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What is Urban Flooding?

Recent flooding in the Northwest was not limited to the major rivers and floodplains. In fact, urban flooding also posed a significant hazard and caused damage. In cities, paved streets, and other impervious surfaces prevent natural absorption into the ground. Storm water runs from hard surfaces such as rooftops, paved streets, highways, and parking lots directly into sewer systems that quickly become inundated causing them to backup.

As development increases, more of the natural absorption process of the ground is diminished. The result is more water being channeled into sewer lines than can be processed causing an urban flood.

Innovation in urban flood mitigation is most evident in the form of Low Impact Development (LID). Photo of permeable pavingLID attempts to restore the natural drainage function by encouraging localized treatment of water on site at both residential and nonresidential structures.  Instead of channeling rain/storm runoff directly into municipal drains, LID uses natural absorption by way of vegetated swales, smaller retention ponds, and efficient use of non-impervious ground on a site by site basis. It has been described as "rain water harvesting" because it uses the water on site (either through rain barrel storage, rain gardens, or natural ground filtration to intended locations away from the foundation). By reducing the amount of water to be handled by the sewer system, and reducing the amount of non-treated runoff that enters natural waterways, LID promotes local flood mitigation.

There are many benefits of LID. It mitigates urban flooding, preserves natural landscape features by minimizing environmental disturbance, reduces the effect of hard surfaces, and facilitates localized retention and infiltration opportunities. It is also recognized by the state of Washington (RCW 35.67.020 (3)) as a means of reducing building costs while protecting natural habitat along streams and local waterways. In conjunction with the National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating Systems (CRS), as well as FEMA Region 10's, Higher Regulatory Standards, local homeowners and elected officials can further reduce the cost of flood insurance community wide while improving the environment.

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Why You Need Flood Insurance

The Risk is Real:

You can live miles away from water and still be the victim of flooding. Nearly 1 in 4 flood insurance claims are paid on policies in low-to-moderate-risk areas. It does not take a major body of water, or even a major storm, to cause a flood. Anything from a broken sewer line to a slow moving rainstorm can cause flooding. In high-risk areas, your home has a 26% chance of being damaged by a flood over the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Flooded HomeFlood Insurance is Affordable:

The problem of flooding may be widespread, but the solution is simple. There are a large number of private insurance companies nationally that offer affordable flood insurance backed by the federal government. Policies are available to homeowners, condo owners, apartment owners, renters and business owners alike. If you live in a low to moderate-risk area, a flood policy can cost around $100 a year. That amounts to less than 30 cents a day to protect your property against a natural disaster that costs more than $2 billion in the U.S. every year. Fortunately, even in the most high-risk areas, a flood insurance policy can cost about $500 a year.

Disaster Aid is Not Always Available:

Many people assume they will never need flood insurance because they believe federal disaster assistance will be available. However, flooding does not always receive a federal disaster declaration. Even when it does, aid is usually offered in the form of a loan which must be paid back with interest. Flood insurance, on the other hand, pays for all covered losses, and unlike loans, that money does not have to be paid back. A home’s structure can be covered for up to $250,000, and its contents up to $100,000. For businesses, structural coverage is available up to $500,000, and up to $500,000 for contents. Don’t count on others to bail you out - take the initiative to protect your home and business.

How Do I Know if I'm In the Floodplain?

The floodplain is identified as "Special Flood Hazard Areas" in your community's Flood Insurance Study and the accompanying Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). The flood level shown for these Special Flood Hazard Areas has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded in any one year. That translates into a 26% chance of flooding over a typical 30-year mortgage period as compared to a 1% chance of fire damage over the same period. The building permit officials in your community have these documents available for you to see.

What is Substantial Damage?

Substantial Damage is damage, of any origin, to a structure where the cost of restoring the structure to its before-damage condition would equal or exceed fifty percent (50%) of its pre-damage value.

When Does the NFIP Affect Me?

The NFIP requires participating communities to regulate, with permits, any new or substantially improved structures during non-disaster periods and to monitor and identify any substantially damaged structures as a result of a disaster within the community's floodplain areas.

Participating communities adopt an ordinance that requires any new buildings to be elevated above the projected flood level within the identified floodplain. Nonresidential buildings have the additional option of being dry flood proofed. Existing buildings that are substantially damaged or improved (50% or more) must be elevated or flood proofed to meet the same construction code standards as new construction. When you apply for a local building permit you will be informed if you are in a floodplain and what further steps are required to repair or reconstruct your building.

