As flooding increases in the Delaware Valley, hundreds of thousands of at-risk homes are uninsured

Across the tri-state metro area, nearly 330,000 properties will likely flood by 2053 -- and very few of them have flood insurance.

Saturday, September 30, 2023
As flooding increases in the Delaware Valley, thousands of at-risk homes are uninsured
As flooding increases in the Delaware Valley, thousands of at-risk homes are uninsured

Flood water tore through Berks County this July, destroying dozens of homes in the span of a few hours. Heavy rains overflowed a creek and washed away a hill, creating mudslides and a clear path for water to rush into nearby homes.

"The water just started flowing through the house and the basement, it swept our vehicles away," said Muhlenberg Township resident Amy Beck. "We lost both of our cars. Part of our deck was ripped off and we had to run upstairs and call 911. They sent a helicopter to come get us out."

Beck and her neighbors watched as flood water wreaked havoc on their homes. Some, like Beck, had to evacuate for their safety. When they returned, the damage was devastating.

"We had water up to the ceiling in the basement," Beck said. "We had fish swimming in our basement, from the creek. Once it went down, we had dead fish all over our lawn."

Beck, along with many of her neighbors, did not have flood insurance because she didn't live in a federally designated flood zone.

Across Berks County, about 26,000 properties have an 80% or higher chance of flooding in the next 30 years, according to a 6abc analysis of flood modeling data from research group First Street Foundation. That's 17% of properties in the county that are likely to flood over the life of a typical mortgage.

READ | Climate change-induced flood risk is increasing in the United States. But most don't have insurance

But according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the county has relatively moderate flood risk. Most of the properties that will likely flood by 2053 sit outside of the areas where FEMA deems the risk high enough to require homeowners to buy flood insurance.

That means 96% of these at-risk properties in Berks County -- and 93% of the nearly 330,000 properties with substantial risk across the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area -- don't have insurance through FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the 6abc analysis found. Since FEMA manages nearly all flood insurance policies in the country, these properties likely don't have flood insurance at all.

FEMA's flood zones don't include these risky properties because they are based on past flood events, rather than future predictions that account for climate change, experts say, and because they don't factor in certain types of flooding that are becoming increasingly common. That means the gap between flood risk and insurance coverage will only grow as climate change brings heavier and more frequent rains.

For Beck, the flooding caused harm beyond its immediate destruction: She and her husband both missed weeks of work, they had no running water in their home for almost a month and no hot water for nearly two months. And their property was no longer the dream home it had been when they bought it five years ago.

"We fell in love as soon as we pulled into the driveway and saw the beautiful property, and knew that this is where we wanted to be," Beck said. "It doesn't look like that anymore."

New risks, old flood zones

Down the street from Beck, Keri Cox has lived in her home for 18 years and Cindy Schwambach has lived in hers for 20. Before July, neither of them had ever seen their house flood.

"It was pretty rough, and it was scary," Cox said of the flood this summer. She recalled how her kids ran inside and stuffed blankets under the front door, while she sat on the porch with a piece of plywood, trying to keep the water from coming inside as it threatened to wash her away.

Water rushed through Keri Cox's property on July 9, quickly turning destructive and dangerous.
Keri Cox

Water broke through the window to Cox's basement, flooding it and ruining her brand-new furnace and air conditioning unit. It took down part of her fence, hollowed out her porch and turned her driveway into a sinkhole. Cox said she's received estimates of about $40,000 to repair the damage, which has put a financial burden on her family.

"When a disaster happens like this, you don't expect, you know, the amount of damage and the amount of money you have to actually put out," Cox said.

Schwambach approximated a similar price tag for her home repairs.

"We lost our heater, we lost our hot water heater, we lost a family room full of furniture, two bedrooms, the laundry room and our bathroom," she said. "The sewer started backing up, that shot out of the toilet."

The flood filled Cindy Schwambach's basement with stormwater and sewage, creating tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Cindy Schwambach

So far, Schwambach has paid to have her basement cleaned and her heater and hot water heater replaced. She said she has just saved enough money to get a new washer and dryer. While her homeowners insurance did cover the sewage backup, the $10,000 she received for that claim was less than half of the cost to clean the basement, she said.

Standard homeowners insurance does not cover flooding, and neither Cox nor Schwambach were encouraged or required to buy flood insurance, because their properties are not in a flood zone.

Flood zones, officially called Special Flood Hazard Areas, are places that FEMA estimates have a 1% chance of flooding each year. But these calculations are based on historical flood data, which are losing relevance as climate change creates unprecedented conditions.

To keep up with evolving risk, FEMA's maps need to be forward-looking, said Penn State University Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Fowler, who has studied flood risk for decades.

