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Valley Flooding

Residences along Mill Road flood after week four of constant rain and snowmelt that caused continued flooding in Ten Mile Creek in this June 2011 photo.

As Montana's snowpack begins to melt and area rivers and streams begin to rise, it's important to remember that flooding is not covered by homeowners insurance.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), floods are the nation’s most common and costly natural disaster and cause millions of dollars in damage every year. In the Helena area, flooding is often an issue in the springtime.

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Melanie Reynolds

Melanie Reynolds

As Melanie Reynolds, Lewis and Clark County health officer, recently put it in a March 21 column in the Independent Record, “We live in a giant, geological bowl. As temperatures warm, melting mountain snowpack flows downhill into the valley and, all too often, into people’s basements and yards.”

For some, flood insurance is a required condition of their home loan if their home is in a high-risk flood area. But flood insurance isn’t normally required just because you own property. According to a 2016 consumer insurance survey by the Insurance Information Institute, 43 percent of homeowners incorrectly believe that damage from heavy rain flooding is covered under their standard insurance policy.

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Helena flood update

Homeowners continue to pump floodwater on the corner of Kerr Drive and Forestvale Road during flooding in the Helena Valley in this June 2011 IR file photo.

But just because your house is outside of the floodplain, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe either. Floods can happen anywhere and, according to FEMA, more than 20 percent of flood claims come from properties outside the high-risk flood zone.

Jeanne Massey, sales executive at PayneWest Insurance in Helena, also shared that flood zones are a moving target and frequently get re-mapped.

“Just because your house was outside the flood zone a decade ago doesn’t mean it is today," Massey said. 

Massey explained that one example of this is the area between Mill Road and Sierra Road that used to be outside the flood zone. But runoff in the spring of 2011 left some residents in the area just feet away from substantial amounts of flood water.

“Water naturally migrates,” said Massey.

And while the idea of another annual insurance premium isn’t exciting for most, even a minimal amount of flooding can have disastrous financial consequences if you aren’t covered. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, just one inch of water can cause more than $20,000 in damage.

Massey recommends flood insurance to any residents situated in a flood zone or those bordering one. And if you’re considering flood insurance, “act quick,” warned Massey. She explained that most policies don’t take effect until 30 days after signing. So it’s a good idea to consider purchasing coverage before the spring runoff gets underway.

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Helena Valley Flooding

This East Helena home fell victim to flood waters after an ice jam caused Prickly Pear Creek to leave its banks in this March 2014 photo.

Most flood insurance policies can include two types of coverage: building coverage and contents coverage. Building coverage includes the physical structure of your home, like foundation walls, built-in appliances, electrical and plumbing systems and furnaces/water heaters. Contents coverage insures all of the belongings inside the house, like clothing, furniture and appliances.

While the cost of flood insurance varies by individual policy based on many factors, including flood risk and building elevation, it is best to contact your local insurance agent to learn more and get an accurate quote for you home. Flood insurance is available in most parts of Montana through the FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which serves as a backstop for flood disasters.

Montana also has more private insurance options than ever. In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 94, which opened the marketplace to consumers by allowing a multi-peril insurance product that protects against floods, landslides and earthquakes. These programs are often more affordable and can provide better insurance protection to consumers.

According to Reese Martin, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Lewis and Clark County, some parts of Montana received snowfall 150-160 percent above normal levels in 2018. This makes this year’s spring runoff and flood potential a larger concern for many.

Regardless of whether a person has flood insurance or not, however, Martin urges everyone in the Helena area to adequately prepare themselves if they are concerned about flooding.

“County resources can be limited,” stressed Martin. “People shouldn’t just expect that the city will supply them with sandbags. It’s always best to take the initiative and make preparations on your own to combat flooding.”

Despite some remaining snow, Montana is well into the spring season. 

“The time to purchase flood insurance for 2018 is now,” said Matt Rosendale, Montana commissioner of securities and insurance in a January 2018 press release. “Waiting until you see the water rushing is too late to be thinking about flood insurance.”

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