Environment & Science

With strong El Niño, California sees sharp uptick in flood insurance plans

File: El Niño storms flood the Russian River in California in March, 1998. With another extremely strong El Niño pattern in the 2015-2016 season, more than 50,000 people across the state applied to the National Flood Insurance Program during the last four months of 2015, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
File: El Niño storms flood the Russian River in California in March, 1998. With another extremely strong El Niño pattern in the 2015-2016 season, more than 50,000 people across the state applied to the National Flood Insurance Program during the last four months of 2015, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
NASA/FEMA

Amid continued predictions of a strong El Niño that could bring with it heavy rainfall across the state, Californians have been signing up in record numbers for flood insurance, according to the agency in charge of the program.

More than 50,000 people across the state applied to the National Flood Insurance Program during the last four months of 2015. Nearly 30,000 of those policies were issued just in the month of December, the most recent month for which data is available, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This is actually the first time in the history of the program — which was created back in 1968 — that we've seen this great of a spike in people purchasing flood insurance in such a short period of time," said Mary Simms with the Oakland office of FEMA.

Simms said the number of flood policies statewide leaped nearly 25 percent between August and December.

FEMA was careful to note in a statement Tuesday that it does not directly correlate all of the NFIP claims to El Niño. Still, the agency said it has already seen 127 policyholders submit claims in California during January 2016, compared to only one for the same period during the previous year.

“El Niño years are few and far between, but flooding is consistently the No.1 national disaster we face in the nation both in terms of cost and fatalities,” FEMA spokesperson Mary Simms told KPCC. “It’s good that El Niño has raised awareness about this issue, as many people don’t realize their standard homeowners policies don’t cover flood insurance, but the truth is that regardless of El Niño or not, if you have a risk for flooding, you really need to investigate and understand what potentially your damages could be.”

County-level data isn't available yet, but Simms said they're working on it.

While Southern California has had a bout of unseasonably warm and dry weather, the National Weather Service has warned that the impact of El Niño isn't over.

"It has not been uncommon during past strong El Niño events to go through drier periods, even during the winter months," said Scott Carpenter, a meteorologist with the weather service, in a prepared statement.

Carpenter said a change in the weather predicted for the end of February could bring storms farther south, spreading across more of the state in March.

That wet weather could still trigger flooding, particularly in areas at increased risk because of wildfires and drought.

FEMA offered some tips — and precautions — for homeowners:

  • You can't get flood insurance at the last minute. In most cases, it takes 30 days for a new flood insurance policy to go into effect. So get your policy now.
  • Only Flood Insurance Covers Flood Damage. Most standard homeowner's policies do not cover flood damage.
  • Get all the coverage you need. An agent can walk you through coverage options.
  • Know your flood risk. Visit FloodSmart.gov (or call 1-800-427-2419) to learn more about individual flood risk, explore coverage options and to find an agent in your area.

This story has been updated.