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Using High-Resolution Data for Flood Risk

More than 200 million people and two-thirds of the 48 contiguous states are at risk from flooding, according to Edward Clark, director of the U.S. National Water Center. This demonstrates the major threat that flooding poses to the reinsurance industry in the U.S. In light of this hazard, the U.S. private insurance market is growing, with 2017 reporting $600 million in premiums, an increase of $217 million over 2016. But why isn’t this figure higher? And, why do approximately 85% of U.S. homeowners lack flood insurance policies?

One of the key reasons, among many, for low private insurance penetration stems from the inadequacy of current flood data, such as FEMA’s, to fully assess this hazard.

Changes in landscape

Many parts of the U.S. have experienced extensive redevelopment since the creation of the industry-standard FEMA flood maps, and these redevelopment changes haven’t been adequately captured in flood maps—until now.

To illustrate this, take Sherwood Park in Palm Shores, Florida, which has seen rapid and major development since the 1980s. Areas that were once rural wetlands have been re-landscaped and developed into desirable real estate.

See also: How Non-Standard Became the Standard  

Figure 1 shows a historical map of the Palm Shores development in 1981. Palm Shores as an urban area was then confined to the southern part of the area shown, with areas to the north and west entirely rural with several lakes and ponds. This is contrasted with Figure 2, which shows aerial imagery of the Palm Shores development in 2016—an entirely different, more urbanized, landscape today.

Figure 1: Historical map of Palm Shores development in 1981. 

Figure 2: Aerial imagery of Palm Shores development in 2016. This shows an entirely different, more urbanized, landscape today. Basemap: U.S Geological Survey Historical Topographic Map Collection, 1983 ed., accessed via topoView.

Flood maps from the 1980s

To fully and accurately represent today’s flood hazard in these changing areas, it’s vital for insurers to use the most recent flood maps available, which use contemporary, best-available elevation data.

Figure 3 shows FEMA’s flood hazard zones for the Palm Shores area, showing some patches of Zone A flood zones in red, largely restricted to the west. The housing development in the bottom center is Sherwood Park, classified by FEMA as being in a Zone X area of minimal flood hazard.

Figure 3: FEMA flood hazard zones for the Sherwood Park housing development, Palm Shores, FL. 

Figure 4, on the other hand, shows JBA’s 1-in-100-year flood map, the equivalent of a FEMA Zone A map, which shows a very different picture. The areas of flood hazard are distributed across more of the overall area, with the Sherwood Park area now being represented as flood-prone.

Figure 4: JBA’S 1-in-100-year flood map, showing areas of flood hazard in Sherwood Park (dark orange indicates more severe flooding). Contains Microsoft® Bing™ Maps, © 2010-2017 Pirmin Kalberer & Mathias Walker, Sourcepole AG.

This disparity in flood hazard mapping can be better understood in the context of the altered landscape. It can be seen that FEMA’s mapping for this area largely corresponds to the landscape of the 1980s rather than the landscape of today. If insurers rely on mapping using this outdated data, they may easily over- or underestimate flood hazard in areas that have experienced redevelopment since the map’s creation.

See also: Hurricane Harvey: An Insurtech Case Study  

The need for high-resolution data

This urbanization in areas across the U.S. also highlights the need for high-resolution data, especially when we consider that more than 20% of all NFIP flood claims relate to properties outside FEMA-designated high-risk flood hazard areas.

Figure 5 shows downtown Miami when mapped at 30m resolution (left) and when mapped at 5m resolution (right). The 5m resolution illustrates the flow of water down narrow features such as walkways and roads much more effectively, whereas the 30m mapping can result in under- or overestimation of the hazard.

Figure 5: 30m flood map (left) vs JBA 5m flood map (right). Basemap data ©Mapbox ©OpenStreetMap.

In light of these changes in landscape, it’s vital that insurers use the right tools for today’s world. JBA’s flood maps include the most up-to-date elevation data and can be used within SpatialKey to help insurers better understand risk in the context of their portfolios for more informed and confident underwriting.

How Different Flood Types Affect Risk

For insurers to most effectively understand flood risk, they must have access to data that provides a full picture of the hazard, including the different flood types that might affect a property: fluvial, pluvial and storm surge. Although it may seem that flood is just flood, different types can produce various impacts on a property, causing different levels of damage.

Fluvial, pluvial and storm surge: Why it matters

Much of the U.S. is prone to both fluvial flooding (when rivers overtop their banks) and pluvial flooding (when water accumulates across the surface of the ground as a result of heavy rainfall). However, many coastal regions also experience storm surge flooding, which is a result of increased sea levels caused by weather events.

Storm surge flooding is extremely damaging due to the salinity of the water, while pluvial flooding is typically cleaner and quick to recede, likely resulting in lower-cost claims.

