Duluth shows the risk of betting against floods

In a state where homeowners have long been averse to buying flood insurance, the risks of going without have never been starker.

Twelve hours before floodwater began spewing out of the heat ducts in her Duluth home, Perry Vitullo suggested to her husband that the time had come to buy flood insurance.

"I think it's too late," he told her.

Almost every spring, Vitullo watched the St. Louis River spill into her neighbors' yards on Water Street. But she didn't worry, because the water never reached her property.

"I gambled and I lost," she said.

The torrential rains that overwhelmed the Duluth area last week created a tsunami of mud and water that breached Vitullo's property, causing up to $100,000 in damage to her home. Citywide, the destruction is estimated at more than $100 million.

In a state where homeowners have long been averse to buying flood insurance, the risks of going without have never been starker.

In Duluth, just 111 property owners had flood insurance when the storm hit, a fraction of the city's 25,485 homes, according to state records. Statewide, about 12,000 property owners have flood insurance, one of the lowest participation rates in the country.

Intense thunderstorms, such as the one that dumped 10.5 inches of rain on Vitullo's house and broke records across northeastern Minnesota, are becoming much more frequent and spawning more destructive floods. As a result, the traditional ways of measuring flood risk -- which revolve around spring flooding forecasts and the proximity of homes to streams and other bodies of water -- are no longer sufficient.

"There is very little dispute among climate scientists that we're seeing a higher frequency of these extreme rainfall events, but not necessarily in the same parts of the state," said climatologist Mark Seeley, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "They move around."

Virtually no city is safe from catastrophic flooding, forecasters say, a realization that undoubtedly comes too late for many residents of water-logged areas.

Bar high for FEMA aid

Historically, floods have not been a major problem in most of Minnesota. Since 1978, the federal government has paid a total of $138 million in flood insurance claims to Minnesota residents, or 0.3 percent of the $41.2 billion paid out nationwide.

Many homeowners wrongly believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will cover the costs of repairing and rebuilding after floods. But individual grants are limited to $31,400, and most homeowners only get about $3,000, said John Moore, who oversees Minnesota's FEMA assistance program. Moreover, more than 500 homes in an area have to suffer significant damage before anyone can qualify for the aid.

"It's very challenging to get that," Moore said.

Unlike other natural disasters, including tornadoes, flood damage is not covered by a standard homeowner's policy. Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to deal with the unavailability of private insurance and the increasing cost to taxpayers of providing relief to flood victims, especially along the Mississippi River.

Minnesota residents have largely shunned the insurance, which is not required unless a home is in a high-risk flood zone and carries a federally regulated mortgage. In a 2008 report, Minnesota ranked 49th among the 50 states for flood insurance coverage in high-risk areas, with 4,709 of 111,000 structures enrolled. Only Utah ranked lower.

One of the obstacles to higher participation? Limited coverage for flood-damaged basements, a typical complaint in Minnesota. Lenders also have failed to consistently enforce mandatory requirements in Minnesota and other states. A 2006 study showed that 25 percent of high-risk properties don't carry the required flood insurance.

In Minnesota, the only thing that has galvanized the market has been dire warnings of spring floods. The number of new policies, for instance, spiked just before the Red River floods of 1979 and 1997, state records show. Sales also surged in 2011 when forecasters predicted major floods after a wet fall and unusually snowy winter.

But as soon as the fears of spring flooding went away, so did many of the policyholders. As of this June, 12,109 flood insurance policies were in effect in Minnesota, down from 19,704 in November, a drop of almost 40 percent. No other state saw a double-digit decline.

"People are inclined to buy policies when they know spring floods could be a problem," said Ceil Strauss, the state's flood insurance coordinator. "But they forget that a lot of our flooding in this state comes from storms you can't predict more than a couple of days out."

And those kinds of storms are hitting much more frequently.

In the southern half of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, residents can now expect two storms each year that bring at least 2 inches of rain, twice the number of such intense storms during the previous century, Seeley said. Northern Minnesota has seen a similar increase, he said.

Only two storms have dumped more than 6 inches of rain on Duluth in the past century.

In St. Louis County, where Duluth is located, the government has paid a total of 106 flood insurance claims totaling $261,721 since 1978, much less than dozens of other Minnesota counties.

Vitullo said she never worried about flooding, even though she lives in a high-risk zone where a policy would have cost about $2,000 a year. The average flood insurance policy in Minnesota cost $725 last year.

"I'm not faulting myself for not buying flood insurance," Vitullo said. "Yeah, I wish I had done it. But I thought the odds were on my side. ... This water -- it's just not sensible. It is not normal. It is not common. And it never happened before."

Vitullo and her husband don't know whether they will rebuild. Their garage was knocked off its foundation by a wall of mud, and water poured in through the living-room windows. The first floor was inundated with at least 9 inches of water.

"The inside of our house is caked with mud," said Vitullo, 69, who recently spent $40,000 remodeling the house. "It's amazing."

Vitullo's neighbor, Kay Palkie, is one of the few Duluth residents with flood insurance. She's grateful for the coverage, and she's also glad she spent the money to raise her house 7 feet above ground level.

Palkie, 60, was forced from her house early Wednesday. She's staying with her son and daughter-in-law and isn't sure when she can return home or what she will find when she does. Even if all of her losses are covered, Palkie wonders why she ever decided to live on a peninsula along a major river.

"What the hell were we all thinking? I built my foolish little house on an active, moving river -- craziness," she said.

Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132

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