Neighbors are using their personal boats to rescue Friendswood residents in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle
Written by Kelly Tonsing
Each year, we watch in horror as unsuspecting folks—living normal lives similar to our own—are rescued from their rooftops via watercraft after their small town has been ravaged by natural disaster. Most recently, by Hurricanes Jose, Harvey, Irma, and Maria. In news interviews, residents express something along the lines of, “My family and I have lost everything,” or “There’s no way to understand this unless you’re here, living it.”
Do you wonder what happens to these people once the debris settles? Or how they rebuild and attempt to resume normal lives?
According to an article by the Wall Street Journal, only 50 percent of homeowners in Puerto Rico, who are currently facing mass power outages and destruction in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, have insurance policies protecting them from wind damage.
In Houston, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data reveals only about 17 percent (1 in 6) of the homeowners most affected by Harvey have flood insurance policies. This 17 percent likely has—depending on their level of coverage—access to up to $250,000 to rebuild their homes and $100,000 to replace personal belongings.
The other 83 percent, or 5 out of 6 homeowners most affected, however, aren’t as fortunate—they’ve lost their belongings, their homes, and likely decades of hard work and savings, with nothing to show for it and likely no opportunity for short-term recovery. According to one Washington Post article, this group “will be dependent on private charity and government aid, especially grants from Federal Emergency Management Agency.”
Most people don’t realize that FEMA doesn’t pay individuals for any of their personal recovery; rather, they provide low-interest loans to homeowners who lack flood insurance if—and only if—the conditions satisfy FEMA’s specific definition of “flood” and a state of emergency is declared. Every penny of the federal loan must be paid back in full, with interest.
My name is Kelly Tonsing, and I’m a licensed insurance agent at Ascension Insurance, Inc. in North Carolina. As such, I frequently discuss flood insurance (and the lack thereof) with clients who have homeowners’ insurance. When I ask clients why they’ve opted out of such a crucial policy, I typically receive one (or more) of the following responses: “I just can’t afford it,” “My house isn’t in a flood zone,” or, my personal favorite, “I don’t need it—I live on a hill.”
I’m here to talk through each one with you.
I Can’t Afford It.
First, let’s talk about the cost of adding flood insurance to your existing homeowners’ policy. According to ValuePenguin, flood insurance policies purchased in 2017 through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)—a program established in 1968 by the National Flood Insurance Act (NFIA) allowing property and/or homeowners to purchase flood insurance directly from the federal government—averaged $56 per month. In Texas, home of Hurricane Harvey, 2017 flood-insurance premiums through NFIP were only $40 per month (that’s $482 per year—28 percent below the national average).
Other states on the lower end of the premium spectrum include Florida, which is currently experiencing the devastating consequences of Hurricane Irma, Maryland, Arizona, and Alabama. To clarify, rates have less to do with which state you live in and more to do with how far away from water you live and how much coverage you want. Private insurance rates may be even more competitive compared to those of NFIP’s.
According to FEMA, there are also other great opportunities for discounts and steps you can take to mitigate risk and lower your monthly flood-insurance premiums.
So, for the same cost as a monthly fast-food run for four, you could instead implement flood-insurance coverage, which—in the event of a damaging flood—would provide you the monetary support to rebuild your home and purchase new belongings (e.g., furniture, clothing, a television, etc.) for you and your family.
I Don’t Live in a Flood Zone.
This is one of the most common explanations I hear for not protecting one’s property from the possibility of flooding. According to FEMA, more than 20 percent of flood claims in the U.S. originate from owners of properties outside a designated “high risk” flood zone. According to an article by Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight, that number in Houston is currently closer to 30 or 40 percent. She goes on to argue that the entire concept of the 100-year floodplain is misunderstood, and designated flood zones are “best understood as estimates—and not necessarily very reliable ones.”
Not sure if you live in a flood zone? Each year, FEMA publishes maps detailing flood hazards and showing flood risk levels “based on historical climate information and the best available science.” To check out the map for your area, click here. To view your area’s flood history, check out FEMA’s interactive visualization tool here.
I’m Safe—I Live on a Hill.
For those who live on a hill or atop a mountain, it is still wise to consider the possibility of flooding from rainfall. Consider my family’s personal anecdote: We own a mountain house located on the Blue Ridge parkway, a beautiful scenic highway in North Carolina and Virginia. Although located at an elevation of approximately 1,850 feet, the home incurred severe water damage from rainfall washing down the mountain.