Without a view of these different drivers of flooding, insurers cannot understand the full exposure to their portfolios or fully engage with the private flood insurance market.

Use case: Jacksonville, Fla.

The need to understand all the drivers of flood can be illustrated using a residential property on 2nd Avenue, Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonville is one of the five most vulnerable cities to hurricanes on the U.S. East Coast and at high risk from flooding, experiencing widespread storm surges and flooding during hurricanes Irma and Matthew.

The residential property shown in Figure 1 originally fell into a FEMA Zone X (designated as minimal flood risk).

Figure 1: Contains data from the FEMA National Flood Hazard Layer.

However, when we look at its location on the JBA flood map, we can see some differences in analysis. The JBA flood map identifies this location as at very severe risk to flood (Figure 2, below), from both fluvial and storm surge flooding, whereas using FEMA data alone would not account for either flood type or differentiate between fluvial and pluvial flood. Accessing data sources in addition to FEMA helps provide a more comprehensive understanding of the risk.

Figure 2

The complex interplay between flood types

The risk is particularly high for hurricane-prone areas like Jacksonville, where storm surges often coincide with inland flooding. It’s important to represent this complex interplay during the mapping process instead of tackling each flood type separately. JBA’s storm surge mapping has been developed in partnership with leading hurricane modelers Applied Research Associates, ensuring that hurricane activity is fully accounted for. Additionally, surge data has been used to modify JBA’s inland flood mapping process to reflect the fact that, during a hurricane, rivers can’t flow out to sea as they can in normal conditions. Flood waters then back up, exacerbating fluvial flooding. For insurers to obtain a complete understanding of the hazard, flood maps must fully represent this relationship.

Even with FEMA recently re-mapping the area as a FEMA A Zone, demonstrating that the area is at risk to flood, the drivers of the flood are not clear. As such, underwriting against the FEMA map alone could misrepresent the insurance coverage required.

See also: FEMA Flood Maps Aren’t Good Enough  

It’s clear that having a view of the different drivers of flood risk is vital for effectively understanding and underwriting the risk, especially in areas where hurricanes can be a major source of flood-driven losses.

5 FAQs on Private Flood Insurance

With headlines about catastrophic and historic storms driving increased interest in flood insurance, the emerging private flood insurance market – an alternative to coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) – is increasingly attractive to homeowners. As realtors guide their clients through the home buying process, here is some basic information that clients need to know about this new option:

Q: What is private flood insurance, and what does it cover?

A: Private flood insurance is a risk management tool backed by global capital markets that provides financial protection for buildings and personal property damaged by floods, helping families, communities and businesses to recover from these devastating events.

Q: What are the differences between an NFIP and private policy?

A: There are two primary differences between an NFIP and private policy: regulatory authority and source of capital.

The biggest misconception with private flood insurance is that the NFIP is regulated and that private isn’t. Private flood insurance is heavily regulated and falls under the jurisdiction of state insurance regulators – just like homeowners, hurricane and auto insurance. While these state-based insurance regulations are separate from the federal regime that regulates the NFIP, the level of consumer protection and oversight is comparable.

The second difference is who’s bearing the risk of loss. With an NFIP policy, FEMA holds all program risk, with U.S. taxpayers serving as the ultimate backstop. With private flood insurance, independent insurance companies bear the risk of loss. As a result, these companies cannot accept any risk in any location and must be more discerning with respect to underwriting, coverage and price. While private insurers cannot be all things to all people, this disciplined and thoughtful approach means these insurers can deliver a sustainable and valuable product to homeowners.

See also: Here Is How to Make Flood Insurance Work  

Q: How can a private policy work in tandem with an NFIP policy?

A: A private policy can act as either an alternative or a complement to an NFIP policy. Private policies equip agents with customizable options that can cater to individual homeowners’ needs, allowing insurance agents to craft solutions that ultimately protect more people from floods.

Private policies can also complement an NFIP policy. If you have a policy through the NFIP, you can purchase private insurance to increase the limits of your coverage. Private insurance is also available to expand coverage, such as adding protection for contents in a basement or the expense to clean out a swimming pool.

Q: Who qualifies for private flood insurance, and how does it work?

A: The NFIP is essentially a one-size-fits-all policy available to almost every person in all geographies. However, homeowners aren’t all the same. That’s the beauty of private insurance programs – they’re different programs offering different value propositions to different people, like high-net-worth homeowners or renters.

Q: What is/isn’t covered by a homeowner’s policy when it comes to a flood?

A: Generally speaking, most homeowners’ policies exclude flood losses completely. A homeowners’ policy may cover water damage from broken pipes or sump pumps, but most exclude loss from inundation, whether resulting from swollen rivers, storm surge or intense rainfall.

The flood insurance industry is rapidly changing, and there are new opportunities coming online every day. Every realtor should take time to understand these new options. In most situations, the home is the family’s most valuable investment. Wherever it rains, it can flood, so take time to consider solutions that can protect these treasured investments from catastrophe.

