What even is an atmospheric river & will insurance protect you from it?

Even if the chance of your property being flooded is low, you should still protect yourself with insurance.

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Stacy FernándezContributing WriterStacy Fernández is a freelance writer and communications manager. She contributes to Policygenius' Easy Money newsletter. 

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Property owners have something new to worry about: atmospheric rivers. As you might guess from the name, an atmospheric river is essentially a river suspended in the sky. They carry an unusually high amount of water that can cause heavy rainfall or snow. 

Typically ranging from 250 to 375 miles wide, a bit over half the length of Florida, these water belts can carry up to 15 times the volume of the Mississippi River. An atmospheric river in Canada was so dense it refilled a hundred-year-old lake bed

Over the past several weeks, atmospheric rivers made landfall in parts of Washington state and across the border in Canada’s British Columbia, forcing some residents to evacuate and schools to shut down. The first atmospheric river touched down in mid-November and another came just a week and a half later — without time for land and property to properly dry out first.

The back-to-back weather events led to ​​record rainfall, flooding, and mudslides, costing millions of dollars worth of damage. Photos from the event show cars inundated in water and buildings steeped in inches of water. 

Experts expect atmospheric rivers will intensify in size and water volume as the climate continues to warm and the air has more moisture to pull in. Here’s what you need to know to keep your property safe if faced with an atmospheric river storm. 

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Does homeowners insurance cover atmospheric rivers?

Standard home insurance does not cover water damage caused by natural events like rivers, flash floods, mudslides, or flooding from atmospheric rivers. If you’re looking to protect yourself from a water-related incident your best bet is to get a basic flood insurance policy, says Pat Howard, an insurance expert and editor at Policygenius.

The additional coverage is worth it if your home is at risk of water damage. If your home isn’t in a high-risk area according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood map you’re eligible for a reduced price, Howard says. 

You can find your level of flood risk with FloodFactor, a free online tool that allows users to visualize past, current, and projected data. The site is designed to complement the official FEMA flood map. Both require you to enter your location to access crucial flood risk information. 

Even if the chances of your home getting flooded are low, you should still protect yourself with insurance, Howard says. About 25% of all flood insurance claims come from areas with low-to-moderate flood risk.

In a flood-prone area, your policy may be a few thousand dollars a year. In areas that are less flood-prone, you could spend as little as $400 per year. Homeowners and renters in some parts of the country can purchase a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by the FEMA, or opt for private providers. While renters are not responsible for water damage to the home, flood insurance would protect them in the event of personal property damage.

How to protect your property from flood damage

You can still take steps to protect your property without insurance, Howard says. 

If your home is vulnerable to flooding, Howard suggests moving any valuables you have in your basement or first floor to the second story, if you have one. If you don’t have access to an attic or second floor, consider renting a storage unit — just make sure it’s not on the ground level or below. Keep in mind this can get costly over time. 

Less movable objects like stoves and dryers can be elevated onto cinder blocks to avoid damage. Make sure to clear gutters, drains, and downspouts if there is a threat of major rain. Clogged systems won’t allow water to clear and can cause it to overflow into your ceilings and walls.

You’ll also make sure to patch any cracks in the foundation. You can apply a layer of waterproof sealer to basement walls. You may want to consider buying a battery-powered sump pump that works even if the electricity goes out. 

Cars are also susceptible to water damage. Howard suggests parking your vehicle on high ground and rolling your windows all the way up if you expect flooding. You can also unplug your car battery to avoid damage to electronic and computer components. If you have to use your car, steer clear of driving through heavily flooded areas. Just a few inches of standing water can damage the underside of your vehicle.  ​​

If your home or car gets damaged, call your insurance provider as soon as possible and make a claim. It can take a few days for an adjuster to assess the damage in person or remotely. In the meantime, take lots of photos and videos of the damage inside, outside, and around your property. For appliances and electronics make sure to get the item’s make, model, and serial number in the picture.

Some items can pose a health threat and develop mold, like water damaged  carpeting, flooring, and fabrics. Throw away everything that is not recoverable. But keep samples of the items, like cutting a square of curtain, to show your adjuster along with the photos you took.

If your area falls under Presidential Disaster Declaration you may be eligible to receive financial aid for items not covered by your flood insurance policy. Applications can be submitted through DisasterAssistance.gov

Taking steps like buying insurance and moving items to higher ground may cost money and time upfront, but can protect you from financially drowning in damage and replacement costs.

Image: Erik Von Weber / Getty