In Storm-Tossed Houston Area, Most Homeowners Lack Flood Insurance Congress is widely expected to approve billions in aid for flood-stricken areas, but it may take awhile to arrive.

In Storm-Tossed Houston Area, Most Homeowners Lack Flood Insurance

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Texas officials say flooding from Harvey has damaged some 49,000 homes. That's not a final count. Most of those homeowners never got flood insurance and face a long road to recovery. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Once they've made their way through flooded streets and found shelter somewhere, a lot of people in the Houston area will have to begin to assess how much their homes have been damaged. Robert Hunter is a former Texas insurance commissioner.

ROBERT HUNTER: It's a terrible disaster just on the facts you see when you look at TV or the pictures. But it's also a terrible potential second disaster because so many people are not going to be insured. And what's going to happen probably for some people is they'll just walk away from the homes.

ZARROLI: The federal government offers flood insurance, but fewer than 20 percent of people in the Houston area take it, and so they're not covered for the kind of damage that Harvey has caused. Carolyn Kousky is with the Wharton Risk Management Decision Processes Center.

CAROLYN KOUSKY: Standard homeowners policies will not cover damage from flooding. And given that this is very much a flood event, that's going to be problematic for lots of people.

ZARROLI: There are people such as Jaime Botello, a welder who was at a shelter in North Houston with his wife today. He says his house is covered for fire and other hazards but not flooding.

JAIME BOTELLO: I don't have the insurance for the flood. I can't afford a thousand dollars a month.

ZARROLI: Now he says floodwaters have engulfed the house he's lived in for 30 years.

BOTELLO: My neighbors sent me a picture over my phone. And my house - it just got over-flooded all the way to the top.

ZARROLI: For people without flood insurance, there are a few options. Bob Hunter says they can apply for federal loans to rebuild their homes.

HUNTER: You end up with a low-interest loan. It may be as low as zero percent interest, but it's still a loan, and you have your old mortgage to pay. And now you've got a new loan to pay off.

ZARROLI: The federal government also provides direct grants to repair homes that are damaged by the flooding. They don't have to be paid back, but recipients only get enough money to make their homes habitable, not to repair them altogether. And that's typically not all that much money. There may be more money coming in as well. Hunter says Congress is likely to allocate many billions of dollars for storm relief.

HUNTER: What's going on is so unprecedented and so terrible and horrible that Congress is probably going to be very generous in how they do disaster relief.

ZARROLI: Some of the money is likely to go directly to cities and towns hit by the storm in the form of block grants. But it typically takes a long time for Congress to design and implement programs to dole out the money, says Carolyn Kousky.

KOUSKY: That can take months or even years in some cases between when it's authorized by Congress and when a person actually sees a check from it.

ZARROLI: Kousky says some of the money allocated by Congress for Katrina recovery was still being handed out a decade after the storm hit. For Texas residents, there's another wrinkle as well. A new law goes into effect on September 1 that makes it harder for people to sue insurance companies that take too long to pay claims. Again, Bob Hunter...

HUNTER: And you can still file a claim, but it's much more difficult and much less likely that you have a lawyer that wants to do it because of the risk of not getting paid.

ZARROLI: State officials say the law shouldn't affect people whose homes were damaged by Harvey. But the new law is already adding to the confusion a lot of people feel as they begin to rebuild their lives. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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