Floridians are often drawn to a vision of paradise: watching dolphins swim off their back deck, boating on the Intracoastal, walking a few blocks to the beach. But the water that makes the state so appealing also is a source of great risk.
Living here requires balancing that risk. Below are five simple questions and answers to help you prepare — even outside of hurricane season.
I am looking to buy or rent a home. How can I make a good decision?
Do a lot of research.
Look at flood zone and evacuation maps, available on most county websites. You also can search for your flood zone through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some private tools try to estimate a property’s flood risk. One prominent option is Flood Factor from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on flood research. The program is included in listings on the home-buying website Realtor.com.
Florida’s Know Your Zone is helpful for identifying your evacuation zone, which is based on potential storm surge.
But don’t just search online. Ask other people whether a street floods and where.
“Typically, neighbors like to talk,” said Cyndee Haydon, a Pinellas Realtor and vice chairperson for the National Association of Realtors’ Insurance Committee.
Find out how high your property’s first finished floor is above sea level. Talk to insurance agents to determine your premium today and how it might rise over time.
Ultimately, risk is personal. Whether you take a chance on a property will depend on how much money you have and how long you plan to stay.
How will I know if a house I’m trying to buy has flooded before?
Florida does not require sellers to disclose past flooding. It’s one of 21 states with an F rating from the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council for such policies, joining only much smaller Alabama on the Gulf Coast.
Bills that would have instituted a mandate did not get a hearing by the Legislature in 2020. A Florida Realtors association disclosure form includes a section on flooding but filling it out is voluntary.
Details about previous flood insurance claims on a property are kept secret by federal privacy law.
Pinellas holds training sessions for Realtors on flood information and publishes a brochure to teach buyers about Special Flood Hazard Areas.
Homes can change hands several times over a few decades, though, and Haydon said the most recent owner may not know about an old flood.
“Good people do the right thing,” she said. Realtors are bound by a code of ethics, which does not mention flooding or water damage but instructs people to avoid hiding “pertinent facts relating to the property.” It also says Realtors cannot be expected to find and disclose problems outside their expertise.
Haydon said she wants “people to buy with eyes wide open.”
I live in a flood zone. What should I do?
If you do not have flood insurance, consider getting it. You’ll need money to rebuild unless you keep enough in savings to cover all your losses.
If you do have flood insurance, read your policy and figure out whether it covers all you’d want. You need to add contents coverage separately. For homes, the National Flood Insurance Program covers a maximum of $250,000 in building damages and $100,000 for contents. Coverage amounts are higher for commercial properties.
The government recently unveiled a new system for insurance pricing, called Risk Rating 2.0, which could lead to higher premiums for many in Florida. To figure out exactly how you’re affected, talk to an insurance agent.
Renters can take out flood insurance policies to protect their possessions. Renters’ insurance alone usually does not cover flood damage, according to FEMA.
If your insurance is already locked down, there’s still more you can do. Survey your house. Make a plan for when a storm approaches. What would you want to take with you? Important paperwork? Photo albums? Electronics? Have a system for packing up quickly.
Small steps can improve flood safety. Is your roof well-sealed? Could you move your air-conditioning unit higher?
Homeowners can engineer their yards to absorb stormwater or direct it away from their houses. Swales, berms and permeable garden beds, like mulch instead of concrete, can limit flooding.
Before a storm bears down, take pictures and videos of all your rooms. Having proof of what it looked like will help you file an insurance claim. Imagine having to catalog most of what you owned after it’s all been destroyed.
Don’t get complacent if you live near a flood zone but not in one. Michael Grimm, FEMA’s assistant administrator for risk management, puts it this way:
“Where it can rain, it can flood.”
How will I know if a storm is going to flood my house?
You can’t be sure. A hurricane’s track could change. An inch or 2 of water — especially in a smaller storm — is the difference between a near miss and thousands of dollars in damage.
Pay attention to surge warnings, not just wind speed. The National Hurricane Center forecasts how high waters could rise.
Study flood-plain maps. Understand how the water will move. Think about the elevation of the ground around you. Does the street slope toward your front door? Is your neighborhood lower than its surroundings? Over time, you should develop some idea of how water collects around your home, even in heavy rainstorms.
Can homeowners eliminate flood risk on their own?
Not really. Homes are connected to a grid — electricity, water, sewage — that makes adapting to climate change more than just a personal problem.
Pricey options could help, including lifting houses, for which FEMA offers limited grants.
Some residents are already tackling such drastic projects.
In Shore Acres, one of St. Petersburg’s most flood-prone neighborhoods, Chris and Brittany Carswell decided in 2020 to elevate their house on a canal. A contractor lifted the structure using jacks, then built a garage underneath.
The house was a little over 2,000 square feet, Chris Carswell said, and elevating cost about $200,000. That was a baseline; extra measures like putting walls around the ground level or finishing the space that was previously a garage can add tens of thousands of dollars. Inflated construction costs would further increase the bill for a similar project today.
Carswell, 42, knows not everyone can afford such an overhaul. But he fears floods will get worse, and he wonders whether their home is a window into the Shore Acres of the future. Several couples have asked for their contractor’s name.
“It’s literally in your backyard. You see it every single day, the water,” he said. “You’re ground zero.”
The project let them add finished square footage — a benefit with two growing children — and should help them save on flood insurance.
Seventeen steps now lead to their front door off Huntington Circle NE. They installed an elevator to the garage. From the landing, they look out on neighboring roofs.
When Carswell and his wife moved a decade ago, he watched for especially high tides that lapped over the lowest step off his neighbor’s dock. He still looks to that spot today.
More and more, he notices, the step is underwater.
GO DEEPER TO UNDERSTAND FLOODING
Here are some additional resources for you to learn more about flood risk, insurance and preparedness in your county or beyond.
WHEN A STORM IS COMING
INSURANCE AND LONG-TERM READINESS
REPORTERS: Zachary T. Sampson, Langston Taylor
EDITORS: Amy Hollyfield, Mark Katches
PHOTOGRAPHERS: Douglas R. Clifford, Luis Santana, Martha Asencio-Rhine, Dirk Shadd
PHOTO EDITOR: Chris Urso
GRAPHICS: Langston Taylor, Paul Alexander and Ron Borresen
PRINT DESIGN: Paul Alexander
DIGITAL DESIGN: Martin Frobisher
COPY EDITOR: Tim Tierney
ENGAGEMENT: Meaghan Habuda, Carly Thompson and Joshua Gillin
VIDEO: Jennifer Glenfield
CONSULTANTS: Carolyn Fox, Maria Carrillo, Ashley Dye and Adam Playford