One rainy day last May, Ryan Pelletier, Aroostook County administrator, was running at a good clip on the treadmill in the finished basement of his home in St. Agatha when he noticed water bubbling up through a drain in the floor.
“My first thought was that somehow it was connected to how hard I was running,” he confessed with a laugh during a phone conversation earlier this week. Of course, that wasn’t the cause. The water was backing up from an overwhelmed stormwater system that was supposed to channel the deluge of rain rolling off his roof into Long Lake, 100 feet away.
“The perimeter of my house is wrapped in drain tile and it flows down into the lake,” he said. “It keeps the runoff from the roof away from the foundation.” The drain in the cellar floor, however, had been installed to prevent damage in the event of an overflowing washing machine, broken pipes or other domestic mishap. In this case, though, the floor drain, which is connected to the perimeter system, was actually channeling the backed-up rainwater into his home.
Fortunately, the damage was not great. The rains slacked off, the floor drain began to work as designed and Pelletier was able to clear away much of the standing water with his wet-dry vacuum cleaner. And, because he had gone to the trouble of installing the drain system when he built his home in 2015, his homeowner insurance covered most of the cost of replacing the damaged floorboards, warped baseboards and ruined drywall.
But for many Mainers, standard homeowner’s coverage will not pay for damage caused by flooding, regardless of the source or the severity.
“Many people assume incorrectly that basic homeowners insurance will cover damage from flooding,” Maine insurance superintendent Eric Cioppa said in a media release issued on August 31, days after Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall in Texas. “Flood insurance must be purchased separately. Talk with your agent about whether you need flood insurance.”
With an active hurricane season before us, Cioppa urged Mainers to protect their homes and the investments they represent.
Who is at risk?
While banks and other mortgage holders typically require flood insurance for homes in high-risk flood zones, Mainers who own their homes outright are under no obligation to purchase flood insurance. Consequently many older homeowners who live on the coast or along a river or lake may not be covered for flood damage, even if they have a standard homeowner policy.
But you don’t have to live in a high-risk zone to be vulnerable.
“Everybody is in a flood zone; it’s all a matter of degree,” said Bob DeSaulniers, an insurance specialist with the New England office of the Federal Emergency Management System, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program. NFIP works with individuals and communities to provide affordable flood insurance for homes and businesses while mitigating the potential damage of flooding. The program, which must be reauthorized by Congress every five years, currently shows about 8,400 policies in effect in Maine; others are provided by private insurance companies.
While those who live in the most hazardous settings may be at the greatest and most obvious risk, DeSaulniers pointed out, people who live in mountain regions or even in the desert may be subject to devastating flash flooding. Even a break in a neighbor’s swimming pool can cause serious damage, which will not be covered by a homeowner policy, he said.
The outdated maps used to designate flood zones are being revised, region by region, DeSaulniers said, and will eventually be much more detailed, precise and interactive in predicting the risk of flooding. While the agency doesn’t take a position on the effects of climate change and can’t base risk or premiums on hypothetical scenarios, there’s no question that man-made factors such as buildings, pavement, roadways and agricultural practices can drastically alter the way heavy rains and snow-melt affect communities and waterways, he said.
And while some homeowners fear that flood insurance will be too expensive, he said, an average policy in a moderate-risk zone can run as low as $300 a year. “If people understood their risk and and knew they could get an affordable plan, many more homeowners would be protected,” he said.
At the Cross Insurance Company, which is headquartered in Bangor, Vice President for Personal Lines Sandra Phinney said coastal offices get more queries about flood insurance than inland offices. “Oftentimes the quote requests increase when there is flooding forecast in our area,” Phinney wrote in an email. “What homeowners need to keep in mind is typically flood insurance has a waiting period between when coverage is applied for and when it goes into effect, unless the application for flood insurance is in conjunction with the purchase, finance or refinance of a home.”
The lessons of history
Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier hasn’t purchased flood insurance for his home, despite the cost and inconvenience of repairing the damage to his flooded basement. He doubts the flukey circumstances of his recent problem will be repeated, and although old flood maps show his property in a designated flood plain, a private surveyor determined he was protected by his elevation and the town’s shoreland setback requirement. The surveyor’s official “letter of map amendment” let him off the hook with his lending institution for buying flood insurance.
But Pelletier, who remembers well the 2008 flood that devastated Fort Kent and other communities along the rampaging St. John River, says no one living near the river should be complacent about their risk. As many as 140 homes were flooded in that event, along with many downtown businesses, churches and other structures.
“A lot of people don’t purchase flood insurance if it’s not mandated, because of the cost,” Pelletier said. “A lot of homes are owned by elderly people on a fixed income who feel they’re prepared for flooding, that they’ll deal with the damage they way they deal with other things. For for most of us, our homes are our greatest assets. For peace of mind and security, people who are living in a floodplain should look at purchasing basic flood insurance.”