Climate-change analysts watching Colorado flood-insurance market

Flood-tossed Sanitas hiking trail in Boulder

BOULDER, Colo. — About a month before the floodwaters tore through town, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its “State of the Climate” report. The authors highlighted 2012 as the hottest year on record in the United States. Next week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its colossal report. Consensus is that we’re in for more heat. Whether that will translate to more frequent “biblical” droughts, fires and floods in Colorado is less certain.

“There’s really almost no question that the world will get warmer,” said Scott Denning, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “My expert opinion is that maybe [more extreme rainfall] will come more often and maybe it won’t… I just don’t know.”

Last week’s rainfall was a “conspiracy” of many factors, Denning said, which lead to an extremely hard-to-predict event. He said it’s difficult to tie climate change to specific disasters in the kind of direct way the public would like to see. Notable links can be more general.

Soil over the nearly 2,000 square miles of parched rangeland, forests and mountains affected by the floods, for example, had been wrung of its precipitation by increasingly hot temperatures and charred by one wildfire after another. Water is absorbed less efficiently in such conditions, so the conspiracy of rainfall that bounced over the scarred and parched lands had no place to go except into creeks and roadways and so transformed them into rushing rivers.

Dazed people here who have seen mountainsides burst into flame, whole towns slide away and highways buckle want to know if the disasters are predictive.

Nearly 12,000 people have been evacuated here last week, according to Carole Walker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. Thousands were left without homes, staying in shelters set up by the national government. More than 17,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed in the waters. Walker says only roughly 22,000 people in the state own flood insurance
“We’ve had so many tragic wake up calls in Colorado that you do need to be financially prepared for disaster. We do have that window now, where people are thinking about the unthinkable.”

Walker said that, after the devastating wildfires of the last few years, there has been a major push to educate more Coloradans to seek insurance coverage. The insurance policies that cover wildfires—and other specific tragedies like theft, terrorism, explosions, et cetera—are known as Covered Perils, or colloquially, Acts of God.

But flood insurance is different. Floods aren’t Covered Perils or Acts of God, because most insurance policies find covering for floods too risky and expensive. So the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides insurance, based on a homeowner’s location, and whether their community opts into the program. NFIP covers what acts God doesn’t.

According to FEMA’s Jerry DeFelice, 246 communities in Colorado participate in NFIP. Only 18 communities do not. The average yearly flood insurance premium for owners across all areas, from great risk to minimal risk, is estimated around $650.

Charee Voelz, an insurance agent at Flood & Peterson in Greeley, said that, in the wake of the floods, she hasn’t noticed an uptick in the number of people signing up for flood insurance. Many of those devastated were in high-risk areas, where insurance is costly to buy, and many, not anticipating an event like this, refused to spend the money.

Although 70 percent of Coloradans think climate change is real, less than half of Coloradans believe that today’s dramatic form of climate change has being caused by human behavior.

“It’s a fantastic empirical question: Do events like this change people’s thinking about climate change?” said Lori Peek, sociology professor and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA) at Colorado State University. “There actually have been a limited number of studies that have indeed shown that, as people observed change in their environment, they are more likely to report believing in climate change.”

From Fox News to Beacon Hill, discussion of climate change is turning toward the insurance industry.

Wearing a seatbelt is a practical gesture that demonstrates concession that car wrecks happen, often, and that they can happen to you. More Coloradans buying more flood insurance would be tacit but real-world acknowledgement that might say more about attitudes toward climate change than any poll could do.

“I think also that a lot of people are climate confused,” Peek said. “They may not be flat out climate deniers — but there is such a climate-denial machine.

“I think something like the Colorado floods of 2013 make climate-related disasters real, they make them personal, they make them tangible, and those are the kind of threats that we do act on.”

[ Photo of Boulder’s flood-tossed Sanitas trail by Andrew Hyde ]