Spring flooding worsened by record US snowpack

by Rebecca Morris on March 26, 2019
MNfloodingFEMA andreaWhen low temps prevent thawing between winter storms, snowpack condenses to store significant precipitation that can lead to springtime flooding. One cubic foot of snow can contain anywhere from 1 to 3 gallons of water. (Image: FEMA/Andrea Booher)
  • 2019 is the wettest winter on U.S. record thanks to extreme snowfall and January’s series of storms (the Polar Vortex) costing an estimated $1 billion.

  • For the Midwest and Northeast, in particular, record low temperatures kept snowpack intact and now spring brings the increased danger of flooding.

  • More than 200 million people and two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states are at risk and 13 million face major flood risk this spring.

  • Approximately 25 percent of flood insurance claims in the U.S. are outside of FEMA high-risk flood areas.

  • To understand actual flood risk and close the flood protection gap, it’s critical for insurers to incorporate flood data beyond FEMA.

In Minnesota, where I live, the news often compares this year to 1965, 2001, and 2009 when record snowpack lead to historic springtime flooding. This makes me wonder if my home, which sits just 280 feet from a FEMA A Zone, is at risk of flooding. As an insurer, you too have a stake in understanding your portfolio’s flood risk—especially with springtime flooding in full force and places like Nebraska and Iowa experiencing potentially billions in damages. But, to understand your portfolio’s actual exposure, it’s increasingly critical to look beyond FEMA data alone.

NOAA Winter-2019-US-Total-Precipitation-Percentiles

If you have exposures in the green and dark green zones above, now is a good time to evaluate your portfolio’s potential for flood risk this spring. Using data sources beyond FEMA will provide a more comprehensive understanding of your portfolio’s risk.

Look beyond FEMA data to understand your flood risk

Did you know one inch of flood water in a home or business can cost over $26,000? Working at SpatialKey, I know the importance of using data beyond FEMA to inform flood risk. With my own home near a FEMA A Zone, I proactively purchased flood insurance through my provider’s participation in the NFIP. Sadly, most property owners aren’t aware of their flood risk, and depend entirely upon their insurer to inform them. Yet many insurers themselves are ill informed—relying on a binary view of flood risk (i.e. in or out of a FEMA zone). This leaves many properties exposed and underinsured leading to the flood “protection gap” which is visualized in the following example:

KatRisk FEMA flood comparison

Shown above is a KatRisk 100-year flood layer on the left and FEMA flood layer on the right. KatRisk provides a more complete view of risk by combining both fluvial and pluvial flooding, showing flood depth across the terrain and not just around a river.


Whether underwriting personal or commercial properties, it’s important to look beyond traditional FEMA data for a more accurate and informed view of flood risk. While we’ve used KatRisk as an example in the image here, in the U.S. SpatialKey also provides access to JBA, Swiss Re, HazardHub, and Atkins-FEMA data—all from a single access point. These multiple views of flood risk help insurers to quantify the impact of potential gaps in coverage, as shown in the following example:

KatRisk 100-year flood depths

The net flood exposure for the 290 homes in the sample portfolio above is $13.8 million and could have significant losses if Minnesota experiences a 1:100 year flood event. Only 24 of these risks are in a high-risk FEMA flood zone, leaving 266 others likely exposed since flood insurance would not have been required.

Flood insurance is actually available to 95 percent of Minnesotans because so many communities participate in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Yet despite its widespread availability, there were only 9,100 flood insurance policies in force in Minnesota as of 2017. That means Minnesota’s lakes easily outnumber its flood policies! Minnesota is just one example of the opportunity insurers have to educate insureds, whether homeowners or businesses, about their flood risk. And in doing so, help close the flood protection gap while creating more resilient communities.



 Rebecca Morris has 13 years of insurance industry experience and a passion for problem-solving. She, and her three-year-old daughter (pictured here), moved every inch of snow away from their new home during this record snowfall year in Minnesota. For more information about how to use SpatialKey to inform your flood risk, reach out to Rebecca directly: rebecca.morris@spatialkey.com


Topics: Flood Insurance, flood data, Flood risk

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