By Mark Jewell, AP Personal Finance Writer
Hurricane Irene is providing a painful reminder that the vast majority of homeowners insurance policies do not cover damage from flooding.
That's a difficult reality for those who spent Monday cleaning up flooded basements, cursing failed sump pumps, or fixing other water damage.
Whether water damage is covered depends on how it came about. Standard homeowners policies cover structural and water damage when wind or a falling tree knocks a hole in a roof, or breaks a window, allowing rain to fall inside. But there's generally no coverage for the home itself, or for personal belongings, when damage results from rising water. That includes water that seeps up from saturated ground through a basement floor, and homes near beaches flooded by storm surges.
When Irene hit the East Coast over the weekend, flood damage was greater than wind damage in most regions. Inland areas were among those hardest hit by rains that produced flash floods.
Yet many homeowners will be stuck paying all repair costs out-of-pocket, after claims adjusters conclude upon inspection that flooding was to blame, and therefore damages aren't covered.
That experience could cause many to reconsider whether to buy a separate flood insurance policy in time for the next storm.
"Nothing sells flood insurance like a flood," said Robert Hartwig, president of the industry's Insurance Information Institute. "It's always the case that we see a surge in flood insurance sales in the wake of a flood."
A poll this year by the Institute found that just 14% of homeowners had a flood insurance policy. The lowest coverage was in a region hit by Irene: the Northeast, with 5%. The highest coverage rate was in the South, with 19%.
Coverage remains low despite court cases consistently upholding the industry's denial of homeowners insurance claims involving damage from flooding, rather than wind, Hartwig said. A series of lawsuits followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.