"If you are always looking backwards, and what we're seeing is accelerating change and more heavy precipitation amounts, your maps are inaccurate to reflect what's happening with climate change," Fowler said.

FEMA does update its maps based on flood events, but it does not factor in rapidly changing weather patterns before they cause flooding. It also doesn't include all sources of flooding.

Carolyn Kousky is Associate Vice President for Economics and Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, where she researches climate risk management and disaster insurance. She said the FEMA maps don't capture a cause of flooding that climate change has made ubiquitous: heavy rainfall that overwhelms stormwater infrastructure, like what happened in Berks County.

"This often happens in areas that are not in the FEMA high-risk Special Flood Hazard Area," Kousky said. "So this is occurring in communities that are not told of the risk, aren't aware of the risks, aren't required to purchase flood insurance."

In a statement to 6abc, a FEMA spokesperson wrote that the agency's flood maps "largely show flood risk from riverine and coastal flooding, including the impact of rainfall on waterways," but that they "do not capture flooding from stormwater caused by local drainage issues" and that flooding outside of designated zones is not unusual.

"Every flood is unique and we know that flooding doesn't stop at a line on a map so we encourage all residents to prepare for some form of flood risk," FEMA's statement read.

Back when Cox and Schwambach purchased their homes, both properties actually were in FEMA flood zones. But about 10 years ago the maps changed, and the new flood zones did not include their homes.

"I was told -- and I was misinformed -- 'You know, you don't need flood insurance, you're not in a flood zone anymore,'" Cox said, remembering the call she got from her mortgage company. "They never told me, 'Hey, you should keep it just in case.' Or, you know, 'Yeah, this place still floods.' They don't really give you the information that you need until something drastic like this actually really happens."

Kousky agreed that homeowners aren't given critical information on their properties' changing flood risk.

"If you're in an area of escalating risk, that's going to keep growing and the insurance costs are going to keep growing," she said. "That's important material information that households need before making those important decisions like where to live, where to raise their family, where to invest their money."

Benjamin Collier is an Associate Professor of Risk Management and Insurance at Temple University's Fox School of Business. He said many people don't understand that there is a lot of flood risk -- and increasing risk -- outside of FEMA flood zones.

"For people in those low- to medium-risk areas, that message has been confused," Collier said, adding that if households know their risk, they can better prepare for potential flooding. "Having money set aside for these events is something that people are also going to have to think about -- trying to hold a little more in their accounts knowing that flooding is going to happen in the future," he said.

People can also make their homes more resilient by using flood-resistant materials in their basements, moving appliances to higher levels and even elevating their properties' structures out of the floodplain -- a costly but effective measure, Kousky said.

Ultimately, flood insurance is the best option, Collier and Kousky agreed. But convincing people to purchase insurance when they're not in a flood zone can be challenging.

"We don't like to buy things we hope to never use," Kousky said. "We don't like to think about bad things happening when the sun is shining, and everything is fine."

Disaster insurance also costs more than non-disaster insurance, Kousky added, and many Americans can't afford the additional expense. Flood insurance prices have increased in recent years, with the average annual premium among NFIP policies jumping 22% from FY 2021 to FY 2022.

After paying high premiums for a decade and never needing to file a claim, Cox and Schwambach both said they were relieved to remove flood insurance from their bills. But since they dropped their insurance, their flood risk has only grown.

"The past few years it's been a lot more rain, and a lot more rain in a little bit of time," Cox said, noting that her yard has flooded multiple times recently. "Over the years, it has gotten a lot worse."

With the new understanding of their flood risk, Cox and Schwambach are now both considering selling their properties. But they worry it will be difficult to find buyers.

"Nobody's going to want to live somewhere like that, nobody's going to want the problems that are occurring," Cox said. "And if they seem to be just getting worse, why would somebody want to?"

Closing gaps in flood risk and recovery

As climate change drives up flood risk across the country, it is also widening inequities.

Low-income communities and communities of color tend to be more vulnerable to natural disasters like intense flooding, Kousky said.

"They might have fewer investments in risk reduction ahead of time, their homes might not be built to as high standards or safe," she explained.

These communities also tend to live in areas with greater flood risk, according to the 6abc analysis of First Street Foundation data. U.S. counties with a median household income below $35,000 averaged 171.6 high-risk properties per 100,000 properties. Those with a median household income above $75,000 had just three-quarters of that rate, with 129 out of every 100,000 properties having substantial flood risk.

Existing inequities only worsen following a flood, Kousky added, as lower income households have less access to the resources needed for evacuation and repairs. While flood victims with more disposable income rebuild and get back on their feet, those without immediately available funds must turn to costly coping mechanisms that can put them deep in debt.

