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Another lesson from Montecito — even in semi-arid Southern California, we need flood insurance

Another lesson from Montecito — even in semi-arid Southern California, we need flood insurance
Flood waters and mud pushed out the wall of a bedroom where a woman was reported missing by friends and family on Lilac Drive and Tollis Ave. in Montecito, Calif., on Jan. 11. The woman was later found to be safe. (Los Angeles Times)

We live in Southern California, a semi-arid desert ecosystem. Most of us are no more than beach-dweller wannabes who get close to water — the ocean, a river or a lake — by car or bike or bus. There is no possible way that we would need flood insurance, right?

Well, consider Montecito. In addition to the truly tragic loss of life there, more than 100 homes have been damaged or destroyed — inundated or broken apart or swept away — by the mudslides that followed the record-setting Thomas fire.

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You might suppose that insurance for fire loss would automatically cover the loss of those homes and their contents. You would suppose wrong. Mudslide usually is excluded from typical home insurance. Instead, it is covered by flood insurance. And it is a reasonable bet that few inland Montecitans have flood insurance. Why would they? They simply couldn't conceive of being flooded out of their "not on the beach" neighborhoods.

There is an old joke that California's four seasons are earthquake, fire, mudslide and drought. Montecito just learned the underlying truth of that crack. Wildfire incinerates the vegetation that holds the soil in steep canyons and on hillsides. Water plus soil minus vegetation causes mudslide. And because mudslide is soil carried by water, insurance views this as a flood event.

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But people who do not have a real fear of flood don't buy flood insurance. It's not great insurance anyway. Private insurance companies generally don't write it. Rather, you obtain flood insurance though the National Flood Insurance Program. The NFIP is a federal government program, and because it is under-funded it is a political football that is in constant peril of elimination by Congress.

This, in turn, puts pressure on the kind of coverage that's available. What's typical in private home insurance — such as compensation for the cost of living elsewhere when a home is being repaired or rebuilt — is often not part of flood insurance. And the high cost of NFIP coverage seems out of sync with the likelihood of loss.

But if you lose your home to flood, then flood insurance is your best hope of rebuilding, or even being able simply to pay off your mortgage and move.

What is left as an option for the mudslide victims if they are uninsured for flood? They could try to hold persons or agencies or governments responsible for faulty erosion or flood control efforts. Or perhaps they will win a legal argument that the destruction really does track back to the wildfire, and so should be covered by fire insurance. These would be difficult (although not impossible) claims to win, but when your only choice is a hard choice, you may take it.

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The rest of us need to do more than cluck with anxiety and sympathy. California is beset by wildfires, more and bigger all the time. And many of us are living downhill from some slope that if denuded sufficiently and rain-drenched sufficiently could bring mud to our doors. Time to consider flood insurance.

Kenneth S. Klein is a professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego, where he teaches, among other classes, a seminar "Law and Policy of Natural Disaster." He lost his own home to wildfire and counsels other fire survivors.

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