Mudslides, caused by excessive rainfall, occur regularly in mountainous communities and have been known to completely wipe out homes’ walls and foundations. Without flood insurance, the full financial burden for necessary repairs after such an event falls solely on the shoulders of the homeowner. What would you do if your home in the mountains was severely damaged by rainwater flooding or a mudslide? Have you considered the potential financial devastation and how you might recover?
It’s time to take a serious look at flood insurance to protect you, your loved ones, and your property from one of the costliest natural disasters in the United States. Here are some startling statistics from Risk Analysis, An Official Publication of the Society for Risk Analysis:
- “From 1996 to 2007, insured residential flood losses alone totaled over $26 billion (approx. $2 billion per year)”
- “Average annual property damage cause by floods has increased 54 times over the last four decades, from $51 million in the 1960s to $2.77 billion per year in the 2000s (2000-2008).”
- The authors use statistical evidence to argue that the flood problem in the United States will only continue to worsen, and property damage will intensify.
If you need more reasons to consider flood insurance, watch this story about two property owners who underwent the same natural disaster in 2009 and had very different experiences.
About the Author
Kelly Tonsing manages Ascension’s Personal Lines Practice in our eastern region. She is charged with the strategic direction of the department and for providing an excellent client experience to more than 10,000 policyholders. Upon joining the insurance industry, Kelly found her true passion and skill for leading others in a business built on the value of relationships. She enjoys writing blogs to share her knowledge of and experience in the insurance industry in an approachable and caring way. Connect with her on LinkedIn!
Written by Kelly Tonsing
Traditionally, personal umbrella insurance policies have been reserved for the rich and famous. Today, however, “personal umbrellas” are becoming a standard purchase for many middle-class insurance buyers who understand their risk in a litigious economy. Adding significant personal coverage at an insignificant cost, umbrella policies offer an extra layer of liability protection on top of one’s home or auto policy. Just as the name suggests, personal umbrella policies are designed to shield you from a very rainy day.
Are You at Risk?
Here are a few hypothetical—but realistic—scenarios that might prompt you to consider the value of an umbrella policy:
- Scenario 1:
You hire a professional painter to paint the trim around the top of your house. He falls off his ladder and is killed on impact. Even though the painter is found partially responsible for his fall, the case results in a $1.5 million settlement to his survivors. In this instance, would your current homeowner insurance policy provide you the necessary protection?
- Scenario 2:
Your daughter is turning 16 and wants to celebrate by having her friends over for a pool party in the backyard. One of the teens, showing off, decides to do a backflip into the shallow end of the pool. His face collides with the bottom of the pool, causing major damage to his jaw, teeth, and eye socket. You learn from his parents and the doctor that the boy will require months of reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage. Would you be prepared to write a check to cover his medical expenses?
- Scenario 3:
While driving to work, you accidentally bump your thermos from your cup holder. As you reach for the thermos to prevent hot coffee from spilling all over your lap, you strike a bicyclist in a crosswalk. The bicyclist, who also happens to be a doctor, incurs injuries including a concussion and a broken pelvis. As a result, he must undergo extensive physical therapy and is not able to work for four months. His annual income is $350,000, which means, as a direct result of the accident, he loses $120,000 in wages and accrues more than $500,000 in medical expenses. What level of liability does your auto policy include? Do you have enough equity in your house to cover this? How about in your retirement account?
These situations are commonplace and can happen to anyone. Just one lawsuit from an injury or accidental death could cost you millions of dollars—enough to wipe out your savings and retirement accounts. Because you are liable for a court-ordered settlement, even your future wages are at risk.
If you have assets (e.g., homes, retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, and/or cars), you are at risk to lose everything, as basic policies only cover a small portion of these possessions. Ask your agent to fill out an asset worksheet to determine whether or not you could benefit from a personal-umbrella policy. Because when the clouds roll in, you’ll want to stay dry.
Written by Kelly Tonsing
Kelly Tonsing manages Ascension’s Personal Lines Practice in our eastern region. Although she spends each and every day examining insurance policies, managing claims processing, and ensuring the best available protection for our clients, she hadn’t yet examined the fine print of her own car insurance. Until the unthinkable happened. Read below to learn more about Kelly’s dangerous auto accident, and how she wished she would have read this crucial advice before starting her ignition that morning. Hindsight is often 20/20, but perhaps, with Kelly’s testimonial, foresight may be as well.