See also: Emerging Market for Flood Insurance  

This article is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to provide individualized business, insurance or legal advice. You should discuss your individual circumstances thoroughly with your legal and other advisers before taking any action with regard to the subject matter of this article. Only the relevant insurance policy provides actual terms, coverages, amounts, conditions and exclusions for an insured.

Emerging Market for Flood Insurance

The federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) underwrites the overwhelming majority of residential flood insurance policies in the U.S. As of April 2018, more than 5 million NFIP policies were in force nationwide (4.8 million residential), representing slightly more than $1.28 trillion in coverage ($1.17 trillion residential). For decades, the NFIP has been homeowners’ only option for flood insurance, but over the past several years a small private market for residential flood insurance has emerged. Policymakers are increasingly interested in learning whether the expansion of this market could help meet the policy goals of increasing the number of homeowners with flood insurance or offering more affordable coverage.

Stakeholders—in congressional testimony, op-eds, reports and other forums—have offered diverging opinions as to the appetite of the private sector in writing more flood insurance, on the existing barriers to private coverage and on the implications for the NFIP. The present state of the market is unclear, particularly because there is no nationwide database on the companies writing residential flood insurance, coverages offered, policy terms, pricing and any differences between private and NFIP flood insurance. This makes it difficult to evaluate the market’s future evolution and relationship to the NFIP.

This report aims to fill these knowledge gaps and has two primary objectives:

  1.  to document the current state of the private, residential flood insurance market across the U.S.; and
  2. to identify the main factors influencing the number and form of flood insurance policies offered by the private market.

To meet these objectives, we conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 63 insurers, reinsurers, state brokers and other market participants. We also gathered and analyzed current private market data from a range of sources, including public documents, congressional testimony, news articles, state regulators and private firms.

See also: Future of Flood Insurance  

Key Findings

  • The private residential flood insurance market in the U.S. is currently small relative to the NFIP. We estimate that private flood insurance accounts for roughly 3.5% to 4.5% of all primary residential flood policies currently purchased.
  • With the exception of Puerto Rico, more policies are written by surplus lines carriers than by admitted carriers subject to state rate and form regulations. This is unsurprising, because surplus lines firms tend to cover new or catastrophic risks for which consumers may have trouble finding coverage in the admitted market.
  • Roughly 20% of private residential flood policies (and 40% of admitted carrier policies) are in Puerto Rico; another roughly 20% are in Florida. No data are available to evaluate the size of the total private market in other states or at a substate level nationwide.
  • Private market growth to date has largely been driven by the interest of global reinsurers in covering more U.S. flood risk. In the admitted market, reinsurers are assuming most of the risk for primary insurers, often in excess of 90%. In the surplus lines market, Lloyd’s of London has played a major role, backing the majority of residential flood policies.
  • Among the small number of policies written by the private sector, we identified three broad policy types. The most prevalent is what we refer to as an “NFIP+” policy within the FEMA-mapped 100-year floodplain, where flood insurance is required for federally backed mortgages. NFIP+ policies have higher limits or broader coverages than NFIP policies. Most are stand-alone policies, although some are sold as endorsements to homeowners policies. A second type is a lower-coverage-limit policy issued as an endorsement in lower-risk areas. The third type, used by only a couple of firms, mimics the NFIP policy.
  • There does not exist data to ascertain how many homeowners previously uninsured against flood are purchasing private policies versus how many are switching from NFIP policies to private coverage. Insurers in the market believe their portfolios include both newly insureds and policyholders switching from the NFIP.
  • Because the NFIP will provide a policy to anyone in a participating community, private firms can operate only where they can price lower than the NFIP or provide broader or different coverages for which there is consumer demand. In a sense, then, the NFIP is a default benchmark for comparison with private flood insurance policies.
  • Companies have identified certain types of properties or risks where they believe they can profitably operate and compete with the NFIP. Those target areas of opportunity, however, vary across firms. For example, some are restricting themselves to areas that FEMA designates as having lower flood risk, and others are focusing on areas that FEMA designates as at higher flood risk.
  • The largest U.S. homeowners insurance companies have generally been hesitant to enter the flood market, although a few have begun to enter through subsidiaries. Their caution, we learned, stems from concern about being unable to adjust rating or policy coverages as they gain experience in writing flood because of state regulatory practices; concentration of risk in their portfolio; correlation of flood with existing wind exposure; satisfaction with the current arrangement; and concern about reputational risk should they need to raise premiums or scale back coverage as they explore the potential flood market.
  • More private capital is now willing to back private flood coverage in the U.S. Interviewees agreed that, as insurers’ familiarity with flood catastrophe models grows, as underwriting experience develops and as state regulatory structures evolve, the number of private flood policies in force could continue to grow, including among admitted carriers. As of this writing, there were multiple new rate filings in many states, suggesting a continued expansion of the market.
  • Whereas the NFIP is required to take all risks, private insurers are selective in their underwriting. All interviewees agreed that the private sector will never be able to write policies for certain properties or locations (e.g., repetitive loss properties or high-tide flooding areas) at a price homeowners would be willing to pay. Substantial public investment in risk reduction, combined with aggressive land-use management, they said, was essential for limiting future exposure and encouraging the private sector to move into those areas.
  • The private market participants we interviewed differed as to how much flood risk in the U.S., and storm surge risk in particular, they thought could be underwritten by the private sector. All agreed there would likely remain a large and important role for the NFIP to play, particularly in the near term.
  • Acceptance of private flood insurance by banks and financial institutions does not appear to be a major constraint on the market at present. With very few exceptions, private insurers have told us banks ultimately accept their products, though they may have some initial questions or concerns.
  • There is a need for expanded insurance agent education about flood risk and flood insurance products, both for the NFIP and private policies. Interviewees disagreed about whether the higher-than-market commissions paid by the NFIP were creating a disincentive for the private market.
  • Most interviewees saw limited demand for flood coverage today, whether offered by the NFIP or by a private provider, and said that consumers were price sensitive.

