Protect Yourself and Your Home from Flooding

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By: Gwen Moran
Published: September 28, 2009

Few places in the country are considered flood-free, so mitigate your risk.

Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States. In 2007, the latest year for which numbers are available, flooding occurred in all 50 states, according to the National Flood Insurance Program, a government-sponsored pool that provides flood insurance to homeowners. Furthermore, basic homeowners insurance policies don’t cover flooding: You generally need to purchase flood policies. The key to mitigating as much flood damage as possible is to take precautions, which in many cases you can accomplish in a few hours to a few days.

First, understand the threats

Storms with hard rains: Hurricanes, nor’easters, and other storms with driving rains can saturate the ground and cause bodies of water to rise, both of which can cause flooding. Blocked drainage systems can force water into roadways or homes.

Snow or ice melt: When frozen precipitation melts, it can cause a great deal of water to saturate the ground. Without proper drainage, the water can cause flooding.

Bodies of water: When rainfall, storms, saturated ground, or other factors affect bodies of water, they may surge over banks, beaches, or other barriers, flooding streets, homes, and virtually everything else in their paths.

Levees and dams: Man-made water barriers and controls can be strained by excessive rainfall or snow or ice melt.

Protect yourself

It’s not a good idea to bet the odds-20% to 25% of flood claims came from low- to moderate-risk areas in 2007. Check with your insurance agent to see what flood insurance will cost you. And check the Community Status Book ( to see if your community is already an NFIP partner. The NFIP offers flood insurance to homeowners and renters whose community participates in NFIP. Participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding, according to NFIP.

If you live in a high-risk area, it’s a good idea to have a “go-bag” ready in case you need to leave quickly. It should include a few changes of clothing for you and family members, insurance policy numbers, phone numbers of your agent, your insurance company’s main number, essential toiletries, and some money to get you through a few days. It’s also wise to have an evacuation route mapped out and to have a location to which you can go, such as a loved one’s home or hotel.

Always follow the direction of local and state authorities if ordered to evacuate. Remember: Your possessions and your home are small comfort if your family is injured or worse. As a preventative measure, if you believe water will begin to accumulate in your home, shut off power at the main electrical panel in your home, says Bill Begal, owner of Begal Enterprises, a Rockville, Md., disaster restoration company. But never stand in water to do so-if the area around the box is already flooded, leave it alone.

In addition, be sure to protect yourself against contact with water (, which may be contaminated, even if it looks clear.

Protect your home

Before your rainy season or spring thaw begins, there are actions you can take to protect your home.

Fix leaks and cracks immediately. Leaky roofs and foundation cracks can let water into the home more readily and weaken the structure and provide a perfect habitat for mold. When you notice wet spots on the ceiling or cracks in the foundation, fix them immediately. Check to ensure that roofing shingles are secure.

In addition, home improvement expert and retired contractor John Wilder suggests that any roof replacements include a rubber roof underlayment, which is essentially a waterproof membrane that is installed under roofing shingles to protect the structure and interior of the home against moisture. That adds a few hundred dollars to most roofing jobs, but can extend the life of a roof, says Wilder.

For foundation cracks, he recommends mortar and masonry caulk or hydraulic cement, which expands and fills gaps completely and costs only a few dollars, instead of patching with mortar or cement, which may crack again. If water is a recurring problem, be sure to investigate other solutions (

Clear gutters and drains. When gutters and drainage systems are blocked by leaves or other debris, water can’t escape and may flood the home or yard. Check all gutters and drainage systems regularly for leaves, nests, and other obstructions. Also double-check storm drains on your street, as leaves and debris can block them, causing water to collect.

Invest in a battery-powered sump pump. Sump pumps let you pump water out of your home and can be an excellent defense against flooding-unless they’re powered by electricity and the power is out. Battery-powered sump pumps are a relatively inexpensive ($150-$400) solution.

Catalog possessions. Using a digital camcorder or camera, record as many of your possessions as possible. Although traditional video and photographs are adequate, they can be bulky to carry and may get damaged if left in a flooded home. Digital files can be stored on a small USB drive and kept in your go bag or on an online backup system. Inexpensive digital cameras start at about $100. Online backup systems like (, (, or ( offer free online backup up to certain levels of storage space, then charge for more.

Move expensive items to a safer location. If you have a second floor or an attic, you may want to move furniture, photographs, and artwork to a higher level. This will protect them in all but the most severe floods. Elevate furnaces and water pumps when they’re installed, if possible, by elevating them to a height of 12 inches above the highest known flood level for your area, suggests FEMA.

The Institute for Business and Home Safety ( also recommends ensuring that any fuel tanks are properly anchored to prevent them from floating, which may make them more likely to rupture and release fuel into flood water. Once the power sources of system units like furnaces and water heaters are disabled and the units cooled, you can also wrap them in waterproof tarps to mitigate water damage.

Prevent sewer backup. FEMA recommends that sewer or septic lines have check valves, which allow waste to only flow one way. This prevents sewage from backing up into the standing water in the home, contaminating it with raw sewage. Check valves are $10-$15 each and available at most home improvement stores, but you’ll likely need a plumber to install them, which can cost $100 or more per valve. They’re typically installed at a point in the pipe that’s easy to access for repair, and work with most plumbing systems.

Floods are a common challenge that many homeowners will face at one time or another. However, by keeping your home in good repair, moving valuables out of water’s way, and putting good practices in place, you can mitigate potential damage.

Gwen Moran has written about real estate and finance for a number of national publications and lives near the Jersey shore, although not in a high-risk flood zone.

Source: Reprinted from HouseLogic ( with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Copyright 2009.  All rights reserved.