Months ago, I had my first real automobile accident. Having been in insurance for years, I had always approached the auto claims experience from an academic perspective. But there is no better teacher than real life. After my accident, I gained some insight that I hope you never have to learn the hard way.
My auto accident occurred at an intersection, when a vehicle collided with my passenger door at 45 mph—and I was deemed “at fault.” Consequently, my liability insurance had to pay out approximately $46,000. Every one of my six airbags deployed, protecting my face and head from injury, but shattering my left hand and wrist. My vehicle was totaled and carted off to the proverbial auto cemetery, never to grace the roads of Charlotte again. God rest her soul—she gave her life for me!
This experience and subsequent claims process provided me valuable insight that, had I known it before, would have saved me time, money, and headache. Here are some things you might want to take a look at on your own policy before you have a claim:
- GAP INSURANCE
Always, ALWAYS buy gap insurance on a newly purchased vehicle that you finance—even when you purchased used and believe you got the deal of the century. The total paid out by my insurance on the depreciated vehicle was not nearly enough to pay off my auto loan. Had I not had gap insurance at the time of the accident, I would have faced a new-vehicle purchase without a trade in, which would mean paying off my prior auto loan and adding a new replacement-car payment. Ascension does not offer gap insurance, so I would recommend speaking with your financial institution about your options.
Airbags really do save lives. As I mentioned, my airbags shattered my hand and wrist, but they saved my life. Because broken is always better than dead, I will always choose autos with as many airbags as possible going forward.
- NEW-CAR REPLACEMENT
If you have a vehicle fewer than three years old, ask your agent about new-car-replacement coverage, which allows you to replace your vehicle regardless of the depreciation. Check the fine print with your carrier, as carriers differ on the age allowed for this coverage. It is a great bang for your buck if you happen to total your vehicle, which, as I discovered first-hand, is not hard to do when airbags deploy.
- RENTAL REIMBURSEMENT
I am used to driving an SUV, which is typically not a rental option under the standard $30/day allotment. For $10 per year (less than a dollar per month) additional premium, your daily rental allowance will be bumped to $50/day, which makes all the difference if you rely on a larger vehicle for daily transportation. To maximize comfortability and return on investment, check your policy to ensure you do not decline this coverage or choose a lower limit, as an extra dollar per month could mean an added monthly allowance of $600 ($900 with the $30/day allowance versus $1,500 with the $50/day allowance).
- MED PAY
Med Pay is the coverage on our auto policy that can be used for anyone in your vehicle who might be hurt in an accident to use toward their health-insurance deductible, including yourself. Luckily, my accident occurred in the final three months of the calendar year, and I was less than $1,000 away from meeting my health insurance out-of-pocket maximum on a high-deductible plan.
However, what if the accident had occurred in January? My ambulance ride to the nearest hospital ran $1,500, and my associated emergency-room costs neared $8,000. My wrist surgery was $20,000. Not to mention physical therapy twice weekly for several months at more than $100 per visit. I was quickly racking up medical expenses, but luckily for me, my Med Pay on my auto policy exceeded my health insurance deductible. This was the most significant lesson I learned from my accident; in an age where high-deductible health insurance plans seem to be the norm instead of the exception, make sure your Med Pay coverage will help you meet that deductible. If you, like me, have a high-deductible health plan, resist the urge to cut corners to save a few dollars on your Med Pay coverage. It is not a huge expense to raise that from $2,000 to $5,000, but, I assure you, paying a few extra dollars a month for higher Med Pay coverage is worth every extra dollar you spend if you are in an accident during which someone gets hurt.
- LIABILITY LIMITS
What if the other person in the accident had been the one to go to the hospital in an ambulance with broken bones instead of me? My liability would have had to pay for her property ($50,000) and her medical expenses (already more than $60,000 for me, and still rising). Limits of $100,000/$300,000/$50,000 would have been completely exhausted in about two weeks and I would have had to cover the rest personally through whatever means I had available, even future paychecks if necessary. What most people don’t understand is that the limits of your policy don’t determine what you are liable for, only what insurance will pay out toward your liability. The state of NC only requires us to have $30,000/$60,000 in liability coverage on our auto policy, and that is devastatingly inadequate.
Meeting those state minimum requirements leaves all of your assets exposed and you could find yourself in serious financial trouble. A court can go after your future wages, children’s college funds, your savings, even your investment portfolio, leaving all those years of putting away for retirement evaporated because you saved $10 per month to have lower liability limits.