See also: How to Make Flood Insurance Affordable  

This report was written by Carolyn Kousky, Howard Kunreuther, Brett Lingle, and Leonard Shabman. You can find the full report here.

Private Options for Flood Insurance

Congress has once again extended the current mandate for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). If you have used the NFIP in the past to deliver flood insurance to clients, you know all too well that trying to simplify the complexities of flood insurance in the midst of regulatory changes and extreme weather events is an important yet arduous undertaking.

The industry is filled with constant change, and people need alternatives. This series of guiding questions can help facilitate conversations with your clients so you can work together to thoughtfully explore all options for protecting their property and valued possessions.

7 Guiding Flood Insurance Questions

Does your client need specialized flood insurance coverage?

Consider flood insurance coverage in terms of the specifics of the property and the property owner. Is your client a landlord? Is your client on a fixed income? Is this person holding properties for income-generating purposes? By understanding the needs of your clients, you can more effectively navigate the suite of flood insurance options available today.

Private flood insurance enables property owners to supplement the NFIP product today, providing coverage that homeowners expect from their homeowners policies for exposures such as outdoor property, detached structures, swimming pools and basements.

See also: Future of Flood Insurance  

Does your client have a finished basement or pool?

The NFIP does not cover personal property in basements, so displaced homeowners or homeowners with built-out basements are responsible for these bills. If a storm surge dumps a ton of sand into your client’s pool, is your client prepared to shoulder the costs of the resulting clean-up? By understanding your client’s lifestyle and property usage, you can deliver meaningful solutions. Private options can help.

Does your client’s property value exceed $250,000?

The value of custom-built homes continues to increase, with replacement costs rising well above $250,000, the current limit on government-issued coverage. Now, owners of residential homes have options with higher coverage limits at affordable rates through private flood insurance programs.

Would your client need assistance for additional living expenses if they experience flood damage?

When weighing coverage options remember that the NFIP does not cover additional living expenses. With a private flood policy, your client can opt to add additional living expense coverage. This valuable coverage helps homeowners that have been displaced as a result of a flood by covering the costs of shelter and meals.

Are your client’s personal belongings valued at more than $100,000?

Consider your client’s property holdings beyond the physical structures she owns. For example, if your client is a landlord or holding income-generating properties, she typically doesn’t need contents coverage. However, some clients may need more coverage than what is available from the NFIP to protect their personal treasures.

Would your clients prefer an easy application process without the hassle of submitting photographs or an elevation certificate?

Speed of delivery and streamlined processes of today’s private flood insurance options are increasingly attractive to clients. Plus, property owners can often obtain a quote without an elevation certificate and without providing property photographs.

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

Would you like to save your clients money by avoiding federal surcharges or reserve fund assessments?

Private products are not subject to federal surcharges or reserve fund assessments and may be less expensive to purchase than NFIP flood insurance.

With the NFIP reauthorization debate continuing, Congress struggles to make flood insurance affordable and improve claims standards. Discussions continue around the development and delivery of dependable, disciplined, reliable private insurance to help more people protect their financial livelihood.

Presenting private flood insurance options not only helps your clients make more informed decisions, it enhances the value you bring to your relationship as you work together to help them protect what matters most – their families, homes and treasured possessions.

Today, private flood insurance is available in every state, through multiple channels and multiple locations. Companies have the capacity to step in and offer a suite of comprehensive private options for their clients. Private flood insurance is embedded into many brand name lenders that facilitate a loan closing and help Americans get into their dream home, without interruptions.