Many people are moving to Tampa Bay, and it’s easy to see why.
The region boasts world-class beaches, canal-front living and downtowns packed with restaurants and bars. But much of what makes Tampa Bay so appealing is also in danger.
All that water leaves residents tremendously vulnerable to flooding.
Living here requires balancing the risk. Below are some simple questions and answers to help you prepare — even outside of hurricane season.
I’d like to buy or rent a home. How do I assess flood risk?
Do your research.
Look at flood zone and evacuation maps, available on most county websites. You also can search for your flood zone via the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
There are private tools you can use to estimate a property’s flood risk. One option is riskfactor.com 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 website can help residents identify their evacuation zone 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. Get flood insurance, and talk to 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 I’m buying a house that 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 Alabama and Georgia in the Southeast.
Bills that would have instituted a mandate did not get a hearing from the Florida 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 risks and publishes a brochure to teach buyers about Special Flood Hazard Areas.
Homes can change hands several times, 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?
Get flood insurance. You’ll need money to rebuild unless you have enough money 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 U.S. 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.
After locking down your insurance, there’s still more to do. Survey your house and assess its vulnerabilities. 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.
Are your most precious files — property, medical or business records and family photos — backed up to a cloud storage service?
Small steps can improve flood safety. Is your roof well-sealed? Don’t delay repairs until hurricane season. Could you move your air-conditioning unit higher, away from flood waters?
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 that a storm could flood my house?
There’s no way to be sure. A hurricane’s track could change. An inch or two of water — especially in a smaller storm — is the difference between a near miss and thousands of dollars in damage. A tropical storm or even a bad summer thunderstorm could flood some places.
Pay attention to surge warnings, not just wind speed. The National Hurricane Center forecasts how high waters could rise.
Study flood-plain maps. They will help you to learn which parts of your city are most vulnerable. Storm surge is not the only risk. Rainfall alone can cause flash flooding.
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 of his neighbor’s dock. He still looks to that spot today.
More and more, he notices, the step is underwater.
• • •
2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
IT’S HURRICANE SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here’s how to get ready.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk