rates can vary from $462 a year in Florida and Maryland, (and $559 in South Carolina) to $1,207 in Rhode Island, according to online insurance information firm ValuePenguin.com, which tailors its reports to consumers. Typically there's a 30-day wait period from buying a policy to when it goes into effect.

Here are some of the agency's most asked questions (answers are condensed):

Q: I don't have flood insurance. Why do I need it?

A. Homeowners and renters insurance does not typically cover flood damage. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of flood claims come from properties outside the high-risk zone. Lenders may require flood insurance on mortgaged properties in flood-prone areas, as a result of the congressional mandate. They may on their own require it outside a high-risk area.

Q: I have flood insurance - Do I really need to keep it?

The program argues that it's too much of a risk to go without coverage. Flooding affects every region and state, it says. "The damage from just one inch of water can cost more than $20,000," according to the NFIP. "Storms are not the only cause of floods. Flooding can be caused by dams or levees breaking, new development changing how water flows above and below ground (and) snow-melt," the agency points out.

Q: Who can buy flood insurance?

A. Renters, homeowners' and business owners with property in a NFIP-participating community (thousands of cities and towns nationwide) are eligible to purchase a policy. Property holders or renters can't buy coverage directly from the flood insurance, they must go through an insurance agent. For help, call the NFIP Referral Call Center at 888-379-953 to request an agent referral.

Q: Flood maps – what should I do?

Flood maps show all zones, most notably high-risk sectors. Communities periodically change flood maps to add or remove areas as risk-prone. When flood maps are updated, flood insurance requirements and policy costs can change. Policyholders can request a review of a flood zone designation if they believe the zone is incorrect. One way to avoid flooding is to raise a house. An elevated home with a first floor three feet above the base ¬flood elevation, "can expect to save 60 percent or more on annual ¬flood insurance premiums," according to the national insurance program.

Visit https://www.fema.gov/national-flood-insurance-program, or call the NFIP's Help Center at 800-427-4661.

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