Was flood insurance a mistake for Southern California homeowners?

In record numbers, homeowners throughout the state rushed out to buy flood insurance in anticipation of the widely hyped – and feared – monster El Niño.

But rainfall has been anything but record-breaking. Instead of performing like a rock star, this El Niño has served up the weather equivalent of elevator music.

Now the end is in sight for the rainy season, which typically runs through April.

And some are asking: Did all these insurance buyers make a monster mistake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, government officials say no.

“We certainly don’t think it is a waste of money,” said Mary Simms, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Oakland. “When you’re healthy, you don’t cancel your health insurance.”

Besides flooding the insurance market, Southern Californians stocked up on sandbags, cleared ditches and drains, trimmed trees and bushes, and fixed their leaky roofs.

None of those was a wasted exercise, said Jody Hagemann, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Fire Department. The agency distributed thousands of sandbags at dozens of fire stations spread around the county as the rainy season approached.

“It’s never a waste of time to be prepared,” Hagemann said. “No matter if it’s fires, floods or earthquakes, it’s our job to make sure that people are prepared.”


Besides, said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, some preparations still have been put to the test.

“If your roof needed repair, there was enough rainfall to justify it,” Patzert said.

But chances are, if you bought flood insurance, you didn’t have to use it. Save for a series of textbook El Niño storms the first week of January, the season has been marked by light rain and long stretches of warm, dry weather.

For the season to date, rainfall totals are lagging even what would be expected in an average year.

That, of course, is not what was expected this year.

After widely publicized warnings, residents anticipated something along the lines of what happened the last time we had a big El Niño. During the winter of 1997-98, 30 inches of rain fell on much of Southern California. With memories of 1997-98 in their minds, many ran out and bought insurance.


Simms said the number of policies in effect statewide rose from 229,538 on Aug. 31 to almost 300,000 by the end of January. That’s a 30 percent increase.

Simms termed it the largest increase for any state since the National Flood Insurance Program launched in 1968.

In Southern California, the jump was even more profound. FEMA records show that the number of property owners having flood coverage surged 91 percent in Los Angeles County, 74 percent in Riverside County, 48 percent in Orange County and 45 percent in San Bernardino County.

For example, by February there were 8,711 policies in Riverside County, up from 5,003 five months earlier, according to FEMA.

And in Los Angeles County, the amount of insurance coverage collectively doubled from $4.8 billion to $9.7 billion.


Few had to use their coverage. But that’s OK, officials say.

Patzert, the climatologist, said flooding can occur during other types of weather conditions – and often does.

“If you’re irritated that you didn’t get to use your flood insurance, take a deep breath,” Patzert said. “It’s not just El Niños. Some of the worst flooding we have had has not come in El Niño years.”

And Simms said water could inundate a home even in a year that isn’t characterized by widespread flooding. “You could have flooding just because of the way your neighbor did their landscaping,” she said.

Simms said a mere 6 inches of standing water causes tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

She added that floods are among the most common natural disasters to inflict damage on California and the nation.


According to the Public Policy Institute of California, most regions of the state are vulnerable to flooding. All 58 counties have been declared disaster areas multiple times as a result of floods.

A FEMA report in December said the persistent rain of 1997-98 triggered $883 million in damage statewide, leading to 17 deaths and 40 counties being declared disaster areas.

In view of the potential threat, federal officials applaud the new sign-ups.

“The increase in the amount of policyholders is due to a new awareness,” Simms said. “It’s good that El Niño has raised awareness about this issue, as many people don’t realize that most standard homeowners policies don’t cover flood insurance.”

Probably, said Patzert, most who took out policies should have had them in the first place.

“The people who bought the flood insurance were not the people at the top of the hill,” he said. “They were the people who were at the bottom of the hill, or the people who live too close to the ocean, or the people who live at the bottom of canyons and arroyos.”


And as far as Patzert is concerned, it turned out to be a good thing, for the most part, that El Niño steered around Southern California.

Yes, many were counting on a parade of storms to replenish groundwater basins, raise lake levels, and resurrect dead lawns and gardens.

And based on the last big El Niño, Patzert said, there was reason for forecasters to believe it would happen again. But it wasn’t guaranteed, he said.

“This is one of the hard lessons of life – that nothing is guaranteed,” he said.

Patzert said plenty of rain and snow did fall on Northern California mountains, however – enough to restore the state’s largest and most crucial reservoirs to normal levels.

“If you step back and think about it, this was a better scenario,” Patzert said. The region escaped the mudslides and floods characteristic of an El Niño. At the same time, the statewide water picture improved substantially.

“Getting flooded in February is sweet, but it’s short-term,” he said, with a touch of sarcasm. “Getting Sierra snowpack is like getting a gift that keeps on giving.”

Contact the writer: 951-368-9699 or ddowney@pe.com

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