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OPINION: Robin Washington: Who says you can't get flood insurance? [Duluth News Tribune, Minn.]

By Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 08--Joanna Kokkonen has heard all the stories about Duluth homeowners without flood insurance, and the notion that you can't even buy it here.

And she's heard about enough.

"People say nobody here has flood insurance. I tell them, 'I do, but it doesn't cover anything,'" said Kokkonen, who has to carry flood insurance even though her home is in hilltop Duluth Heights.

"I had about 6 inches of water," Kokkonen said of the unfinished basement where she keeps material for her sewing avocation. "I have a lot of plastic bins. When they start floating, they go on their side and fill with water."

The result was a lot of cleanup and laundry days, for which her $1,500-a-year policy -- which below-ground covers only infrastructural damage and some appliances -- will reimburse her approximately... zero.

"I didn't have anything to claim. I don't have a washer and dryer down there. I only have two electrical outlets," both higher than the water came up to, she says. She could spring for full contents coverage at about twice the premium, but with the 500-year storm projected every 500 years, figures it's not worth it.

"I understand her disappointment," said David Schein of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's insurance and outreach team. "Flood insurance is really catastrophic-type insurance. For disasters like this, it's not going to make anybody whole."

Kokkonen's not cursing her agent, Rolf Flaig; in fact, she works for him. Instead, her ire is for mortgage rules requiring coverage on the property, designated by the National Flood Insurance Program as high-risk because a stream once flowed there.

"Very few people have flood insurance in this area because there are very few areas that would require it," said Flaig, who recalled selling only three policies, including Kokkonen's, over the past decade.

"One person who moved from California wanted it anyhow, even though the bank didn't require it," he continued.

Great. Did he use it?

"No. He didn't have flooding."

Yet hundreds of other homes in low-risk areas did, including mine, which got 2 inches in the basement. After hearing horror stories about floating couches and TVs, I now consider it a selling point ("Four bdrms, 2 ba, lake view, only 2 in. of H20 in flood!")

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If some low-risk homeowners now wish they had flood policies (a calculator on the NFIP's floodsmart.gov website gave me an estimate of $364 to $1,046 annually for building-only coverage), others in high-risk areas may be skirting the rules.

"There's actually a requirement in the federal law that if your home has a mortgage backed by the federal government and you live in an especially high-hazard zone, you have to buy flood insurance," said Mark Kulda of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

The group's interest, of course, is to sell insurance, and the federal law sounds eerily close to one that mandates everyone buy health insurance. A few municipalities have reached similar conclusions, opting out of NFIP -- which sounds good until a flood comes and the communities are declared ineligible for federal disaster assistance.

And if some disagree with being forced to pay to stay well, try convincing a bank to loan money for a house that might go tumbling down Chester Creek -- especially for a loan bailed out by the feds.

"We are (hearing) from homeowners, 'I never had to get flood insurance before. Why are they making me get it now?'" Kulda said. "Those bad loans were acquired by federally backed banks. Now they're the guarantors."

Which is one reason Kulda says the myth "you can't buy flood insurance" drives him up the wall.

"I've heard insurance people saying it. The misconception is very widespread," he said.

The only exclusion is if your community doesn't participate in NFIP, which in the Northland is the lone holdout of Thomson. Told by the News Tribune on Friday that her flood-socked town wasn't on the list, City Clerk Ruth Jorgenson said she thought they'd signed up a couple of years ago.

"I will definitely look into that," she said. "Thanks for the heads-up."

No problem. Interested in a 4 bedroom in Duluth?

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.

___

(c)2012 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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