Nobody's building an ark yet, but 20,000 people in South King County may be displaced if the Green River floods this winter, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wrote the state's property insurers last Friday. And what people don't know may hurt them: “Many insurance consumers mistakenly believe that homeowners insurance covers flooding,” Kreidler said. “Recognizing this, the 2009 Legislature passed a law requiring insurers to annually remind their homeowners insurance customers that their policy doesn’t cover flooding, and to provide information on the National Flood Insurance Program.” However, he noted, "flood insurance doesn’t become effective until 30 days after a policy is written, and the flood season begins on Nov. 1. ... I ask that you take extraordinary measures to contact all of your customers in the Green River floodplain and suggest that, if they haven’t done so already, they contact the National Flood Insurance Program immediately to purchase flood insurance.”
Getting flood insurance through the private sector may be just about impossible. Craig Welch reported in Tuesday's Seattle Times about a Seattle insurance insurance broker who received notice a couple of weeks ago, “on the same day that Gov. Chris Gregoire urged homeowners and businesses along the Green River to buy flood insurance," that his broker at Lloyd's of London was concerned about Green River flooding. "Within a week," the Times story said, "the worldwide market for private flood insurance in and around Kent, Auburn and Tukwila had dried up. ... By advertising the risks of flooding to protect the safety of area residents, public officials effectively helped kill one of the insurance markets they encouraged citizens to turn to.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Howard Hanson Dam, doesn't worry — or claims not to worry — that the dam will fail, but in order to reduce pressure on the structure, the Corps won't hold back as much water this winter as it usually would. This means that under flood conditions, the Green River may overtop its levees and inundate a good deal of its historic floodplain, which has been heavily developed since the dam started controlling the river on Christmas 1961.
The City of Auburn's website advises “renters, homeowners, and businesses ... to review their insurance policies to ensure they are covered for flooding, landslides, sinkholes, and other issues commonly associated with significant rain events.” Lots of luck.
And Auburn isn't alone. “Kent, Renton, Auburn, Tukwila and King County are urging thousands of residents and businesses to buy flood insurance and prepare for possible evacuation this winter,” Keith Ervin reported in the Seattle Times. “County Executive Kurt Triplett said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has suggested that local authorities plan not just for a possible overtopping of the levees but also for the more serious possibility they will be breached. In that event, he said, 'You're talking about water that's rocketing down the valley at the highest levels you've ever seen.'”
County government is among the many property owners checking their life preservers. Last month, the County Council was briefed on plans to shift the operation of major county facilities from the heart of the flood plain, “including the potential need to relocate animals from the Animal Shelter, inmates from the Maleng Regional Justice Center, and move the County’s Elections headquarters," according to a presentation by Assistant County Executive Pam Bissonette.
She presented projected high-water marks for several of those facilities:
- Aukeen District Court — up to a foot
- Animal Care and Control Shelter in Kent — up to 3 feet
- Maleng Regional Justice Center — up to 4 feet
- Black River Building — up to 7 feet
- Earlington Center (King County Elections) — up to 10 feet.
The Times quoted Bissonette saying FEMA has estimated the potential property damages to homes and businesses in the floodplain at $2 billion to $3 billion.
Inevitably, the situation has been politicized. “We are facing an economic and environmental disaster that could result in billions of dollars in losses,” King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison said in a press release. “This is not a pastoral region where flooding means cows can’t graze for a few weeks. This flooding could shut down the second largest warehouse and distribution center on the West Coast.
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