This epidemic isn’t reserved for coastal areas—floods can happen anywhere. But large-scale protective solutions are in the works, and there’s plenty you can do to help keep yourself safe in the meantime.
On July 30, 2016, rain poured down on Ellicott City, Md.—as many as 8 inches in just three hours. It turned the town’s historic Main Street into a barreling river that swept away cars, leaving them stacked atop each other. It smashed through storefronts. It destroyed homes. It opened gaping holes in the earth. It claimed two lives. Experts called it a 1,000-year flood, and when it was over, residents started to rebuild. But they didn’t have a millennium to do it; another 1,000-year flood hit just two years later, on Memorial Day weekend, 2018. Once again, a massive deluge turned Main Street into a river of destruction. The grieving and rebuilding process started all over again.
The Big Picture
In the world of natural disasters, flooding stands alone. It’s the most common natural disaster in America, and no place is immune from its wrath; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recorded flooding in all 50 states and 98 percent of all U.S. counties. Floods are also brutally destructive, causing an average of about 90 fatalities and $8 billion in damages every year, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). That doesn’t all happen as a result of infamous, headline-grabbing hurricanes. In fact, catastrophic disasters are just one piece of the puzzle. “When rain falls faster than the ground can absorb it, the result is a flood,” says Kate Abshire, National Flash Flood Services Lead at the NWS. “And it can happen even in an area you might not think it would.” For example, you would expect that high tides and winds could cause flooding along a coastline. But, says Abshire, the risk also extends to urban areas (where rains can overwhelm drainage systems); mountainous areas (where melting snow can result in overflowing rivers); and southwestern deserts (where monsoon rains can fill riverbeds). Even the street outside your home can be at risk. That sewer drain? If it gets backed up with leaves and a storm hits, floodwaters could result—and end up in your basement.
Percentage of U.S. counties impacted by a flood event since 1996. Source: Fema
1 Hour
How long it can take for a 6-inch deep creek in the mountains to swell to a 10-foot deep raging river.

Here’s What to Do If a Flood Hits Your Home.

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The Cost To You
A flooded basement isn’t just a headache—it can be expensive. The damage and loss from just one inch of water in an average one-story home can total more than $26,000, according to FEMA; with two feet of water, the cost soars to more than $85,000. And floods aren’t covered under most homeowners insurance policies. That’s where the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) comes in. The U.S. government created the NFIP back in 1968 specifically to help cover losses from flooding. This financial lifeline—which paid out almost $9 billion in claims in 2017 alone—comes with one important caveat: It usually takes 30 days to go into effect, so you don’t want to wait until a storm is approaching to purchase a policy. (Get a quote on flood insurance now through the GEICO Insurance Agency.) Flood insurance may actually be required by your lender if you live in an area at a high risk for floods. (Input your address here and see if you do.) Risky areas are more common than you may think; one study found that 41 million people live on “100-year” floodplains—areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. (A “1,000-year” flood means there’s a 0.1 percent chance.) Those may seem like long odds, but try telling that to the residents of Ellicott City. Flood insurance can be a smart move for everyone, since floods can happen anywhere, and without warning. In fact, more than 25 percent of the NFIP’s flood insurance claims are for structures outside of high-risk zones. “Floods don’t discriminate,” says Abshire. What’s being done to help protect America from this epidemic? And what can you do now to help protect yourself? The answer to both questions: Quite a bit.
The potential cost of damage from just one inch of water in your home.
$ Billion
The average annual cost of damage from flooding in America. Source: Noaa
Percentage of the NFIP’s flood insurance claims that are for structures outside of high-risk flood zones.
% Percentage of the NFIP’s flood insurance claims that are for structures outside of high-risk flood zones.


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    True to their name, these types of floods happen on the coast and next to a sea, ocean or other large body of water. They happen as a result of severe weather—say, a hurricane—when high winds and low atmospheric pressure combine to create a “storm surge” and push water onto the land.


    When heavy rains pour down into rivers and creeks, overflowing banks result in fluvial floods. Other causes of rising water and overflowing stream banks might include dam failures, heavy snowmelt or ice jams.


    Floods don’t require a nearby ocean, river or lake. If heavy rains overwhelm a city’s drainage system, for example, urban flooding is the result. Pluvial floods can also occur when a hillside can’t absorb rainfall, which may happen shortly after forest fires. Floods that occur very rapidly are known as flash floods.


In October 2012, a hurricane named Sandy moved up the eastern seaboard, wreaking havoc in 24 states and causing an estimated $70 billion worth of damage, according to FEMA. But it was the “storm surge”—a mix of high winds and low atmospheric pressure—that pushed massive amounts of water into low-lying neighborhoods all over the greater New York City area. It flooded streets, subways, businesses, homes and apartment buildings. More than six years later, the region hasn’t fully recovered. While Sandy was disastrous, it was also a wakeup call to the Northeast region, much as Hurricane Katrina was for the Gulf Coast. What if this happened again in a city with so many people and so much infrastructure? The area had to be better prepared. The U.S. government went looking for ideas. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a competition called “Rebuild by Design,” with the goal of finding innovative ways to increase flood resilience through regionally scalable but locally contextual solutions. The incentive: up to $1 billion in government assistance. They didn’t have to look far. Just off the tip of Manhattan, the abandoned former military base of Governor’s Island was already being reimagined as public parkland that could withstand the effects of rising seas. Parts of the island had been elevated up to 16 feet using landfill, and that early work paid off, minimizing the damage from Sandy. Subsequent changes have added even more defenses, like rocks that can dissipate the power of waves, and tall hills strategically arranged to sap the strength of storms. It’s no coincidence that the designers behind this project were Dutch; the Netherlands has long been at the forefront of flood protection. It’s an expertise born of necessity. Since much of their country lies below sea level, the Dutch had come to accept the inevitability of regular floods and transformed their entire approach for handling them, moving from reactive rebuilding to proactive defense. Mammoth barriers and levees are only part of the answer. As on Governor’s Island, sections of the land itself have been re-engineered to help weaken and absorb overflowing water (and can be used for recreation when dry). The result? Since 1953, there hasn’t been a single fatality in the Netherlands due to flooding. All of this was good inspiration for HUD’s competition, which crowned seven winning projects and awarded them $930 million in government funding. Check out the winners in this slideshow:


