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Flood victim warns others to be aware of their risk level

Sandy Starns lost everything in a flood a few years ago. She wants others to avoid that same fate by being educated and prepared about flood risk.

LEMAY, Mo. — As record flooding has devastated parts of St. Louis, experts say your risk of flooding may be higher than you think. 

“We lost everything," said Sandy Starns, a flood victim. 

Once filled with memories, the home where Starns lived with her parents for 10 years is now too dangerous to go inside. Memories are now covered by mold. 

“That kitchen in there was my mom's pride and joy... It was the first house they ever owned," said Starns, referring to her parents who bought the house. 

A flood in 2019 made the home in Lemay unlivable. Starns believes real estate agents were misleading about the seriousness of the risk. She said her parents, who’ve since passed away, paid the price.  

“They were given the impression that it's not really a big deal," said Starns. 

Starns said her family’s real estate agents were not fully transparent about the seriousness of being in a high-risk flood zone when her family bought the house. We asked who the agent was, and she says she cannot remember and that relevant paperwork was destroyed in the flood. 

READ: Find statements from the National Association of Realtors, Missouri Realtors, and St. Louis Realtors below.

She said her family did know they were in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, calls a high-risk flood zone. And since they also had a federally-backed mortgage, it meant they had to buy flood insurance. Her father thought it would be the ultimate safety net. 

“What did he think flood insurance was going to do for him?” asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan.

“He thought if there was any major flooding, flood insurance would, you know, give him money to repair or replace anything that's lost during the flood," she said. 

In 2019, when they lost everything, she said FEMA paid about $50,000 to cover the rest of the mortgage. But it didn’t cover the extent of their loss. She and her family left with the clothes on their backs. They cycled through hotels for months until they could find another home. Starns said the family was stuck paying about $1,500 a year in taxes for a place they could no longer live. 

“And now I can't sell it. I can't do anything with it," said Starns. Starns said she is seeking some assistance from St. Louis County, so that she can get some value for the family’s property. She believes it could be turned into a community area, like a park. 

Federal records show her family’s home is in one of the most flood-prone areas of the country, smack in between Gravois Creek and River des Peres. Data from FEMA shows the risk of flooding at the home is at least 1 percent each year. But that risk compounds with time. So over a typical 30-year mortgage, there’s actually a more than 26% chance of serious flooding. Many experts believe even that underestimates the threat. 

What can people do to protect themselves?

“No matter where you live, FEMA encourages everyone to buy flood insurance. That's the best way to protect yourself from flooding," said John Mills, a FEMA spokesperson.

Mills also advises reading the fine print. 

“Read your policy carefully to understand what it covers," he said. 

And it’s especially important, experts say, because of where we are. Federal data shows Missouri is one of about a dozen states in the U.S. that doesn’t require documentation for sellers to disclose flood risk, according to the Missouri Realtors association. There is no federal law.

“We do find that there's many, many more homes that have risk," said Michael Lopes, a spokesperson with the nonprofit First Street Foundation.

“Our mission is to quantify and communicate the physical risks of a changing climate," said Lopes. 

His nonprofit’s research shows in St. Louis County alone, there are more than 15,000 properties that may be at serious risk of flooding, but aren’t considered to be in what FEMA calls a high-risk flood zone. It means there are thousands of people in our area who aren’t required to buy flood insurance, and may not realize they could be one storm away from losing everything. 

“It’s obviously a terrible tragedy when it does happen and people are not equipped to, you know, to deal with it," said Lopes. 

People are often not equipped, Lopes says, because FEMA’s flood maps -- which many people use to figure out their risk level -- don’t capture the full picture. He says it’s largely because of regulatory hurdles that mean it can take up to seven years to make updates. 

“Which means that by the time a new map comes out, it's already out of date," he said. 

He also said FEMA is pressured to not update those maps. Property owners, he said, don’t want neighborhoods included in a high-risk flood zone, lowering home values. As a result, he said change is slow and insufficient. It means homebuyers can be left in the dark. 

“It just makes us upset to know that it took my parents so many years to be able to afford to buy a house and then just to walk away from it. It's heartbreaking," said Starns. 

MAP: Check the FEMA flood map here

Starns wants others to know their risk before they find themselves under water. 

“It’s better to have to wait on something good than to rush into something and have to pay for it in the end," she said. 

Around the country, researchers at First Street Foundation say 15 million homes are at risk of flooding — 70% higher than FEMA estimates. 

