Local interest in buying flood insurance is rising along with the rate of snowmelt into Isabella Lake as homeowners worried about potential property damage weigh policies that could provide some financial protection in the event of catastrophic overflow along the Kern River.
People in the industry say coverage remains available in the Bakersfield area, though it may cost more than before and may not take effect immediately, depending on the type of policy.
Bakersfield Farmers Insurance agent Charles Eckberg said Thursday he has written about 15 new flood insurance policies in just the last week, mostly for engineers and other professionals concerned about whether Isabella will hold what’s expected to be a big acceleration next month in water flowing from this year’s record-breaking snowpack in the Kern River watershed.
“They’re not looking at the rain,” Eckberg said. “They’re looking at the snowmelt that’s coming down.”
The federally backed National Flood Insurance Program offers limited coverage — no more than $250,000 toward rebuilding a dwelling damaged by flooding and up to $100,000 for replacing personal belongings, such as furniture and electronics — but new policies can take up to 30 days before they provide any protection.
Separately, private insurance was available as recently as Thursday in a test case of a home located downtown, said Bakersfield agent-broker Rich Kleiner, who noted such policies can be coupled with NFIP coverage or replace it, and that they can be less expensive. But unlike the federal program, he explained, it’s not always available.
“You have choices,” Kleiner said, adding that many people don’t realize private flood insurance policies may be an option.
Whether flood insurance is a good idea or not — including at a time when a sudden change of weather could risk flooding along the Kern — varies case by case, said Texas lawyer Omar Ochoa, who litigates on behalf of policy-owners who feel they are owned more money by their insurer.
He pointed out that home insurance policies never come with flood coverage — they have to be purchased separately. Circumstances facing communities downstream from Isabella Lake make this a good time to ask about flood insurance, he added.
“Ultimately, it’s all speculative,” he said. “It depends on everybody’s financial situation.”
Flood concerns in the southern Central Valley increased this week with the state Department of Water Resources’ release Tuesday of new projections on how much water the southern Sierra Nevada contains and when it’s expected to melt.
The agency reported 1.83 million acre-feet of water is expected to flow down the Upper Kern through September — about a third of it next month, depending on factors such as how quickly warm weather and sunlight melt the snowpack. The concern is that the runoff could overwhelm Isabella Lake’s 568,075-acre-foot capacity, forcing water managers to release flows downstream so fast that it damages infrastructure and floods areas beyond just Hart and Yokuts parks.
What areas are at greatest risk remains unclear: No maps showing potential flooding have been released publicly, and local authorities have not identified areas of concern.
Eckberg said he wrote an NFIP policy Monday for a Bakersfield mother and daughter living two blocks away from each other. The daughter’s policy cost $800 per year, he recalled, while the mother’s was priced at $1,200, the only significant difference being that the mother’s home was built at an elevation one foot lower than that of her daughter.
NFIP coverage is available through most major insurers, Eckberg added, noting that lately policies in the Bakersfield area have averaged about $1,000 per year. He said he doesn’t offer private flood insurance because he isn’t familiar with the insurer’s financial backing in case of claims.
He cautioned against waiting too long before making a decision.
“No one wants insurance unless there’s a loss,” he said. “They always want it when it’s too late.”
Kleiner said he received a flood insurance inquiry from a customer living near the Kern River who worried it might overflow. He quoted the person an annual rate of between $800 and $900 for private insurance. The customer decided not to proceed with an NFIP or private policy, he added.
People living in a flood zone like Lamont typically have no choice other than to buy flood insurance because their mortgage lenders require it, Kleiner pointed out. In that case, he said, there’s no waiting period for people applying for coverage under NFIP.
Ochoa noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency may make money available to owners of property damaged by flooding in areas that have been declared disaster zones, but that the sums distributed generally run between $15,000 and $50,000.
Also, in cases where only part of a home has been damaged, insurance may only cover the cost of repairing that portion, Ochoa said. In no case will the coverage base payments on a property’s market value, he said, emphasizing that insurers only pay the cost to rebuild.
He recommended people with flood insurance document the condition of their property, such as by hiring an inspector, lest an adjuster decide damages were wear and tear over many years. He also suggested people with flood-related personal property coverage keep an updated inventory of expensive belongings such as a high-price television.
“You’re going to want to keep the receipt for that TV,” Ochoa said.