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What insurance agents need to know about winter flood risks

Critical insight for agents on winter flooding

Winter floods typically occur in areas at low risk for flooding, including the Great Lakes and the Northeast coast. This dangerous weather threat is caused by cold weather hazards like snow, ice, storm surge and ground freeze that can all lead to flooding. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Winter floods typically occur in areas at low risk for flooding, including the Great Lakes and the Northeast coast. This dangerous weather threat is caused by cold weather hazards like snow, ice, storm surge and ground freeze that can all lead to flooding. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Floods are the number one most frequently occurring natural disaster in the United States, and this weather threat doesn’t let up once the temperatures drop.

Throughout the coldest months of the year, every part of the country is at risk of winter flooding.

As the season unfolds, agents need to prepare and educate clients on the risks of wintertime flooding. Experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Aon National Flood Services warn about the different causes and risks of winter flooding as well as who is most at risk and provide critical information on insurance coverage and claims.

Related: Mitigating the No. 1 natural disaster in the U.S.

Causes of winter flooding


A number of conditions can cause winter flooding, but the biggest threats include coastal flooding, ice jams and rapid snowmelt. Winds generated from winter storms can cause widespread tidal flooding and severe beach erosion along coastal areas, putting the Great Lakes and the Northeast coast at risk.

For example, in the Great Lakes, the strong winds from winter storms push water levels up at one end of the lake, causing a storm surge. As the water levels then return to normal, a pendulum effect occurs, causing high water levels on alternating sides of the lake.

Long cold spells can also cause the surface of rivers to freeze, leading to ice jams. An ice jam occurs when a rise in the water level or a thaw breaks the ice into large chunks, which become jammed at man-made and natural obstructions and can result in severe flooding. A sudden release of an ice jam can also cause flooding. When the water is released, it can flow downstream quickly, causing a significant rise in water levels in a short period of time. 

Related: After the flooding: 6 tips for vehicle owners and buyers

Winter floods can also be caused by sudden thaws of a heavy snowpack. A midwinter or early spring thaw can produce large amounts of runoff in a short span of time. Because the ground is hard and still frozen from low winter temperatures, water can't penetrate and be reabsorbed. The water then runs off the surface and flows into lakes, streams and rivers, causing excess water to spill over their banks.

Proper preparation 


For residents in particularly susceptible areas like the U.S.’s northern regions and the Great Lakes, FEMA and Aon National Flood Services offer a number of critical steps to prepare and protect against winter flooding.

Residents in these threatened areas should purchase a flood insurance policy if they don't already have one, FEMA advises. Those who have purchased a flood insurance policy should review it and become more familiar with what is and is not covered.

Related: 9 steps for facing threatening floods

Make a flood plan, FEMA says. Plan evacuation routes and keep important papers and documents in a safe, waterproof place. Keep an up-to-date inventory on itemized possessions, and attach pictures of the possessions. These materials will be vital during the flood claim process.

As for the homes, Aon’s Vice President of Claims, Terry Black, says cleaning the gutters of your home is an important precaution to take to prevent water build-up around the foundation.  

Black says experts are predicting a wet winter this season, increasing the chances for winter flooding, particularly in the Northeast and Great Lake areas. 

Coverage concerns


When it comes to flood insurance, property owners have two options: private insurance policies or the one-size-fits-all, government-issued National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Private policies offer better coverage for high-value homes, and generally provide greater coverage for additional living expenses. Agents and brokers can review their clients' coverage and determine the best fit for the situation.

In any case, some flood coverage is better than none! 

Related: Understanding private flood insurance options

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