FARGO, N.D. – As North Dakota faces another possible major flood this spring, federal officials are frustrated by the number of people in the state who lack insurance for such a disaster.
Along the Red River and its tributaries, in flood-prone Fargo and Cass County, the number of insurance policies dropped by more than 40 percent from 2011 to 2012, FEMA officials said. Residents there have battled flooding in for five of the last seven years.
"It's an amazing phenomenon how people can go through these things, then drop their flood insurance and try to buy it back in time," FEMA spokesman Dave Kyner said. "I guess that's one of the most frustrating things for us here."
Flood policies in all of North Dakota declined 32 percent, which coincided with a dry year throughout the state.
Policies must be in effect for 30 days for flood damage to be covered. FEMA officials did not have figures for 2013 but said they have received calls recently from agents indicating a flurry of activity.
Richard Thomas, who lives in a subdivision south of Fargo that has lost nearly 20 homes to flooding or buyouts, said he considered dropping his insurance before deciding it was a bad idea.
"Our property is fairly high, so I thought about getting it when I thought I would need it," he said. "But the window (for getting insurance) is pretty small so I didn't want to try and time it."
The National Weather Service says there's a 50 percent chance this spring that Fargo will have one of the area's top five floods of all time, at around 38 feet. The first flood outlook in January called for a 6 percent chance that the river would reach 30 feet, but late winter snows bumped up the forecast.
Darren Dunlop, who lives in a north Fargo neighborhood protected by a permanent floodwall, said he started buying insurance a few years ago so he would be grandfathered in if there were policy changes.
"My insurance agent told me that when the new flood plain comes in, you will be required to have it," Dunlop said. "If you don't have it, you will have to buy it from the feds and it will be at an astronomically high rate."
The average flood policy in the U.S. is about $600 a year, according to the federal website http://www.Floodsmart.gov. Where a person lives and the age, elevation and structure of the home can affect the cost.
Policyholders can receive some money for flood-protection efforts, including sandbags. Thomas said he was paid $1,000 for a portable plastic tube called an AquaDam, which he calls his second insurance policy.
"Everyone out here is done with sandbags," Thomas said of the Forest River subdivision where he lives. "We're an AquaDam community."
Kyner said North Dakota had more disaster declarations than any other state in the six-state FEMA region between 1964 and 2010 and is among the top in the country for FEMA declarations in the last 15 years.
Kyner said when the historic Souris River flood wiped out 4,160 homes and businesses in Minot in 2011, the number of insurance policies in the city stood at 383. By the end of the year, that number had ballooned to 2,622. Last year it dropped 39 percent.
FEMA officials said people in Fargo and Cass County may have a false sense of security because of improvements made in flood protection since 2009, including the construction of new levees and the demolition of houses on the flood plain.
"People tend to think if they are close to the river, they have a high propensity for flooding, they need flood insurance, and if they're away from the river, they don't," said Norm Ashford, FEMA's insurance specialist. "But we actually pay 20 to 30 percent of our claims that are not close to the river."
Asked who needs flood insurance, Ashford said, "Everyone."