As the Red River crept within view of their backyard this past week, Denette and Billy Narum had an extra incentive to pray their sandbags held. Like most people in the flood zone, they have no flood insurance.
Fewer than 800 homeowners in the North Dakota and Minnesota communities most threatened by the swollen river hold insurance policies covering flood damage despite a decade-long push by state and federal officials to get people signed up, according to federal records obtained by The Associated Press.
Like the Narums, who bought their home five years ago, many forgo the insurance because they have never seen a historic flood. Others don't want to shell out up to $800 a year for coverage, instead gambling that city dikes will protect their homes.
Residents exposed to huge losses
That leaves residents exposed to huge losses, and they can't count on a government bailout. People who don't have insurance can get limited federal help if their county is declared a federal disaster area, but it's usually in a loan that must be repaid.
"This was never supposed to happen here," Denette Narum said hours before she and her husband evacuated Friday, giving up on their six pumps as water seeped under sandbags topping a permanent levee and water filled their basement.
About 20 percent of Moorhead residents had been urged to evacuate, although most homes are still OK.
Thousands of volunteers reinforced miles and miles of dikes with sandbags as the river rose to record levels. Even though the National Weather Service said the river appeared to be receding, it was still more than 20 feet above flood stage Sunday and expected to remain that way for days, testing the integrity of dikes that have already suffered some breaches.
Federal Emergency Management Agency reports show that in the besieged city of Fargo, N.D., with a population of 92,000, only 586 homeowners have policies — including just 90 in the area of highest flood risk. In neighboring Moorhead, a city of 30,000, that number is a mere 145.
In fact, only 4,558 homeowners in the entire state of North Dakota and fewer than 9,000 in Minnesota carried flood insurance as of January, the most recent figures available.
FEMA and state officials tried to get the message out about flood insurance after the devastating 1997 Red River flood, which submerged Grand Forks, N.D., and caused an estimated $4.1 billion in damage. Only 743 homeowners in Grand Forks now carry flood insurance.
"Memories are short, and people don't remember the 1997 flood," said Butch Kinerney, spokesman for the National Flood Insurance Program, managed by FEMA. "You see it time and time again: People forget the past."
Flood insurance not usually required
FEMA doesn't require people to buy flood insurance unless they're in a designated flood plain and have a federally backed mortgage.
Butch and Janet Johnson have lived in Fargo for 35 years, just half a block from the Red River, and don't know any neighbors who have flood insurance. They've received a few fliers in the mail but never considered getting a policy.
"Our house is 100 years old and if it's going to go, they can have it," Janet Johnson said.
Mortgage company didn't require it
The Narums' mortgage company didn't require the insurance, and the previous owner told them there was only an inch of water in the basement during the 1997 flood.
"And that was considered a 100-year flood," said Billy Narum, who built an earthen berm to protect his home in 2006 after he had to sandbag during late spring floods.
Kathy Beckius' duplex about a block from the Red River in Moorhead also was untouched by water during the 1997 flooding, so she and her husband decided against flood insurance. On Saturday, Beckius watched river water backing up in nearby storm drains, flooding streets in the area up to 2 feet deep in spots.
"It's your choice whether you get it or not where we live, and we just chose not to," she said.
'People just don't want to spend the money'
After flooding in Minnesota in 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty advocated for a law requiring insurance companies to notify homeowners annually about flood insurance. However, there has been little change in the number of policies in Minnesota since Pawlenty signed the law last May, said Ceil Strauss, who coordinates the flood insurance program for the state.
"For the most part, people just don't want to spend the money," Strauss said. "They think they're safe and don't believe they're in a flood plain most of time, even if they are."
Jeff Klein, North Dakota's flood insurance coordinator, said some people buy coverage only in years when the risk is high — usually when there's been a lot of snow — then drop it.
In 1997, more than 12,000 homeowners had flood insurance, Klein said, and he suspects the number of current policies is higher than shown by FEMA data, updated through January. This February, FEMA urged homeowners to buy insurance because of a record snow pack and the 30-day waiting period for a policy to take effect.
Anyone can buy the federal insurance from most private insurance agents, as long as their community participates in the National Flood Insurance Program.
Policies start at under $100 a year, and homeowners can insure the structure, contents or both. The average policy for people in a high-risk flood plain is about $600 to $800 a year.
'It's more expensive if you suffer a disaster'
FEMA officials say they encourage everyone to buy flood insurance, even though people behind levees or dams certified to withstand a 100-year flood — one so big that it has only a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year — aren't required to.
"People think manmade structures protect them from Mother Nature, but Mother Nature does not pay attention to lines on a map or manmade levees," Kinerney said. "Insurance is not cheap, but it's more expensive if you suffer a disaster."
Tell that to Billy Narum, who has no intention of buying flood insurance after the current flood threat is over. Instead, he said he'll build a higher berm and maybe get rid of the walk-out basement, assuming he can return home.
"Within three years of paying insurance premiums, I would be able to replace everything I lost anyway," he said.