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In West Virginia Flooding Is Common, But Flood Insurance Is Not

Kerry Linger, a resident of Martinsburg, sits by her bed in the van she's been sleeping in as she volunteers at a donation station in Clendenin.
Kerry Linger, a resident of Martinsburg, sits by her bed in the van she's been sleeping in as she volunteers at a donation station in Clendenin.

 West Virginians are no stranger to flooding, but when it comes to flood insurance, it's a different story. Even though floods are the fastest-growing and costliest natural disaster, in all counties in West Virginia, roughly less than five percent of households have flood insurance. 

Now, three weeks after lethal flooding hit much of the southern parts of the state, many flood victims are waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to assess their damage and give them the funds to recover. 

"I don’t have flood insurance on my house," said Kerry Linger, a Martinsburg resident who volunteered at a donation station in Clendenin, one of the hardest-hit towns, after the flood. "I would never think that the Potomac River would come up and flood my house. But after this, I’m thinking about getting flood insurance."

For coastal states like Florida, which as of May 31 owns about 35 percent of the country’s flood insurance policies, the risk of a flood is more obvious than in West Virginia, which holds less than half a percentage of the nation’s policies. In West Virginia, flood insurance is viewed as too costly or not worth the risk or the hassle. Insurance is mandatory, however,  for those who live in a floodplain and have a federally-backed mortgage. Banks may also require homeowners to have flood insurance, but research has shown that that isn't enforced. Those who don't have insurance can receive some aid or a small-interest loan through FEMA.

Flood damage is so costly that even private home insurance companies won't offer it. Instead, FEMA offers flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, known as theNFIP. That program, however, faces its own financial woes. Because it tries to keep premiums low so that everyone can afford it, it's $24 billion in debt. In 2012, an attempt to raise the prices of the premiums to a level that would more accurately reflect flood risk made flood insurance even more unpopular in West Virginia. That aspect of the act, called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, was later revised, lowering the rate increases and reimbursing some policyholders.

And because hurricane recovery is so expensive, the NFIP usually has little money left for inland flood victims like those in West Virginia. 

That being said, the risk still exists in the state."Most of our terrain is very steeply sloped. So, you know, that kind of constricts our building capabilities. We’re either building on top of these slopes or we’re in a valley," said Charles Baker, the chair of the West Virginia Floodplain Management Association. "Subsequently, if we’re in a valley, that puts us out risk of a special flood hazard area." 

This post was updated on July 13, 2016 at 4:23 p.m. to state that in all counties roughly less than 5 percent of households have flood insurance. 

Editor's Note: This story initially reported the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was reversed. It has been updated to show that program was revised.   

Copyright 2016 West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Anne Li
Anne Li is the emerging platforms lead for NPR One, the engine that powers personalized news and podcast experiences across different platforms. Li is responsible for NPR One's editorial strategy on devices like smart speakers and other voice-activated devices, and she works closely with NPR's editorial and technology teams to set NPR listeners up for success on those platforms.
Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.