A Flood of Concerns
Kentucky residents who are struggling to rebuild after devastating flooding face huge financial obstacles because almost nobody in the state has flood insurance.
The area hit by the flash floods that began in late July and killed at least 37 people has a large concentration of low-income families.
Only 17,250 property owners in Kentucky have federal flood insurance, government records show. The public program provides the vast majority of flood policies in the United States.
A recent report from Federal Emergency Management Agency found that Kentucky has a low rate of flood coverage and ranks just behind New Mexico in the percentage of residences with flood insurance.
In the 10 counties in eastern Kentucky that sustained significant flood damage in recent weeks, just 2,485 property owners have coverage through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, an E&E News analysis of federal records shows. That’s about 2.3 percent of households in the 10-county area.
Many Kentucky residents decline to buy flood insurance because they think the premiums are too costly and the risk of being flooded is too remote, said Britney Hargrove, a spokesperson for Knott County, which sustained extensive flood damage.
“A lot of families don’t have that extra money to pay for something that may or may not happen,” Hargrove said.
Flood insurance costs an average of about $1,000 a year through FEMA. The median household income in Knott County is $32,500 — half the nationwide median of $65,000.
Flood coverage is sold separately from homeowners’ insurance policies and is considered vital to disaster recovery because policyholders can collect up to $250,000 in claims payments. Federal disaster aid, on the other hand, typically pays residents just a few thousand dollars and covers only temporary home repairs.
The absence of flood insurance and the minimal disaster payments from FEMA are forcing residents to rely on private charity, Hargrove said.
“That is going to be what makes or breaks the county — the foundations and the amount of donations that come in,” Hargrove said.
Another factor discouraging the purchase of flood coverage is that FEMA flood maps have vastly underestimated the flood risk in eastern Kentucky, according to a groundbreaking analysis in 2020 by the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
Nationwide, the foundation found, there are 14.6 million properties that face a significant flood risk — far more than the 8.6 million properties that FEMA says are in flood zones.
The FEMA maps were especially inaccurate in eastern Kentucky, the foundation found.