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Cautious Fargo homeowners snatch up flood insurance policies

Dawn Lovett displays a copy of her flood insurance policy in front of her north Fargo home. Lovett purchased the policy in anticipation of potential spring flooding. (David Samson/The Forum)

FARGO - Mountains of snow, saturated soil and a changing flood plain map have Fargo homeowners making a run on flood insurance policies, local agents say.

"It's been pretty crazy as far as that (goes)," said Ken Kraft, an American Family Insurance agent in south Fargo. "It's been the No. 1 thing we've been consulting people about."

State Farm agent Jill Henning said she's also seen an increase in the number of people stopping by or calling about flood insurance, "mainly due to the amount of snowfall we've had this year."

"One thing we always tell people is it's good to be as proactive as possible," she said.

Dawn Lovett, a customer service representative at a Farmers Union Insurance office in south Fargo, also said flood insurance inquiries are up.

Lovett bought flood coverage this year for her home in north Fargo next to the flood-prone El Zagal Golf Course.

"I'm just doing it to protect myself, because you never know," she said. "We've already gotten so much snow, and who knows how much more we're going to get."

The policies have a 30-day waiting period before they take effect, so homeowners shouldn't wait too long, Kraft said.

"You don't want to be doing this March 15 or April 15," he said. "You want to get it rolling before it thaws."

Flood chance high

Kraft said there was a similar run on flood insurance during the winter of 1996-97, which dumped a record 117 inches of snow on Fargo-Moorhead and produced a spring flood that pushed the Red River to 39.57 feet, almost 10 feet above major flood stage.

Ground conditions that winter were similar to this season, with soils saturated from fall rains. Last fall was the wettest on record in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D.

The National Weather Service, in its spring flood outlook released last week, forecast a more than

90 percent chance of major flooding on the Red River at Fargo by April 30.

Fargo received 33.5 inches of snowfall in December, setting a record for most snowfall in a single month.

So far, the city has received 6.5 inches in January, bringing this winter's total to 42.5 inches - only 4.5 inches below the long-term average for the entire winter.

On average, Fargo receives 9.4 inches of snowfall in January, 6 inches in February, 7.4 inches in March and 3.2 inches in April, according to the weather service.

However, deep snow cover and saturated ground don't guarantee a major flood, the weather service says. Other factors include spring rains, frost depth, river ice conditions and the freeze-melt cycle.

For example, the winter of 1993-94 dumped 89.1 inches of snow in Fargo. But because of ideal spring melting conditions, the Red River crested at 26.7 feet, more than 3 feet below major flood stage, the weather service said.

John Wheeler, chief meteorologist at WDAY TV, said the presence of the La Nina weather phenomenon suggests a greater-than-average chance of above-normal moisture in late winter and spring. The snow cover in some southern areas of the Red River Valley contains 4 to 5 inches of water, which also raises the potential for a major flood, he said.

"A couple of pieces of the puzzle for a bad flood have come into place, but we're a long way from saying we're going to have another flood of 1997," he said.

The major flood stage of 30 feet doesn't threaten any Fargo homes, and the city is much better prepared for a flood than it was in 1997, Wheeler noted.

The weather service's flood outlook forecasts a

10 percent chance the river will reach 38.7 feet, which would still be almost a foot lower than in 1997.

Cost of coverage

Most homeowners and tenants whose property is located in low- to moderate-flood-risk areas can buy a preferred risk policy through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Lovett paid $307 for her policy, which provides $125,000 worth of building coverage and $50,000 worth of content coverage.

A policy with $250,000 of building coverage and $100,000 of content coverage carries an annual premium of $388, according to the NFIP Web site.

Henning said many people don't buy flood insurance because they think it's going to be overly expensive or that the government will step in if there is a flood.

"But really, that federal assistance is only available if the president does declare it a disaster," she said.

Fargo City Engineer Mark Bittner said one common frustration with federal flood insurance is that it doesn't cover basement contents except for utilities such as the water heater and furnace.

Map changing

While the potential for spring flooding is the main concern of most homeowners inquiring about flood insurance, Kraft said many also are asking whether they should buy it now to get grandfathered in at a lower premium rate before the new 100-year flood plain map is released.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is revising the map for Fargo-Moorhead.

According to a preliminary version of the map obtained by The Forum last summer, roughly 3,800 structures in Fargo and Moorhead could be added to the flood plain and therefore be required to carry high-risk flood insurance.

The revised map is expected to be published this summer, followed by a 90-day comment period, Bittner said. FEMA is expected to make the map official - and start requiring flood insurance for those brought into the 100-year flood plain - about a year later, Bittner said.

"If people are in a position where it looks like their property is going to get mapped into the flood plain, then it probably makes some sense for them to buy flood insurance at the standard rate," Bittner said.

Bittner said the city is lining up dirt supplies in anticipation of having to build a temporary dike on Second Street North between the Red River and City Hall - a familiar routine in recent years.

"Unfortunately, it's become normal," he said.