In 2009, Queensland had a dry summer. That October, dust storms stirred up hot soil and the city looked like a desert – but six months later, the place was unrecognizable. El Niño was dumping buckets of rain on Australia's northeast coast, and everything was underwater.
That happened half a decade ago on the other side of the world, but with El Niño, distance is no object. And the weather patterns emerging for 2016 are starting to look a lot like the ones we saw in 2009. For sea-facing states in the U.S. – especially Hawaii – the possibility of flooding is very real.
What happens during El Niño?
When trade winds in the Pacific slow down, ocean currents change direction. Australia's Pacific coast, normally warm and wet, is hammered first with drought, then floods. The jet streams circling the planet are shoved north, pushing arctic air out of the US, driving storms into California and trying to make Florida swim.
"Residents of the western states may remember the flooding that struck California during the strong 1997-98 El Niño,” said Jon Erdman at Weather.com. "In February 1998, a series of storms caused an estimated $550 million in damage and killed 17 people in California. A total of 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas.” Those damages are not to be underestimated: when businesses shut down due to flooding, one in four never get back up again.
In Hawaii, as in Australia, El Niño seesaws from drought to flood. This last summer, for example, over 65 percent of Hawaii was abnormally dry. Meanwhile, warmer-than-average waters bring more and stronger tropical storms. On a normal year, we see four or five storm systems in the Central Pacific. By September of this year, we’d already seen nine.
The combination of hurricane, drought and erosion is El Niño’s signature in Hawaii. If your business were to flood, would it sink or swim?
Do your business need flood insurance?
"The easy answer to that question?” said Arthur Murray at Business.com. "Yes, of course it does.”
If your business is located in a flood zone and you have a mortgage on the property, you're probably already required to have flood insurance. But if that's not the case, don't assume you're covered. "While damage caused by some types of natural events — such as lightning or wind — will usually be covered by commercial property insurance, you need a special policy if you want protection from flood damage,” said the Insurance Information Institute.
Be advised, too, that floods can and do affect properties that are not located in a flood zone. "Even in areas where the risk is lower, it's never zero,” Murray said. "People who live outside high-risk areas file a quarter of all flood insurance claims, according to the NFIP.”
What is the NFIP, and what should I know about it?
To get flood coverage, you have to apply through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Here in Hawaii, we’re the largest writer of flood insurance through NFIP, so we hold ourselves accountable to keep you informed on how the program works – especially as it’s undergone some changes in the last few years.
- What’s a flood, according to NFIP?
When two or more acres of normally dry land, spanning two or more properties (one of which belongs to the policyholder), are partially or completely (but not permanently) covered in water, that’s a flood.
- What can a flood be caused by?
NFIP stipulates that a flood can happen when inland or tidal waters overflow, when runoff from any source of surface water accumulates rapidly in an unusual way, or when a river of mud flows across normally-dry land. It also covers damages that occur when floodwater erosion causes land to collapse.
- What else should I know about NFIP coverage?
Two things. In order for your home to fit the definition of a primary residence, you have to live there for more than half of the policy term. Also, there’s a federally-mandated surcharge on all new and renewed policies: $25 for primary residences, $250 for all others.
Still have questions? Here's a summary of NFIP coverage from FEMA. If after evaluating your situation you believe there's any risk of flooding, follow your instinct and ask your FICOH independent agent to help you secure flood insurance protection.