MAP: Check First Street Foundation's risk factor map here

Statement from the Missouri Realtors Association:

"We encourage all homebuyers or sellers to work with a realtor, and specifically to ask their realtor to determine if their property or the property they are interested in purchasing may be in a flood zone. By using RPR (Realtors Property Resource) database, realtors can view properties in the system with a FEMA overlay which will show if a property is located within a flood zone or not. This service is a great way for buyers and sellers to know the facts before purchasing or selling, and best of all, there is no charge. Not all real estate licensees have access to RPR, as it is a member-specific benefit, but all members of the National Association of Realtors can access the system for this data and their clients or customers."

Source: John Mayfield, president of Missouri Realtors

Statement from the National Association of Realtors:

“In most states including Missouri, there is a common law requirement that sellers of real estate disclose known material adverse conditions or facts to buyers. Damage to property from flooding would generally be considered a material fact but I'm not familiar with the court cases there. The Missouri Association of Realtors has a formal seller property disclosure form that includes if the seller is aware of any flooding, drainage or grading problems or if the property is located in a 100-year flood hazard area. This form is commonly used in real estate transactions there. In addition, under federal law, lenders are required to notify buyers if the property is located an area of special flood hazard and thus required to purchase flood insurance for a federally related mortgage. Here's an example of one law firm's explanation of seller disclosure laws in Missouri."

Source: Tori Syrek, a spokesperson with the National Association of Realtors 

Statement from St. Louis Realtors:

"Reminding buyers to purchase flood insurance is helpful and is available due to the ongoing advocacy efforts of our association to ensure the National Flood Insurance Program is funded by the federal government. St. Louis Realtors is working on grants to assist people impacted by the recent floods. These grants will be available soon via the Missouri Realtors Relief Foundation. It is hard to comment on a situation without knowing all the facts. That said, to suggest the Realtor did not accurately describe the risk of flooding implies the Realtor was aware of flooding potential when that very well may not have been the case. Typically, no one knows more about a home than the owner. This is why St. Louis Realtors developed a Seller Disclosure form that Realtors encourage homeowners to complete when listing their house for sale. One of the questions on the document pertains to flooding. If completed, buyers are provided with a copy of this form when purchasing a home. In this case, there is no way of knowing whether the seller completed the form and, if they did, whether they noted flooding as an issue. It’s also important to note that flood zones change. In the recent storms in the surrounding region, areas that had never flooded before unfortunately did. Additionally, if the individual had utilized a government-backed mortgage (e.g., Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Affairs, or the United States Department of Agriculture) for a property in a high-risk flood zone, they would have been required to get flood insurance. The need for flood insurance would have prompted the purchaser to consider any potential downside of purchasing in a flood zone. Those interested in learning if their home might be affected by flood zones can learn more by doing an advanced location search, specific to need, which can be completed by visiting: FEMA Flood Map Service Center | Search All Products. A good resource for homeowners is the FEMA flood maps. They are constantly being updated and, in many instances, are updated on a community-need basis. The most recent updates to FEMA flood maps in St. Louis City and St. Louis County are below:

County: Last updated Feb. 4, 2015, and June 5, 2020. The county is broken down into regions. Due to this, select areas were updated at different times.

City: Last updated May 24, 2011. The city currently references a preliminary draft noting the potential for an updated map in the future."

Source: Dan Wunder, a spokesperson at St. Louis Realtors

Resources

If you buy a home in a high-risk flood zone with a federally-backed mortgage, the law requires you to buy flood insurance. Most flood insurance in the U.S. is through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program. Usually, people buy FEMA-backed flood insurance through their family’s insurance provider.

A FEMA spokesperson says up to 40 percent of flood claims came from areas that are not in high-risk flood zones.

For the recent flooding in St. Louis, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program has already paid more than $1.4 million in flood insurance claims. For years, FEMA has been encouraging everyone to purchase flood insurance even if they’re not required to. 

FEMA’s flood map: https://msc.fema.gov/portal/home

FEMA has a Flood Risk Disclosure guide 

First Street Foundation Flood Factor mapping tool: https://riskfactor.com/ 

Tips to protect your home from flooding

Step 1: Measure your level of risk. Analyze risk data from FEMA and other sources like First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor mapping tool to figure out how much risk you may have over the course of your mortgage.

Step 2: Insure your property. Most policies that homeowners and renters have don't include flood insurance. You might need to purchase flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by FEMA. 

Step 3: Prepare your home in case of a flood. Maintain proper water runoffs and drainage. Elevate utilities and service equipment, and install foundation vents or a sump pump. 

Step 4: Engage with the community and push for city-wide measures. Take collective action to protect the community against flooding. Drive your local leaders to investigate whether your community is eligible for FEMA’s resilience programs, including the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program and Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) program.

From the American Flood Coalition



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