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'It Was Like a River': Flood Insurance Is Often Out of Reach for Bay Area Residents Who Need It Most

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A woman stands by a creek, pointing to a cement wall.
Laura Cisneros, on Jan. 6, 2023, points to where the rising waters of Rheem Creek seeped through the fence and ultimately surrounded her house in the unincorporated Contra Costa County community of Rollingwood, during the torrential downpour on New Year's Eve. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

On New Year’s Eve, Carla Villalta and her husband, Denyss, were ready to celebrate with their family, but an atmospheric river was dumping outside.

Rheem Creek, next to their eggshell-colored one-story home in the unincorporated Rollingwood neighborhood of San Pablo, overflowed onto their street.

“It was like a river, and then it started coming here inside our garage,” Villalta said.

They frantically moved their cars to higher ground as water crept toward their doorstep. It soon began seeping through the foundation of their house, and filling the crawl space beneath it.

When the family of four moved here two years ago, purchasing their first house, they didn't realize it was located in a part of Contra Costa County that regularly floods.

On Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, the neighborhood is marked as an “AREA OF MINIMAL FLOOD HAZARD,” which means homeowners here aren’t required to purchase flood insurance.

But Villalta’s experience in this neighborhood near I-80, wedged between Richmond and San Pablo, certainly doesn’t correspond with that map.

The New Year’s storm marked the second instance the creek had spilled onto their street in the short time they’d been living here.

With this latest round of storms finally over, the family is still assessing the damage to their home and trying to determine whether their limited home insurance plan will cover any of it.

Villalta says she's now on the hunt for a good flood insurance plan she can afford.

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“That's going to be the No. 1 thing we're working on,” she said.

The storms that recently pummeled California hit places like Rollingwood and other low-lying, predominantly lower-income communities of color particularly hard, where few homeowners have flood insurance.

And while homeowners insurance may cover property damage from rain and wind, it rarely covers damages caused by flooding.

Despite its neutral designation on FEMA maps, the Rollingwood neighborhood's flood risk is labeled “severe” on the online tool Risk Factor, which predicts there is a 99% chance of floodwaters reaching most homes at least once within the next 30 years.

Laura Cisneros, a neighbor who has lived along Rheem Creek for roughly two decades, says floodwaters have encircled her home on a near-yearly basis — including twice during the recent storms.

“This is really scary for me because if it continues to rain anymore, we may have to evacuate our house,” she said, midway through the three-week inundation earlier this month.

Kathleen Schaefer, who oversaw the creation of FEMA’s insurance maps for California five years ago, says residents of unincorporated areas often feel stuck because they “lack the infrastructure to deal with these storms.”

But with atmospheric river storms expected to dump increasingly more rain — making the Bay Area as much as 37% wetter by the end of the century, according to some predictions — Schaefer strongly urges people in places like Rollingwood to buy flood insurance.

But the problem, she adds, is that it’s often just too expensive for those who are most vulnerable to flooding.

A man and woman stand in front of their 1-story home.
Carla and Denyss Villalta stand in front of their home in the unincorporated Rollingwood neighborhood outside San Pablo, on Jan. 6, 2023. The couple say floodwaters have already surrounded their home at least twice since they moved in about two years ago, and they are now trying to find reasonable flood insurance. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

“California residents are already overburdened by their housing costs,” said Schaefer, who is pursuing a Ph.D in civil engineering at UC Davis.

The price of an insurance policy can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per year, and depends on a home’s elevation, the year it was built, and how close it is to a body of water.

According to Schaefer, a policy in the Rollingwood neighborhood could cost in the range of $700 to $800 per year.

Among the more than 60,000 people who live in the 94806 ZIP code — which encompasses Rollingwood and several other unincorporated communities, as well as parts of San Pablo and Richmond — only about 300 homeowners have flood insurance policies. And while many residents are renters, the scant number of policyholders here suggests that thousands of homeowners are largely unprotected from flood damage.

People of color make up more than 80% of the population in this ZIP code, and median household income is roughly $74,000.

Schaefer says flood insurance needs to be made more affordable and accessible to lower-income communities, as climate-fueled storms intensify.

“One solution could be a community-based insurance program, which would be cheaper and offer more protection,” said Schaefer, who is in the process of creating a pilot for this model.

For a program like this to work, she says, a government agency — either the county or a hyper-local assessment district — would need to be directly involved. Homeowners would pay that agency a discounted premium and receive a fixed amount of payment when a triggering event, like a flood, occurs.

“It would be predetermined, and ... a homeowner would know going into the storm, if something happened, they'd at least have the money to have a safe and warm place,” she said.

A front gate opens onto a flooded street
Floodwater from Rheem Creek creeps ominously close to Carla and Denyss Villalta's front door on New Year's Eve. (Courtesy of Carla Villalta)

A higher-level, or more traditional, coverage tier would also be available under Schaefer's proposed plan, but it would be capped at 1% of household income.

“In the case of San Pablo, for example, the insurance would be kind of whatever you could buy for $520 a year,” she said. In contrast, some San Pablo residents pay triple that amount, according to the site Policygenius.

Schaefer says she would also like to see insurance companies, local governments and community members working together to implement longer-term solutions, like building additional filtration basins, adding more storm drains and restoring badly eroded creeks.

Some local flood-mitigation projects in the area are already underway, including a $1.6 million state-funded initiative to widen flood drains and restore parts of Rheem Creek by deepening the channel and planting native trees along its edges to lock in sediment.

“Currently, the creek floods several times a year, and we hope after this project, it should only flood every five to 10 years,” said Anne Bremirez, program director with The Watershed Project, one of the nonprofit groups leading the initiative.

But Cisneros, who said she can’t afford flood insurance, finds it hard to believe the project will be effective enough to protect her family.

“They’ve told us too many times [they’d fix the flooding issues],” she said, adding that if the creek continues to flood, she might consider relocating to higher ground.

“I want to see when they finish it. Otherwise, I won’t believe it.”



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