Exactly what type of water damage is covered by ever-changing policies and practices can "breed endless confusion" to homeowners, says Bach. When setting up a new policy or going over an existing one, homeowners should interrogate their insurance agent to see what is covered if they're worried about the possibility of a flood or the limits of their coverage.
As Hoy observes, "People often have water backup added to the home policy because it's not that expensive to add it, then they think any kind of water damage is covered, including flood, which is surface water. If they only have water backup coverage, but not flood, and the water seeps into the house from the ground outside, there is no coverage."
What flood insurance doesn't cover. For starters: Your car, money hidden under the mattress, the hotel you may need to stay at while your house is repaired ... and, of course, you may find that plenty more isn't covered, especially if you have a house worth more than a quarter-million and contents worth more than $100,000, or if you practically live in the basement.
That said, Hoy says while the contents in the basement under a standard flood-insurance policy are not covered—goodbye, home theatre—if there are items in the basement that are used to service the home, your flood insurance policy would take care of those. Hoy cites such items as a furnace, well pump, water heater, water softener, washer, dryer and air-conditioning unit.
What if you have a house worth more than what the standard flood policy pays for? Or what if you want to insure that home theatre in case of a flood? You would have to purchase a supplemental flood insurance policy.
Who should be covered. Anyone living in a high-risk flood area. If you have a mortgage on a house or condo and you bought it through a federally regulated or insurance lender, you're required to buy a flood insurance policy. Still, if you're unsure or just want to see where your house stands when it comes to floods, FEMA has a flood risk profile at www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/. On the right side of the screen, you can type in your address and see if your home is a high-risk area.
Not that you should dismiss the idea of buying flood insurance if your home is in an area that isn't high-risk. Bach quotes an insurance colleague, who didn't want to be named, who told her, "Building in a 'flood zone' is a misnomer. Everyone is in a flood zone. Some are more risky than others."
Bach feels that everyone "who lives within a few miles of any body of water—ocean, sea, sound, inlet, lake or river—or in an area prone to mudslides should buy flood insurance, if they can afford it," she stresses.
Of course, if they were around today, the survivors of the 1913 flood might argue that anyone living near a body of water can't afford not to.
Geoff Williams is the author of Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever (Pegasus Books, 2013).