‘It was like a river’: Flood insurance is often beyond the reach of Bay Area residents who need it most

“That will be the first thing we work on,” she said.

The recent storms that hit California have especially hit places like Rollingwood and other low-income communities where few homeowners have flood insurance.

And while homeowners insurance may cover property damage due to rain and wind, it rarely covers flood damage.

Despite a neutral rating on FEMA’s maps, flood risk in the Rollingwood neighborhood is rated “severe” on the online Risk Factor tool, which projects floodwaters will reach most homes at least once in the next 30 years.

Laura Cisneros, a neighbor who has lived along the Creek Rim for nearly two decades, says floodwaters have surrounded her home almost on a yearly basis — including twice during recent storms.

“This is really scary for me because if it continues to rain any longer, we may have to evacuate our house,” she said, in the middle of a three-week flooding earlier this month.

Residents of unincorporated areas often feel stuck because they “lack the infrastructure to handle these storms,” ​​says Kathleen Schaefer, who oversaw the creation of FEMA’s insurance maps for California five years ago.

But with atmospheric river storms expected to dump increasingly more rain — making the Bay Area 37% wetter by the end of the century, according to some projections — Schaefer is vehemently urging people in places like Rollingwood to buy flood insurance.

The problem, she adds, is that they are often too expensive for those most vulnerable to flooding.

Carla and Denise Vilalta stand in front of their home in the unincorporated Rollingwood neighborhood outside of San Pablo, on Jan. 6, 2023. The couple say floodwaters have already surrounded their home at least twice since they moved in about two years ago, and they are now trying to find reasonable flood insurance. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

“California residents are already overburdened with their housing,” said Schaefer, who is pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering at the University of California, Davis.

The price of an insurance policy can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars annually, and depends on the elevation of the home, the year it was built, and how close it is to a body of water.

According to Shafer, a policy in the Rollingwood neighborhood can cost in the range of $700 to $800 annually.

Of the more than 60,000 people who live in the 94,806 ZIP Code — which includes Rollingwood and several other unincorporated communities, as well as parts of San Pablo and Richmond — only about 300 homeowners have flood insurance policies. And although many residents are renters, the small number of policyholders here means that thousands of homeowners are largely unprotected from flood damage.

People of color make up over 80% of the population in this zip code, and the median household income is about $74,000.

As climate-fueled storms intensify, says Schaefer, flood insurance needs to be affordable and accessible to lower-income communities.

“One solution could be a community insurance program, which would be cheaper and provide more protection,” said Schaefer, who is working on a pilot of this model.

For a program like this to succeed, she says, a government agency—whether a county or a local severe assessment area—must be directly involved. Homeowners will pay the agency a reduced premium and receive a fixed amount of payment when a triggering event, such as a flood, occurs.

“It would be predetermined, and … the homeowner would know to go in the storm, that if something were to happen, they would at least have the money to have a safe and warm place,” she said.

The front gate opens onto a flooded street
Floodwaters from Rheem Creek crept ominously near Carla and Dennis Vilalta’s front door on New Year’s Eve. (Courtesy of Carla Villalta)

A higher, or more traditional, level of coverage would also be available under the proposed Schaefer plan, but it would be capped at 1% of household income.

“In the case of San Pablo, for example, the insurance would be kind of anything you can buy for $520 a year,” she said. In contrast, some San Pablo residents pay three times that amount, according to Policygenius.

Shafer says she would also like to see insurance companies, local governments and community members work together to implement long-term solutions, such as building additional filter ponds, adding more storm drains, and restoring severely eroded streams.

Some local flood mitigation projects in the area are already underway, including a $1.6 million state-funded initiative to widen flood drains and restore parts of Rheem Creek by deepening the channel and planting native trees along its edges to trap sediment.

“Right now, the creek floods a few times a year, and hopefully after this project, it will only flood every five to 10 years,” said Anne Bremmers, program director at the Watershed Project, one of the nonprofit groups leading the initiative.

But Cisneros, who said she can’t afford flood insurance, finds it hard to believe the project will be effective enough to protect her family.

“They told us many times [they’d fix the flooding issues]She added, “If flooding continues in the creek, you may consider moving to higher ground.

“I want to see when they finish it. Otherwise, I won’t believe it.”

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