At the end of the day, we are all required to have auto insurance to drive a vehicle, and I’ve never been in a serious accident before this one. At fifty-something years old, I thought the current limits of my policy were adequate, but we don’t get to schedule bad luck for convenience and budgets. After this experience, I immediately raised my med pay coverage to $5,000. I don’t plan to be in another accident, but if I am, I want to know that my minimum out-of-pocket for injuries in my vehicle will be covered by my combined auto and health insurance, and that my auto policy will pay the bulk of that health-insurance deductible.
During my years of working in insurance, I have never had someone complain after a claim to say they had too much insurance coverage. Usually clients get upset that something is not covered even if that coverage was offered and declined. But for just the cost of a nice lunch each month, you too can have the peace of mind knowing that you’ll have everything covered if you should ever need it.
These are the thoughts I had after my experience, and I hope you will find them useful. Talk to your agent today to make sure you have the right coverage limits.
Most of us love summer. But long, hot days, coupled with heavy summer storms, hurricanes and periodic heat waves, all tax the power grid and can lead to inevitable blackouts. Now that summer’s officially on its way, what can you as a homeowner do to protect what matters to you most?
As with any disaster, building an emergency kit and having a family communications plan in place are two vital items to consider. And following your local utility energy company conservation measures helps utility companies avoid imposing rolling brownouts in the first place.
In addition, here’s a checklist that can help you protect your family before, during and after a blackout.
- Keep bottled water handy. You can also fill plastic containers with water and place in your freezer.
- Keep your car gassed up.
- Make sure you would know how to manually release your garage door if the garage door opener was not operating.
- Check with your pharmacist regarding any medications you are currently taking, especially if they need to be refrigerated.
- Use flashlights whenever possible; leave the candles for another time.
- Disconnect appliances, computers and other electrical equipment. A power surge or spike may damage these items.
- Run your generator outdoors, never inside the house as carbon monoxide will build in closed spaces.
- Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed whenever possible. Keep the cold air in.
- Keep a portable radio handy. Listen to local news whenever possible for updates.
- Keep cool whenever possible, paying special attention to the elderly and younger children. Towels soaked in water may provide some relief, applying to the back of the neck.
- Take the stairs, even if you think the power is back on.
- Follow the advice of emergency personnel, whenever possible.
- Unless forced to evacuate, try to keep traveling to a minimum. (Traffic lights may stop working during blackouts.)
- Use 911 for emergency situations only.
- After the blackout, throw away any food that has been exposed to temperatures over 40 degrees fahrenheit for a prolonged period of time. When in doubt, throw it out!
Learn more about family communications plans and disaster preparedness, in this article, from ready.gov.
Depending on where you live, hail can be either a sporadic, mildly irritating event or a potentially devastating, destructive threat.
According to the Wikipedia article, hail is a “form of solid precipitation”. It sounds harmless enough, yet hail storms cause damages to crops and property each year. Per NOAA, “small hail, up to about the size of a pea, can wipe out a field of ripening grain or tear a vegetable garden to shreds. Large hail, the size of a tennis ball or larger, can fall at speeds faster than 100 miles per hour and can batter rooftops, shatter windows and “total” automobiles.” Hail causes an average $1 billion a year in damages in the U.S., according to the National Storm Damage Center [https://stormdamagecenter.org/hail-storm.php]
In North America, hail is most common in the area where Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming meet, known as “Hail Alley”. Hail in this region occurs between the months of March and October during the afternoon and evening hours, with the bulk of the occurrences from May through September. Update: just this past Sunday, The Weather Channel reported severe damage from hails storms in the south. Watch the video.
Identify hail damage after a storm
If a storm hits your home, follow these guidelines:
- Look for dents, cracks or breaks on windows, screens, doors and even patio furniture.
- Examine outdoor appliances like air conditioning units, and look for dents or excessive water intake.
- Check trees and shrubs; if they’re stripped of foliage, there’s a possibility your roof might be damaged, says the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
- Inspect your vehicle(s) for cracked or broken glass, or dents caused by hail
- Be safe when checking roof damage; consider using binoculars, or call a professional
If you find damage, take action
Take pictures before you make any temporary repairs. And, cover any damaged areas to prevent additional negative effects from the storm– board up any broken windows or cover a hole in a roof with a tarp.
Regardless of the level of damage, you’ll also want to promptly report it to your insurance company, which may have recommendations on finding a contractor to repair damage. (Remember to save all the receipts; you’ll likely need them for your insurance claim.)
Download our full checklist so you can be prepared when the skies get dark and grey, for how to look for hail damage.