All York County residents live in flood zone, experts warn
It's been more than a month since the Aug. 31 flooding that devastated parts of York County, and for some affected homeowners without flood insurance, relief is still out of sight.
Stephanie Burns, 53, of Chanceford Township, lives with her family in a log house on Laurel Road that she and her husband bought 10 years ago.
During the late-August storm, the small creek that runs through the family's property turned into a river that destroyed their driveway, and heavy rain flooded their basement and soaked through the walls and floor of the house.
Burns said that when they bought the house, one of the real estate agents involved in the settlement told them they weren't eligible for flood insurance because their property isn't in a flood zone.
"That put us at a huge disadvantage, and here we sit," she said.
It turns out the real estate agent was mistaken.
Floodplain: In common parlance, speakers who use the term "flood zone" (as in "I don't have insurance because I don't live in a flood zone") are referring to a Special Flood Hazard Area.
This is an area that the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicts will have an annual 1 percent chance of a major flood. It's also known as a 100-year floodplain.
Wade Gobrecht, assistant director of the York County Planning Commission, explained in a September interview that the name doesn't necessarily mean there will only be one flood every 100 years, but the model helps to illustrate the statistical probability.
Properties inside a 100-year floodplain are generally required by law to be covered by flood insurance, but living inside that floodplain is not a requirement to qualify for flood insurance.
In fact, FEMA encourages all property owners to invest in a flood policy.
The real estate agent's claim about flood zones and eligibility is a commonly held misconception, though, and one that Gregory Devone has been working for years to debunk.
Devone is president of Franklin Flood LLC, a national flood insurance brokerage firm based in Exton, Chester County.
"Everybody lives in a flood zone," he said. "There’s just a difference in severity of the zone that you live in."
Flood zones are outlined within Flood Insurance Risk Maps, or FIRMs, which are maintained and updated by FEMA.
According to FEMA, more than 20 percent of claims filed through the National Flood Insurance Program are for properties within areas of "minimal flood hazard," also known as preferred zones. Preferred zones are areas outside of a 100-year floodplain.
In York County, the areas hit the hardest by flooding over the summer were, for the most part, in those preferred zones, including the Burns family's property.
Simply put, flooding can happen anywhere.
"That’s why they’re trying to spread the word to get flood insurance," Devone said of FEMA. "You don’t feel 'preferred' when you know that you have a 20-some-plus percent chance of flooding during the time you own the home there."
Devone said he's been trying to get this message out to help people understand the risks to their property, regardless of whether they live within a preferred zone or a 100-year floodplain.
Another common misconception, he said, is that homeowner's insurance will cover flood damage. For most insurance companies, including the Burnses', flood damage is not covered under a standard homeowner's policy.
Relatives of the Burns family set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to repair their driveway. The page can be found by visiting gofundme.com and entering "Burns Rescue" in the search bar.
Finding an insurance agent: Robert Materdomini, vice president of sales at Franklin Flood LLC, said there are several reasons most insurance agents don't offer flood policies to clients who live outside of a Special Flood Hazard Area.
Flood insurance is primarily sought out by property owners who are legally required to have coverage based on their location, Materdomini said. There isn't a whole lot of consumer demand, so most agents don't have much experience in the area.
Devone added that flood insurance policies are time-consuming and complicated, in part because FEMA updates the federal flood insurance regulations on a regular basis.
Since consumer demand for flood policies is low compared to demand for home and auto policies, and because it takes a lot of time and experience to master the process, the costs outweigh the benefits for most individual agents to offer flood policies.
This is where consumers might run into a roadblock, because even policies through the NFIP must be written by an agent. The national flood insurance program will connect agents and consumers through its website, but the program itself does not process or write policies.
That's why Devone and his associates at Franklin Flood focus exclusively on flood insurance.
As a brokerage firm, the agency partners with a variety of insurers and the NFIP to write policies for clients across the country.
This means that clients at Franklin Flood's partnering agencies can receive flood insurance through their preferred insurer, even if that insurer doesn't handle flood policies in-house.
"That’s why we offer the services," Devone said. "We do all that work for them."
He said property owners who don't have access to flood insurance through their home insurer also have the advantage of the internet, where they can find an additional insurer to handle their flood policy without having to change their home or auto policy.
Property owners can contact Franklin Flood LLC directly by visiting premierflood.com or calling 1-888-567-9600.
Property owners can also use an online search tool through fema.gov to find out if their municipality participates in the National Flood Insurance Program.
Updating the maps: Will Powell, a spokesman for FEMA, said the agency reviews its flood models and maps on a rolling five-year basis to make sure the information is still valid.
Following Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, FEMA updated the York County maps as part of a study that included all of the Susquehanna River Watershed, Powell said.
Those maps were put into use for flood insurance and floodplain management Dec. 16, 2015.
Powell said flood risk predictions within the FEMA maps are based on a whole slew of variables: land development, erosion, historical information (including past flooding and rainfall totals), changes in topography and geography, and current weather.
Clogged storm drains and debris in streams can cause flooding in areas that typically don't flood, Powell said, but these factors aren't reflected on the maps.
One inch of water can cause as much as $25,000 in damage, Powell said.
FEMA is required by federal regulation to base its maps and flood models only on current conditions and historical data. Climate change models are not included in the process because they rely on future predictions.
At the county level: According to data provided by the York County Planning Commission, the NFIP has 1,232 active flood insurance policies on record for York County and has paid out nearly $15 million in claims.
Those numbers were last updated Jan. 31, 2017.
Roy O. Livergood Jr., a senior planner with the planning commission, said that over the summer, a lot of people in York County experienced flooding in their basement for the first time, due in large part to the saturated groundwater table.
"I’m on top of a hill, but if there’s enough rain in the ground to become saturated, that water is looking for a void," he said of his own home. "If there’s any way (for water) to get into my cellar, I can still flood."
Stephanie Burns said her advice to fellow homeowners is to look into buying a flood insurance policy, regardless of what they hear from real estate agents or anyone else.
"Absolutely check it out if you're anywhere near the water," Burns said.
Corey DeMuro, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said that any residents who believe they were told incorrectly that they were ineligible for flood insurance should contact their insurance agent or call the National Flood Insurance Program help center at 1-800-427-4661.