Floods in the Fargo-Moorhead area the past two years have prompted more people to buy flood insurance. But next year, thousands more homeowners will be forced to buy flood insurance when FEMA changes its floodplain maps.
When the Red River reached record levels last year, many residents got a better idea of how vulnerable the community is to flooding.
If a levee had failed, floodwaters would have spread through the streets many blocks beyond the river.
Steve Lindaas and Alison Wallace live a mile from the river, but they realized that would not protect them if levees failed.
"Last year there was some street flooding in places pretty far from the river," said Wallace. "There was some just a few blocks from here, where you never would have guessed would have had street flooding."
So this year when it appeared another significant flood was on the way, Wallace says the couple decided to spend about $300 for a flood insurance policy -- and peace of mind.
"We've got a kid in college, and thought this was a little bit of money to ensure that tuition money keeps in the bank for him," said Wallace. "So if something happens, we don't have to replace furnaces and washers and dryers and water heaters, and all those things that would take money."
Wallace says they bought their policy voluntarily. FEMA says about 400 Moorhead residents made that choice.
Another 260 homeowners can be required to have flood insurance, because FEMA says their homes are in a high-risk flood zone. Next year more residents will be forced to buy flood insurance, when FEMA updates the high-risk flood map.
Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman says the new map will add about 115 homes to the high-risk zone, what FEMA calls the 100-year floodplain. But he says given recent events, people shouldn't need a push from FEMA to buy flood insurance.
"Anybody that's in the 100-year floodplain, or even close to (it), really should strongly consider flood insurance," said Zimmerman. "Obviously, the 100-year flood stage doesn't mean a whole lot around here anymore. So if you're even close, we highly recommend that people get flood insurance."
If a home is in the FEMA high-risk flood zone, banks can require homeowners to buy flood insurance.
“It's a matter of recognizing that we're at risk, and accepting that we're at risk.”Fargo Senior Engineer April Walker
In North Dakota, fewer than 4,000 residents had flood coverage before last year's disaster. That has more than tripled to more than 13,000. In Minnesota, nearly 11,000 have insurance, up from about 9,000.
Across the Red River in Fargo, those numbers will more than double next year when new FEMA floodplain maps take effect. The new map will add about 7,500 properties to the high-risk flood zone.
Fargo Senior Engineer April Walker says the city has only seen preliminary map revisions; the new map should be released for review this spring. But she says the city doesn't dispute the changes.
"We, for the most part, agree those are flood-prone areas. And I think there was evidence of that with last year's flood event," said Walker. "So there's not a lot of argument left in it. It's just a matter of recognizing that we're at risk, and accepting that we're at risk."
It will be at least a year before the new flood map takes effect in Fargo. But Walker says it will be important for affected residents to buy flood insurance before the change happens.
If they buy flood insurance now, they get a low risk rate. After the map changes, the home is considered high-risk and the cost of the policy could triple.
"If you are a loyal customer and have had flood insurance in effect when they change that map, you can get a discount," said Walker. "So if you think you're going to be on the new map, it's probably to your benefit to get flood insurance before it takes effect."
Fargo residents also get a 15 percent discount because the city meets certain FEMA criteria. Moorhead residents will also be eligible for a 15 percent discount starting in May.
If a flood diversion is built around Fargo-Moorhead, the flood maps will be redrawn again and many homes would be taken out of the flood plain.
But that project is at least a decade away, and local officials point out that's plenty of time for another major flood to hit the community.