Hundreds of Maine households have dropped their flood insurance policies in recent years, boosting the risk of unrecoverable losses the next time severe flooding hits the state.

As of June 30, there were only 8,380 active flood insurance policies in Maine under the National Flood Insurance Program, down 9 percent from five years earlier, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That’s despite more than 31,000 Maine homes being in designated federal flood hazard areas.

The decrease in flood-insured homes may be due in part to revisions to the federal flood insurance program in 2015, which increased the cost of flood insurance for many homeowners.

In some Down East Maine counties, fewer than 3 percent of homes within federal flood hazard areas have flood insurance, according to FEMA. Although the administration does not track policies issued by private insurers, they represent only a small segment of the market. Most homeowners get their flood insurance through the federally run National Flood Insurance Program.

RISING PREMIUMS, ADDED SURCHARGE

Homeowner participation in that program is down across the country, said Massachusetts-based flood expert Joe Rossi of Rogers & Gray Insurance. The two main reasons are that the cost of premiums has increased, and in 2014 a surcharge was added for homes that are not the policyholder’s primary residence, he said.

Still, flood insurance remains the most cost-effective way to make a community whole again after a major flood, Rossi said, and a major flood can happen anywhere.

“The problem is that we are all at risk,” he said.

In the midst of this year’s deadly and devastating hurricane season, state Superintendent of Insurance Eric Cioppa is urging Maine homeowners to purchase flood insurance if they don’t already have it.

“Many people assume incorrectly that their basic homeowners insurance policy will cover damage from flooding,” Cioppa said. “Flood coverage must be purchased separately. Talk with your agent about whether you need flood insurance.”

Lenders in Maine generally require mortgaged homes in flood hazard zones to have flood insurance, but it’s an optional purchase for all others. Rossi said 99 percent of homeowners who are required by their mortgage lender to have flood insurance do have it, but that a large number of homeowners look for ways to avoid the requirement.

“Those in high hazard zones try to pay off mortgages, buy private, or do what they can to not have to purchase flood insurance even if there is a risk,” he said.

The average annual cost of flood insurance premiums in Maine varies by county, ranging from a low of $851 in Somerset County to a high of $1,377 in Kennebec County, according to National Flood Insurance Program data. The statewide average premium in Maine is $1,043.

That might seem expensive, but FEMA notes that the damage to a home from just 1 inch of flooding can cost more than $20,000 to repair.

The odds of a major hurricane hitting Maine or its neighboring states are quite small. The last hurricane to reach the shores of New England was Bob in 1991, and the last major Category 3 storm to strike was Carol, on Sept. 1, 1954. The winds in that storm were actually stronger than those experienced in Texas when Harvey made its first landfall.

RAIN CAUSES MOST MAINE FLOODING

But hurricanes are not the primary source of flooding in Maine. Most flooding comes from severe rainstorms that cause streams, rivers and drainage areas to spill over. One such event was the Patriot’s Day Storm of April 2007, which dropped up to 8.5 inches of rain on much of southern Maine over four days.

No deaths were reported as a result of that storm, but it caused an estimated $47.8 million in property damage, according to the National Weather Service. A year later, Maine suffered another $27.9 million in property damage from storm-related flooding, the weather service said. Since then, annual flood damage in Maine hasn’t exceeded $3.5 million.

More than one-third of Maine homes in federal flood hazard areas are in York and Cumberland counties. York County has by far the most flood insurance under the national program – 3,559 policies with $909.1 million of insured property value as of June 30. Cumberland County has 1,416 policies covering $373.5 million of insured property value.

York-based insurance agent Wendy Tapley of the Tapley Insurance Agency still remembers when FEMA set up operations at the York Beach Fire Station for several weeks after the Mother’s Day Storm of May 2006, which dropped as much as 16 inches of rain on areas of southern Maine over a single week.

Aside from the Patriot’s Day Storm a year later, there haven’t been any major flooding incidents in York over the past decade, Tapley said. However, no one knows when the next major flood-producing storm will hit.

“We recommend flood insurance daily, and do sell a fair amount of it,” she said. “We consider flood insurance to be an important part of our customer’s insurance program, especially with our proximity to the coast.”

INLAND AREAS HAVE LOWER RISK

Maine’s inland areas are far less vulnerable to catastrophic flooding than areas on or near the coast. Lewiston-based insurance agent Richard Albert of The Champoux Insurance Group said he can’t recall a single time during his more than 40 years in the business when a client has filed a flood insurance claim.

Even so, Albert said he recommends flood insurance to all of his clients, and he makes sure they understand the risks of not having it.

“They need to know what they’re not covered for,” he said.

Rossi said there is a dramatic difference in the ability of flood-stricken homeowners with and without flood insurance to recover their losses.

“In the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) flood of 2016, the average disaster assistance payout was about $6,000, while the average flood insurance payout was about $80,000,” he said. “Disaster assistance is not intended to make you whole.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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Twitter: @jcraiganderson

Correction: This story was updated at 1:18 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2017 to reflect that premium increases to the National Flood Insurance Program in 2015 did not involve changes to federal flood hazard maps.