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From the Bear River in the north to the Virgin River in the south, communities throughout Utah are flooding as the state’s record-busting snowpack melts. But as public officials have urged Utahns to prepare by purchasing insurance policies, thousands may not have access to it and few communities participate in a federal program to make it more affordable.
Over two dozen Utah municipalities with a flood hazard area do not participate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s voluntary National Flood Insurance Program, cutting their residents off from accessing flood insurance policies through the government. And only 13 communities in the state have implemented flood mitigation standards that would cut their residents’ rates to purchase such policies.
“If you are in a flood-prone area, you should explore flood insurance,” Gov. Spencer Cox said at his monthly news conference on PBS Utah in March, continuing, “As we near flood season, especially in northern Utah, I would encourage people to look at that.”
Created by Congress in 1968, NFIP insures people against the risk of flood losses while encouraging communities to adopt and enforce safer floodplain regulations. Anyone who lives in an NFIP community can get an insurance policy through the program.
FEMA has identified a total of 25 municipalities in Utah that have a flood risk and don’t participate in NFIP. That number is higher than any of Utah’s neighboring states — Colorado is the next closest with 18.
Most of the communities with a flood risk that don’t participate in NFIP have less than 5,000 residents and are in rural areas of the state, and there’s a high concentration of towns outside of the program in northern Utah.
For small towns that don’t participate, it’s usually a matter of not having the resources to do so, said Heidi Carlin, a floodplain management specialist for FEMA Region 8.
“We have many floodplain administrators in those rural areas that wear five different hats. We have literally seen a dog catcher be a floodplain administrator,” Carlin said. “So it all comes down to time and money.”
Not all of the municipalities that don’t participate are rural or small. Two cities in Weber County — Farr West and Hooper — aren’t part of NFIP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimates, combined there were nearly 17,000 residents living in those communities, and both are expanding.
The largest city with a flood risk that doesn’t take part in NFIP is Cedar Hills in Utah County. By the U.S. Census Bureau’s count, there were more than 10,000 people living there in 2021.
According to Utah’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, the Division of Emergency Management and FEMA provide training on NFIP to floodplain administrators throughout the state.
“Whether a community participates in the NFIP doesn’t have much impact on a homeowner’s ability to purchase a flood policy, but it does impact the cost,” Utah Insurance Commissioner Jonathan Pike said in an emailed statement. “It’s very rare for a consumer to not find an insurer to sell them a flood policy; however, the cost may be more than they’re willing to spend.”
While the number of insurance policies through the private market isn’t publicly available, the percentage of Utahns who hold NFIP policies is low. An analysis by online insurance marketplace Policygenius found that Utah has the second lowest rate of NFIP-protected homes, after Minnesota.
The cost of policies through NFIP tends to be much lower than those of private insurers because, as Pike put it, “they spread risk across a large population — homeowners across the country — while the risk pool for a private flood policy is the customers of that insurer.”
Although Utah has the nation’s lowest average rate for NFIP — $716 annually, according to Policygenius — the cost remains beyond many Utahns’ budgets.
If communities are willing to adopt higher flood mitigation standards, they can opt into FEMA’s Community Rating System, and policyholders living there will get a discount as high as 45%.
A total of 13 communities in Utah participate in the Community Rating System, and seven — Bountiful, Logan, Moab, greater Grand County, Orem, Provo and St. George — have met requirements to qualify for discounts. The most heavily discounted policies, according to FEMA data, are in Logan and Orem, where residents get 20% off.
Many large cities throughout the country don’t participate in the Community Rating System, FEMA Region 8′s senior insurance specialist Diana Herrera said. But Salt Lake City is one of the only major cities in the West that hasn’t opted into the program, according to maps compiled by FEMA.
Boise, Cheyenne, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix are all among the municipalities whose residents get discounts through the program.
“If they are comfortable at the level that they are, we don’t force anything on them. It’s just a reward system for doing things over and above the minimum,” Herrera said, before adding that if the city began participating, residents would likely save a minimum of 5% on policies.
Flood insurance has a waiting period before it goes into effect. The standard waiting period for NFIP is 30 days. Anyone who’s concerned about flooding who hasn’t bought a policy “need(s) to get it now,” Pike said in an email, with “now” in bold and underlined.
“Where it rains it can flood,” Carlin said. “And we also in Utah have to keep in mind that there’s burn scars and alluvial fans, rivers and lakes, and then ... those sudden downpours that just happen.”