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FEMA officials warn property owners to purchase flood insurance

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GRAND FORKS - FEMA can't emphasize it enough: You probably should buy a flood insurance policy.

Even if you live in the comfy confines of the brand-new, $417-million flood control project recently completed throughout Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

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Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency made another tour of North Dakota this week, just like they did two weeks ago, touting flood insurance.

"And we'll probably be back," said Jerry DeFelice, an "external affairs specialist" out of FEMA's Denver office.

He was here for the Flood of 1997 and doesn't want to see it happen again, he said.

About 20 people showed up Thursday night at City Hall for an explanation by FEMA people of the National Flood Insurance Program. Meetings have been held in Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and Devils Lake. That was no surprise, since National Weather Service experts have been saying there is a very good chance of major flooding up and down the Red River Valley this spring.

What was a surprise, though, at Thursday's meeting in Grand Forks, was news of a rumor running around the state, seen on local television news in Grand Forks, that insurance agents have been told to quit selling the federally backed flood insurance as of midnight because Congress hasn't re-upped spending for the program.

Rumor false

The question came up at Thursday's meeting, flummoxing FEMA officials there. They got right on it and made some calls.

Some North Dakota insurance agents, apparently, have been telling local reporters that their companies told them to stop writing flood insurance policies as of midnight because Congress hadn't funded it, DeFelice said.

He checked with North Dakota emergency management officials and found out the rumor "is all over the place."

DeFelice checked with FEMA officials in Denver. It appears the NFIP funding is part of an omnibus spending bill that has been approved by the House but not yet by the Senate.

"This has happened before," DeFelice said. His best estimate is that this is a technical glitch in what typically is routine congressional reauthorization of longstanding programs, such as NFIP, DeFelice said.

He's confident flood insurance policies will continue to be written, DeFelice said.

A North Dakota Senate aide agreed with DeFelice.

"We are expecting the omnibus bill to pass on Monday," said Brendan Timpe, an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., late Thursday. Like the FEMA flood officials, Timpe said he doubted there was any real threat to the NDIP.

The risks

One of the big misconceptions about flood insurance, said Dave Kyner, a flood insurance specialist with FEMA, is that "people don't need flood insurance. That FEMA, if there is a disaster, will come in and take care of us."

"That's partially true," Kyner said. That is, if the president declares the disaster an official one." And then, aside from not-cheap Small Business Administration loans, the only help that might come through FEMA is individual assistance, that tops out at $30,000, he said.

"And $30,000 isn't much when you take into account that your home is your biggest investment," Kyner said.

Don't think only of Noah's ark when you think flooding, Kyner said. It's much more common than that.

"There's a 26 percent greater chance your property will be damaged by a flood than by a fire," Kyner said. And remember, he said, regular homeowner's insurance does not cover flood damage.

Don't worry only about the Red River rising, he said.

His first deployment with FEMA was to West Fargo, N.D., in 2000, the summer that 17 inches of rain fell on parts of eastern North Dakota, causing historic local flooding.

"A lot of people had flood insurance in West Fargo but dropped it because of the Sheyenne River Diversion Project," Kyner said. "They figured they would be safe. But they weren't safe from the 17 inches of rain that came down. My point is it floods everywhere. A 60-foot dike can't protect you if it rains 17 inches on the wrong side of the dike."

What it costs

Flood insurance comes through regular insurance agents and companies but is based on federally backed NFIP, so there are no competitive differences between insurance agents or companies over flood insurance, Kyner said.

There is some urgency, Kyner said, because there's a 30-day window after buying a flood insurance policy before it goes into effect.

Normally, flooding in the Red River Valley can begin the first week in April, he said.

So, do the math.

"I would encourage you not to try to time this event," Kyner said.

Grand Forks city officials said that pretty much anyone living within the protection of the new flood protection system in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks is in the "X zone," in which the "preferred risk," or best deal, in flood insurance can be bought.

It means that for no more than $388, a homeowner can buy a year's worth of flood insurance covering as much as $250,000 in the value of a home structure and as much as $100,000 in value of contents.

Sharon Solberg, who lives in a townhouse at 20th Street and 27th Avenue South, came to the meeting to help her decide whether to buy flood insurance. She hasn't bought it for years, despite going through the Flood of 1997 on the north side of the city.

Solberg has checked with her insurance agent, and a flood policy would cost her about $290 for a year's coverage for her building and contents.

"I really just want to be able to sleep at night," she said.

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