Human beings’ brains are wired for optimism, according to Tali Sharot, Ph.D. Tali is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London’s Department of Experimental Psychology, where she is the director of the Affective Brain Lab. In her 2011 book The Optimism Bias, and in her 2012 TED Talk, she explains that, despite clear statistics to the contrary, 80 percent of the human population is biased toward optimistic outcomes.
The optimism bias is the cognitive illusion that occurs when one overestimates the likelihood of experiencing good outcomes, such as getting a promotion, and underestimates the likelihood of experiencing bad ones, such as divorce. In other words, most people believe bad things will not happen to them even when statistically they probably will. Tali explains that while optimism bias is generally good, it does have its pitfalls. When overly optimistic attitudes prevail, humans ignore warnings or take risks that may be harmful. They may also choose not to take measures to protect themselves from unforeseen emergencies.
Exactly five years ago, our city found out firsthand that unexpected, disastrous events can and do happen. On Oct. 1, 2015, more than 12 inches of rain fell on the city within five days due to a cataclysmic collision of opposing weather fronts mixed with a hurricane named Joaquin. In some places, rain fell at a rate of 2 inches per hour and totaled more than 20 inches. During the flood, nine people died by drowning in Richland County, another eight people died elsewhere in the state, two people died in North Carolina, 315 vehicle collisions occurred in a 12-hour time period, and South Carolina emergency responders recorded 1,500 water rescues. An estimated 55 homes were destroyed and more than 1,000 were damaged. When it was finally over, property damage caused by the flood totaled nearly $1.5 billion. In the midst of the massive cleanup effort, two words surely joined the jumbled thoughts of those victims whose lives were forever altered: flood insurance.
Floods rank first on the list of natural disasters occurring in the United States. Yet only 5 million Americans have flood insurance policies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s online Flood Map Service Center shows how close properties are to possible flood threats. As many Columbia residents found out in 2015, you do not need to live in a flood plain to be at risk for flooding. FEMA’s flood mantra is “anywhere it can rain, it can flood.” Some properties require flood insurance due to their close proximity to flood plains, but flood damage truly can occur anywhere. A water pipe can break during neighborhood construction, water can collect due to blocked or insufficient drainage systems, and severe weather events — such as the one Columbia experienced in 2015 — can cause very destructive floods.
Federal disaster assistance may be available when massive flooding occurs, but only when the president declares an emergency, which does not always happen. Even when it does, assistance normally comes in the form of loans that must be repaid, with interest. Most homeowner’s or renter’s insurance does not cover flood damage. The best way to protect yourself from flood damage is to purchase a separate flood insurance policy. Consider this: just 5 inches of water in a 2,500 square foot home can cause $45,000 in damage. In a 5,000 square foot home, that cost doubles. Without appropriate insurance, even a small flooding event can be catastrophic for anyone, no matter their economic circumstances.
In keeping with Tali’s findings, optimism is good, but it pays to be prepared. Flood insurance cost is influenced by flood risk, the type coverage being purchased, the deductible, the location of the structure, the design and age of the structure, and the location of the structure’s contents. After purchase, it normally takes 30 days for the policy to go into effect, and protection lasts for a year, plus an additional 30-day grace period. The policy must be renewed annually.
When considering how to lower flood insurance premiums, several options are available. First, lower flood risk by choosing a home that is well away from a flood plain. Also, choose a policy with a higher deductible. This option requires the homeowner to pay more out of pocket when a flooding incident occurs, but they will also pay less for a policy that protects them from a flood event of any size. Finally, homeowners can help lower premiums by encouraging their community to meet or exceed flood plain guidance and adopt stringent building codes.
Preparation for floods, including the purchase of flood insurance, is key. You can also take steps to mitigate damage when flood conditions threaten. First, keep a watchful eye on the condition of nearby drainage pipes, spillways, and dams. When these are kept in working order, water can flow freely, and the possibility of flooding decreases. The same is true for home gutters. Next, move furniture and other valuables to higher levels of the home when forecasts indicate a threat of flooding. As Columbians know, floods happen quickly. When flooding occurs, you may not have time to move or otherwise protect belongings. You should also take steps to protect memorabilia and important papers. Wills, insurance documents, medical records, passports, birth certificates, and the like should be stored in a waterproof container on an upper level of your home, in the attic, or in a bank safe deposit box. It is also advisable to store electronic copies of these items in a secure online location. Forms such as a living will and health care power of attorney should be stored where they can be accessed at any time in case of emergency, not locked in a bank vault since the bank may be closed when they are needed.
If the worst happens and a flood occurs, steps can be taken to maximize reimbursement. When it is safe to enter the home, take photographs and video of all damage inside and outside the home before removing anything so that you have a visual record of the damage incurred. Be extremely thorough and remember to record the condition of cabinet, drawer, and closet interiors and other similar spaces. Carefully document all affected belongings, noting the brand and serial number of major appliances such as refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers. Do this as well with markings and labels that indicate the value of objects, such as antique or designer furniture. Retain pieces of carpeting, wallpaper, and window treatments since their quality will affect the amount reimbursed. Careful documentation can ensure that post-flood life eventually resembles what existed before disaster struck.
As if a flood event is not bad enough by itself, another nasty, flood-related issue is caused by mold. Where floodwaters flow, mold soon follows. Flood insurance does not cover mold damage unless an official has banned return to the area because of downed powerlines or other hazards or because floodwaters delay or prevent the homeowner’s return. However, once a home is cleared for reentry, mitigation needs to begin immediately. Mildew and mold will begin to grow 24 to 48 hours after flooding, posing serious health risks. Once formed, mold will continue to grow as long as moisture levels are high with surfaces such as wood and drywall being the most common surfaces where mold forms.
Professional cleanup companies offer mold removal services. If you are planning to undertake this task yourself, you must don protective gear before commencing cleanup: an N-95 respirator, goggles, and gloves are good choices. Open all windows and doors, and then remove wet debris. Clean all hard surfaces with disinfectant. It is important to note that mold-producing spores cannot be removed from porous material. Wet ceiling tiles should be removed and discarded. Similarly, wet sections of drywall should be cut away and disposed of. Remove water from wet carpeting with a wet/dry vacuum cleaner if the carpeting cannot be removed, and make use of dehumidifiers to completely remove all moisture from the dwelling. Depending on the severity of flooding, this can take days to weeks. When using generators during cleanup, place them outside and away from the home to prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning or fire.
Flood damage can be devastating, as everyone in our community now knows. The damage can take a toll on your wallet even when home flood levels total only a few inches. When it comes to a major flood, the result can be soul crushing. Cleanup is a daunting task, despite armies of friends, neighbors, and complete strangers rushing to the rescue. Effects are long lasting: Columbia still bears the scars of the 2015 flood five years later in the form of continuing road and infrastructure work, abandoned buildings, and invisible but more painful wounds of lost loved ones, lost treasures, and lost dreams.
Still, there is hope.
As Tali’s studies found, most people are optimistic. Most believe that flood damage, minor or major, will not happen to them again. They believe floodwaters will not sweep into their homes after a long, hard rain; that a succession of dams will not fail; and that rivers, lakes, and streams will not overflow their banks at historic levels. After enduring 2015, hopefully this is true for Columbia area residents for generations to come. A flood insurance policy can alleviate financial stress, certainly improving your outlook when faced with the havoc wreaked by floodwater. Optimism is a good thing. Prepared optimism is even better.