FEMA answers flood of concerns

When it comes to anticipated flooding, federal officials are advising the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

Dave Kyner and Norm Ashford of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spoke Tuesday night to two dozen people at Vermillon City Hall. The gathering marked the second of eight public meetings in eastern South Dakota.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has forecast "significant to major" flooding for eastern South Dakota, similar to 1997.

Kyner referred to the tremendous probability of flooding this spring.

"We anticipate a high-risk flood season," he said. "If all the snowpack melts slowly, we'll be fine. But if the sun becomes strong and (the snow) melts rapidly, and we see flooding, we're in for a major event."

Kyner noted the huge snowpack that remains across South Dakota.

"There is 4 to 8 inches of water in the snowpack that sits on the ground today," he said. "The potential for flooding is certainly there. Be prepared for it. It can save your property, your life and your neighbor's life."
This year, the NWS forecasts a 92 percent chance of major flooding on the James River at Scotland.

On the Vermillion River, the NWS forecasts a 98 percent chance of moderate flooding and an 84 percent chance of major flooding at Wakonda. Downstream, the NWS foresees a 72 percent chance of moderate flooding at Vermillion.

Kyner advised a three-point plan: make a plan, build a kit and be informed. A disaster supply kit can include food, water and even coins, he said.

"Make up backpacks, maybe one for each member of your family," he said. "Include a map identifying how you will leave the city or farm. Let your family out of state know where you will be. Teach your children how to communicate with you."

With a large snowpack and little indication of slow melting, all signs point to major flooding in the Dakotas, Kyner said.

"We're not saying a flood is going to occur, but everything is leading up to it like last year," he said. "North Dakota has a 96 percent chance that the Red River flowing to Canada will see a bad flood."

During the second part of the program, Ashford spoke on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

"There is a 26 percent chance of flooding over a 30-year mortgage," he said. "You're 26 times more likely to have a flood than a fire. We worry about hail, earthquakes and tornadoes, but you're not as likely to have those as you will a flood."

Despite the need, private insurance companies don't sell flood insurance because they can't make it work for them, Ashford said.

In response, Congress instructed FEMA to set up the National Flood Insurance Program, Ashford said. The program does contain restrictions that the public should know before purchasing coverage, he said.

Policies must be purchased at least 30 days prior to a claim, he said. The average flooding begins April 15, so property owners should purchase flood insurance by mid-March, he said.

"One time, I saw a guy crying because he lost everything and hadn't carried insurance," he said.

The FEMA flood policies contain other restrictions, Ashford said. Policies don't pay for flooding on land and landscaping. The insurance covers surface water but not seepage or a sewer backup unless it's caused by flooding.

Policies don't contain full basement coverage, he said.

"I can give you back an unfinished basement, without paint and paneling," he said. "I can give you walls that are nice and clean but unpainted."

Property owners can purchase coverage for a building only, contents only or both, he said. Many people are surprised at how quickly their content's value adds up, he said.

Some banks require that property owners purchase flood insurance as protection on the mortgage, he said.

Each structure – such as a house, unattached garage and machinery shed – would need its own policy, he added.

Ashford recommended moving valuables to higher ground where possible.

"Floods usually don't cover much more than 13 to 18 inches of water," he said, but noted even that amount of water creates tremendous damage to structures and content.

In response to a question, Ashford spoke on FEMA's work with local governments in determining protective measures.

The flood insurance rates reflect the risk of a particular area, Ashford said. He added that 30 to 40 percent of all claims come from outside mapped floodplains.

A presidential disaster declaration is not required in order to trigger FEMA's presence and assistance, Ashford said.

"Only 20 percent of requests get a (presidential) declaration," he said. "We (at FEMA) don't need a declaration, only a loss."

FEMA requires that the loss meets the definition of a flood. In addition, the flooded area must cover a minimum of two pieces of property or two acres of surface water.

People with questions about the NFIP can contact Ashford at (303) 235-4912 or go online at www.fema.gov.

Sounding the preparedness theme, Ashford closed by saying it's better to be safe than sorry.

"We hope we're hollering wolf tonight," he said. "But you need to protect yourself."

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