Floods continue to drench the Midwest.

The National Weather Service is reporting today that the cost of the floods' destruction is approaching hundreds of millions of dollars, and may eventually cause more harm than area flooding in 1993, which resulted in $20 billion in damages.

In addition to thousands of homes that are flooded, many levees and dams have either failed or are in danger of failing. The extreme weather has even forced major businesses such as Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), Deere & Co. (DE), and Mississippi riverboat casinos to temporarily suspend operations, according to the Wall Street Journal (NWS). 

On a positive note, organizations are stepping up to help, and you can, too.

The Indianapolis Star reports that Wal-Mart (WMT) will donate $500,000 to the American Red Cross and Salvation Army in five of the flooded states: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Charlotte, N.C. based Duke Energy has donated $80,000 to American Red Cross and is offering its customers a chance to take a workshop to train as Red Cross emergency relief worker. 

If you would also like to help the relief efforts by making a donation to the American Red Cross or The Salvation Army, you can make a donation online, or at a local chapter of the organizations. 

The bad news for the flood-soaked Midwest continues, as another round of violent rainstorms hit today, creating further havoc in towns like Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the Cedar River is reportedly cresting at an all-time high of 102 feet. Now officials are preparing to evacuate residents along the Cedar River, which threatens to breach a levee, according to the New York Times (NYT).

Earlier in the week, in Wisconsin, a piece of Lake Delton's shoreline broke and washed away several homes, leading to more evacuations, Reuters reports. (Wisconsin’s local Sauk Prarie Eagle reports today that the 267-acre lake drained from the dam’s leak. ) Whereas area homes and their contents may be beyond repair, the homeowners with insurance at least have a chance to get their lives back to normal more rapidly.

Few people are prepared for a natural disaster and/or even know how to. It is always better to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to insuring your home. So, what should those who live near highly floodable areas, such as riverbeds, do to protect themselves?

“The most important thing they can do is buy flood insurance,” says Barbara Lynch, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson, of homeowners who live in “high-risk” flood plains. Fortunately, there is a program that can help them do just that.

The National Flood Insurance Program offers coverage for sale to homeowners and businesses located along coasts, on islands, and along rivers. (Homeowners acquire an NFIP policy from their private insurer, although the policy is backed by the federal government, which regulates the overall policy rate and commission percentage, to prevent price gouging.) NFIP flood insurance will cover damage to mechanicals of the house – the furnace, washer/dryer and water heater, but not the exterior or the contents, says Lynch. For more complete coverage, you must buy a separate policy—called a policy rider—from your private insurer for the contents of your home.

The NFIP, founded in 1969, also regulates the zoning of the communities it covers: Including preventing homes from being built in floodplain areas most susceptible to flooding. According to Lynch, topographical floodplain maps stipulating low-lying areas are required in NFIP municipal offices. Flood insurance rate premiums are based on the floodplain zoning on these maps.

In areas that participate in the NFIP, if you have a federally backed mortgage, it is mandatory to purchase flood insurance; if you do not have a federally backed mortgage, you can go without flood insurance at your own risk. (And if the homeowner eventually pays off their government-backed mortgage, the homeowner can then decide if they’d like to drop insurance.)

You can ask an independent insurance agent for specifics about coverage but it is “widely available,” Lynch says. “It is very, very seldom that people want it and they can’t get it.” However, it is possible to have the insurance and not have the coverage (yet): There is a 30-day delay after purchase before the coverage starts. For that reason, FEMA and the NFIP both suggest people should promptly secure their policies, and since NFIP is government-backed, a homeowner will then be reimbursed for flood damages, whether it’s declared a natural disaster, state emergency or local problem.

This may sound like a tag line from a commercial, but the importance of being insured can not be overstated.

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