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Hudson River Project

Riverside communities in New Jersey were especially hard hit by Sandy. Besides infrastructure, such as seawalls, this project includes landscaping solutions like berms that can double as parks, as well as features to slow down and store floodwater runoff.

The Big U

This project will protect 10 contiguous miles around the lower half of Manhattan. It includes unique features like deployable walls attached to the underside of an elevated highway, which can flip down to mitigate flooding (and will be decorated by neighborhood artists). There’s also a “Reverse Aquarium,” where visitors can get a close look at tidal variations and sea levels.

Hunts Point Lifelines

This single square mile of the South Bronx is a food hub for 22 million people in the northeastern U.S., with many produce, fish and meat markets and distribution centers. The project includes flood protection to keep this food dry, along with a recreational waterfront greenway.

New Meadowlands

This area of New Jersey plays host to two airports, power grids, and thousands of acres of rail yards. The project will create a flood-protected regional park, as well as new ways to connect the areas via bike lanes and options for bus and rail.

Resilient Bridgeport

By 2100, experts predict that over half of this low-lying Connecticut city could flood regularly. This project would elevate one of the streets, build a waterfront berm, establish offshore breakwaters and include a multi-use education and community center.

Living Breakwaters

The south shore of Staten Island, hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy, is very vulnerable to erosion. This project will build a “necklace” of offshore breakwaters to help combat that problem and revive important marine ecosystems.

Living With The Bay

The shore of Long Island’s Nassau County has been transformed by coastal waves and heavy development. This project will provide infrastructure to allow barrier islands to store and clean storm water, create marsh islands to reduce wave action, and transform low-lying rivers into green-blue corridors that store and filter water and provide public space.


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While large infrastructure projects will help prevent flooding in the future, some modifications to your basement and yard can go a long way toward helping protect your home now.


Install gutters and clean them regularly, as the damage from a clogged gutter can be severe. Use downspout extensions to channel water away from your home. Install window well covers; construct them with gravel bottoms, which encourages drainage.


Close up any foundation cracks with mortar and masonry caulk or hydraulic cement; seal basement walls with waterproofing compounds.

Modify The Landscaping

Talk with a landscape designer about constructing berms and barriers in your yard; these small slopes can help direct water away from your home.

Elevate In The Basement

Consult an electrician about raising basement circuitry up at least one foot above potential flood height. Consider raising or relocating your furnace or hot water heater, as well as your washer and dryer. If elevating isn’t an option, consider building a barrier wall around appliances, which could help protect them from serious damage.

Get A Pump

A sump pump helps propel groundwater away from your home. Opt for one with a battery backup system, in case the power goes out.

Keep Backups At Bay

Install inexpensive drain plugs in all basement floor drains, unless you expect flooding to exceed three inches (during severe flooding, drain plugs could cause ruptured pipes). Consider installing sewer backflow valves, which can help keep water from backing up through drains. This is a complex project and may not even be allowed in your area, so consult a plumber.

Check The Yard

Water can sweep away fuel tanks and air conditioners. Be sure that everything is securely anchored.



    Leave a comment

  1. Jerry says,

    Installing downspouts and gutters has little mitigating effect on torrential rain that last for many hours. Here in Southport NC, we had 32 inches of rain from Hurricane Florence. As a result of garage, workroom, and guest bedroom flooding, I had major drainage contracting done involving 6-inch French drains tied into all the downspouts, leading out beyond the house to a low-lying swale with a big popup drain, along with big driveway garage entrance drainage grates also tied into the big French drains. The contractor calculated that the area around the house would drain properly with monsoon level rainfall of more than 8 inches per hour, and for an unlimited amount of time. Hurricane level flooding rains can only be handled with additional drainage construction, not with gutters and downspouts. Even with 4 inch downspouts, no gutters on a long roof can drain the rain volume from torrential rains — most of the rain will spill off the roofs over the gutters. So the gutter/downspout advice is, in serious circumstances, a band aid on a deep wound……..

  2. Rich Langsford says,

    Internal flooding from plumbing or roof leaks, dead sump pump, etc., can also be an issue. Very inexpensive battery-powered moisture detectors are readily available online (check Amazon or Ebay). Set them on the floor near possible leak points and, like smoke detectors, they’ll start howling at the first indication of wetness to give early warning.

    • Tracy Boone says,

      This is really interesting. Thanks for the tips! Hadn’t thought of flooding beyond major weather events

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