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The Hidden Truth about Flood Risk in California

When most people think of California, they think of Hollywood, movie stars, professional sports, world-class shopping, and some of the best dining options in the world. While all those things are certainly important parts of The Golden State, it’s also worth pointing out that the nation’s third largest state has 840 miles of coastline. With a population density of approximately 254 resident per square mile, it’s safe to assume that there are a lot of people living along the Pacific Coast in California.

Since hurricanes in the Pacific Ocean are so rare, many homeowners in California may incorrectly assume that their homes are safe from flood risk. It’s important that those homeowners understand the hidden risk of flooding in California.

What is California’s Flood Risk?

According to a nation-wide report published by The First Street Foundation, there are presently 1.09 million homes at substantial risk of flooding in California. The foundation’s report also provides future projections which are even more alarming for California homeowners. The same report indicates that that 59,500 more homes will be at risk for substantial flooding within the next 30 years, bringing that number to 1.15 million.

While those numbers involve properties at substantial risk for flooding, there is another layer of data that homeowners should consider. The First Street Foundation reports that there will be 2,287,200 homes in California that will face any level of flood risk by the year 2050.

Another company that monitors flood risk for homeowners in every state called Risk Factor provides even more alarming information. Per Risk Factor’s report, there are currently 1,515,642 properties in California that have a greater than 26% chance of flooding over the next three decades. That number represents around 23% of the number of properties in California, meaning that nearly one out of every four homes in California are likely to flood at least once in the next 30 years.

What’s even more alarming is that there are homeowners in California who may not be completely aware of these risks. In most cases, when people buy a home, their mortgage lender will determine whether or not they need to obtain flood insurance on a subject property. These mortgage lenders and other real estate professionals typically consult FEMA’s report on Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA).

FEMA relies heavily on data from the last 100 years when determining a property’s risk for flooding. While past weather events are a great way to determine the likelihood of future, similar events, there are other factors that should be considered. Unfortunately, FEMA’s algorithms don’t use them as heavily as entities such as Risk Factor and The First Street Foundation.

A look at FEMA’s SFHA data for California paints a very different picture than the data provided by The First Street Foundation. FEMA currently reports that there are only 494,500 properties in California that are at substantial risk for flooding. That is 595,500 fewer homes than other entities report! The gap between FEMA’s numbers and those provided by The First Street Foundation only widens when looking at future projections. When looking at FEMA’s projections for 2050, the difference in the numbers grows to 655,400 homes.

Which California Cities Have the Most Flood Risk?

Obviously, California as a whole is at risk for flooding both in the present and the future. However, to better understand the risk levels for homeowners in California, it’s a good idea to look at localized data.

The city of Los Angeles presently has the largest total number of properties that are considered at risk, as The First Street Foundation reports that there are 132,046 properties at some level of risk for flooding. First Street predicts there will be an additional 3,469 properties at risk of flooding in Los Angeles by 2050. In a city as densely populated as California, it’s no surprise that there are so many properties that could be affected.

When considering the greatest proportion of properties at risk, Yuba City, California is at the top of the list. Remarkably, 100% of homes in Yuba City are currently at risk for flooding. There are only 19,714 properties in the city, and all of them are facing flood risk today. It is only expected that 19 homes will be built in Yuba City in the next 30 years, so that number is expected to increase to 19,193. Other cities in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys have similarly high risk levels. Currently, 68% of properties in Sacramento face flood risk, and that percentage is set to increase to 74% by 2050.

Finally, Wasco, California holds the distinction of being the city with the greatest relative growing risk. While Yuba City is one of the only cities in the report with every property being at risk for flooding, Wasco is one of the only cities that presently has 0% of homes at risk for flooding. However, there are several factors that will lead to 314 homes being at risk for flooding in the next three decades. That increase of 314% is one of the highest increases mentioned in The First Street Foundation’s report.

Why Is Flood Risk Increasing?

While California is widely known for being one of the most forward-thinking states regarding climate change control in the nation, there is no way for the state to combat the problem on their own. While policymakers are putting measures in place that will help minimize the state’s carbon footprint, California residents are still prone to experience the dangers of climate change.

For instance, Risk Factor reports that the Pacific Coast’s water surface temperatures increased by 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit in 2020. That temperature is expected to increase by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 15 years and by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 30 years.

Increased atmospheric temperatures which are exacerbated by climate change expedite the rate at which moisture is evaporated. When more water is present in the atmosphere, rainstorms are more intense. While the Pacific Coast is less likely to experience high tide flooding, the area is still prone to experience heavy storms which lead to flooding.

What Can Homeowners Do?

Are homeowners in California left without options? Absolutely not! One of the most responsible steps that homeowners can take is to obtain flood insurance on their property. Even if a real estate agent or mortgage lender doesn’t say that flood insurance is a requirement, having flood insurance is a good idea. This is especially true in a state like California where so many properties are at risk that don’t appear on FEMA’s flood maps.

Additionally, it’s a good idea for homeowners to take steps to protect their homes from the damage the floods can cause. When a home is flooded, it’s not just the contents that are lost. In virtually every case, flooring has to be replaced, and drywall is ruined. When drywall is exposed to water, it only takes 24 hours for mold spores to form, and they can reproduce at a rapid pace. However, there are materials out there such as EnduraFlood’s water resistant drywall that can withstand flood damage. Installing materials like EnduraFlood drywall can help ensure that homeowners aren’t left facing more loss than is absolutely necessary following a flood.


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