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Myths and Fact About the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)

Who Needs to Buy Flood Insurance?

Everyone in a participating community in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). To clear up some misconceptions about National Flood Insurance, the NFIP has compiled the following list of common myths about the program and the real facts behind them, to give you the full story about this valuable protection.

See our video: Myths and Facts about Flood Insurance

Homeowner's insurance policies cover flooding.

Unfortunately, many homeowners do not find out until it is too late that their homeowner policies do not cover flood damages. Only National Flood Insurance covers damage to your home and belongings caused by flooding.

Federal flood insurance can only be purchased through the NFIP (FEMA) directly.
NFIP flood insurance is sold through private insurance companies and agents and is backed by the federal government.
Only residents of high-risk flood zones need to insure their property.
Even if you live in an area that is not flood-prone, it's advisable to have flood insurance. Over 25 percent of the NFIP's claims come from outside high-flood-risk areas. If you live in an area not shown as a floodplain, not only can you buy insurance, but the rates you pay will be less than if you lived in a mapped floodplain.
You can't buy flood insurance if you are located in a high-flood-risk area.
You can buy federal flood insurance no matter where you live - as long as your community participates in the NFIP. The NFIP provides affordable flood insurance coverage for any walled and roofed building whether it is in a mapped floodplain area, or in areas where no floodplain map exists.
Federal disaster assistance will pay for any flood damage.
Before a community is eligible for disaster assistance, it must be declared a Federal disaster area. Federal disasters are only declared with a request from the governor following widespread and devastating flooding. The premium for an NFIP policy, averaging $360 a year nationally, is less expensive than the annual interest paid on a federal disaster loan.
The NFIP does not offer basement coverage.

Yes, it does. While flood insurance does not cover basement improvements, such as finishing walls, floors or ceilings, or personal belongings that may be kept in a basement, such as furniture or other contents, it does cover structural elements, essential equipment and other basic items normally located in a basement. The following items are covered in a basement, as long as they are connected to a power source and used as intended:

  • Sump pumps
  • Well water tanks and pumps
  • Oil tanks and the oil in them
  • Gas tanks and the gas in them
  • Furnaces, water heaters, air conditioners, and heat pumps
  • Electrical junction and circuit breaker boxes, and required utility connections
  • Foundation elements
  • Stairways, staircases, and elevators
  • Unpainted drywall and sheet rock walls and ceilings and fiberglass insulation
  • Cleanup
  • Clothes washers and dryers and food freezers (with contents coverage only)

More Information: National Flood Insurance Program (FEMA)

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Lookout For Landslides

Besides flooding, rainy weather can induce another disastrous problem: landslides. By looking for common indicators you can determine if your property is prone to sliding. Find where the water is coming from. Get out in the rain and check areas like hill slopes, gullies, driveway and street drainage, roof gutters and downspouts. Next, see where the flow originates and where it goes. Concentrated flow can cause great damage.

Wet, Weak, and Steep:

Slope failure problems are caused by any combination of water saturation and flow, weak, heavy, earth materials, and steep slopes. Remember, water is the most common trigger of slope failure!


Channels, streams, gullying, ponding, and erosion on hills all indicate potential slope problems. Road and driveway drains, gutters, down spouts and other drainage can concentrate and accelerate flow. Ground saturation and concentrated velocity flow are a major cause of slope problems and landslide triggering.

Photo of a landslide


Deposition of soils and vegetation at the base of slopes indicate possible erosion, flow and creep from ground cover above.


Vegetation can indicate slope conditions. Bare slopes may show erosion and sliding. Trees that bend downhill show creep of upper soils. Trees tilting uphill may show deep rotational landsliding. Patches of younger vegetation may show former slope failure. Horsetail ferns or other moisture craving plants often indicate saturated ground and springs.

Deformed Structures:

Foundation cracks; doors and windows our of line or sticking; tilted floors; sagging decks; cracks in masonry; cracks in driveways and roads; gaps between floors and wall; failing retaining walls; tilted power poles. These are all signs of slope instability.

Loose Fill:

Loose fill at the top of a slope due to yard waste, "cut & fill" land grading, or other processes can aggravate slope instability.


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Information complied from:
FloodSafe, a Publication of FEMA and WMD Emergency Management Division

© Copyright 2014 Washington Military Department - Emergency Management Division