After their home and cars were destroyed by the flood, Beck said she and her husband are barely getting by financially.

"We're going day by day right now, because that's all we can do," she said.

Flood insurance can help with evacuation and repair costs, but only 5% of at-risk households in low-income counties are insured against floods, compared to 23% of households with substantial risk in high-income counties, the 6abc analysis found.

"Those who are least able to afford disaster insurance, including flood insurance, are often the ones who need it the most," Kousky said, "because they don't have other sources of funding or financing to cover the huge range of cost that disasters can impose on households."

To bridge disaster disparities, experts say, vulnerable communities need high-quality, proactive messaging about how to protect their homes from flooding, as well as financial resources and technical assistance to help them act on that information. This could include vouchers to help low-income households pay for traditional flood insurance or access to innovative types of insurance that provide broader coverage.

While the federal government does offer disaster loans, low-income households are often denied because they don't meet basic debt-to-income ratio or credit score requirements, Kousky added. And even if they do qualify for loans, taking on additional debt can be burdensome.

"The federal grants -- that kind of disaster relief dollars from FEMA -- when they come, are very small," Kousky said, and "other sources of funding can take a really long time."

Beck, Cox and Schwambach waited months for FEMA disaster aid after Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro requested federal individual and public assistance for Berks County and hazard mitigation for the entire state.

"It's been over two months, you know, what are people supposed to do?" Beck asked. "Wintertime is coming, we have no heat because we don't have, you know, an extra $10,000 to replace a heater. So what do we do?"

Flood waters filled Amy Beck's basement to the brim, leaving behind ruined belongings and debris.
Amy Beck

On Tuesday, Beck and her neighbors learned that relief from FEMA would not be coming at all. After assessing the damages, FEMA determined the flood was not severe enough to necessitate federal aid, denying it a major disaster declaration and leaving the relief efforts to state and local agencies.

At the state level, Governor Shapiro's administration has supported Berks County by clearing roads and bridges, partnering with the county to set up a multi-agency resource center and working with local school districts to make sure they can educate students safely, according to a statement by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).

"We'll continue to work alongside our local and federal partners to help Berks County recover from the flooding, and to support Pennsylvanians across the state who were impacted by disasters this year," the PEMA statement read.

Beck has seen local government officials come through her neighborhood and even visit her property, but she said that attention hasn't been followed by financial support.

"We've had the governor, the senator here, every township commissioner has been here, PennDOT," Beck said. "But there's been no funding as far as any help with like replacing anything. The only thing we were given was a $100 Walmart gift card. That's all the help we've had from anybody."

Schwambach said she doesn't know where else to turn for help. "I was just waiting to see if FEMA would come through," she said.

As disaster aid dries up, communities must become resilient

Many people expect FEMA and other government agencies to come to their rescue when disaster strikes, but this type of aid is often very limited. Especially as climate change brings more frequent and severe natural disasters, from storms to wildfires, an already insufficient pool of funds is running dry, experts say.

"A lot of our programs were designed and operating in a time when we thought the climate was more stable, and now we're in a world of increasing risk," Kousky said.

As new, extreme climate patterns lock into place, these programs are overwhelmed with disasters happening across the country, Fowler said. FEMA's disaster aid reserve has always been low, she added, but when many communities need help all at once, it can't keep up with the demand.

Faced with the insufficiency of FEMA's disaster relief funds, Cox now wants to know, "What can be done, and who can help?"

Climate risk experts say the answer is in sustainable, preventative efforts to make communities more resilient to natural disasters. Today more than ever before, federal dollars are flowing into community-level investments in risk reduction, Kousky said.

Climate-conscious approaches to community resilience include building green infrastructure and improving levees to help absorb stormwater runoff and mitigate flood risk, experts say. Reducing development in urban environments like Philadelphia, where pavement and other hard surfaces create more runoff, can also curb increasing flood risk.

"We need to be doing more proactive work," Kousky said. "So thinking about where that flood risk is going to be increasing in the future and making sure we're making our development and investment decisions based on that, so that we're not building and putting people in areas that we know are going to be at very high risk in the future."

But as researchers and public officials are planning for the future, Cox, Schwambach and Beck are still struggling to deal with the aftermath of one flood while fearing another.

"Now we're just waiting, you know, for the next one," Beck said. "Every single time it rains, we're nervous."

'Weathering Tomorrow' is a new ABC OTV series of data-driven localized reports about how climate change impacts people's quality of life, their property and their family's health, now and over the next 30 years. Every month this year and next, the data journalism team will provide custom, extremely local data that reveals measures like the increased frequency of flooding, the number of dangerously hot days, or the risk of major wildfires across our communities and down to the neighborhood level. See more at