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Flood insurance is only mandated for properties in high-risk flood zones, but even if you live in a low- or moderate-risk area, you should bone up on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

To help get you started, here's a quick primer on floods and flood insurance.

Floods are the most common natural disaster in the U.S. If you live in a flood plain, your home has a 26 percent chance (more than one in four) of being damaged by a flood during the course of a 30-year mortgage, compared to a 9 percent chance (less than one in ten) for fire damage.

Your regular homeowner insurance policy typically does not provide benefits for losses caused by a flood, yet the NFIP says one in four flood insurance claims come from areas with low-to-moderate flood risk.

That's because while everyone does not live in a flood plain, everyone does lives in a flood zone, says the NFIP.

If you live in a low- to moderate-risk area made so by a system of levees, dams and dikes -- as Midwestern and Gulf of Mexico area residents have learned -- the risk may be reduced but it is not removed. Levees, dams and dikes are not impervious to nature's worst.

Flooding can be caused by heavy rains, melting snow, inadequate drainage systems, failed flood control structures and tropical storms and hurricanes.

Even if you have a hillside home and you think you are out of harm's way, there's a risk of mudslide or debris flow which is covered by flood insurance.

The share of claims from low- to moderate-risk homes and the overall risk for flooding could increase. A recent U.S. Climate Change Science Program report "Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate" said flatly, global warming-spawned climate change is increasing the intensity, duration, frequency, and geographic extent of weather events.

For example, 15 years ago, after the Midwest was previously inundated by what was pronounced a "100-year" or a "500-year" flood, some residents believed they'd seen the worse and dropped coverage.

This summer, uninsured homeowners got soaked.

The term "100-year" flood doesn't mean there's a major flood every 100 years. It means a 100-year flood would have a 1 percent chance of occurring again in any given year and a 500-year flood a 0.2 percent chance.

In non high-risk areas you could qualify for the Preferred Risk Policy that provides contents coverage beginning at $39 per year and building plus contents coverage beginning at $119 a year, according to the NFIP.

If the relatively small premium doesn't get you to at least learn more about flood insurance, keep in mind, if you don't move fast you could lose. Once you decide to buy flood insurance, there's a standard 30-day waiting period, from the date of purchase, before a new flood policy goes into effect.

There is no waiting period provided:

The initial purchase of flood insurance is in connection with the making, increasing, extension, or renewal of a loan in a high-risk zone by a regulated lender.

The initial purchase of flood insurance occurs within one year of a flood zone map change.

You could have to wait even longer for related coverage. Insurers in the Midwest currently have moratoriums on sewer and drainage coverage, which is part of your homeowner's policy, but can protect you from flood induced sewer and drainage problems. Moratoriums on selling disaster-related insurance coverage are common following a disaster.

If you aren't required to have flood insurance and choose not to buy it, it's a good idea to have as much as $20,000 socked away for self-insurance. For just one inch of water in your home, expect an estimated $8,000 in damages, according to the NFIP's "Cost of Flooding" estimator. A foot of water -12 inches -- will cost you nearly $19,000.

Residential NFIP coverage provides up to $250,000 of insurance to protect your owner-occupied home and up to $100,000 to protect your belongings. In a high-risk area, federally insured or regulated lenders will require you to have flood insurance for the amount remaining on your mortgage, or $250,000, whichever is lower. Renters can get up to $100,000 coverage for the contents of their home.

For more information, visit the consumer-friendly NFIP web site at FloodSmart.gov.

Also see the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) flood information Web site and FEMA's NFIP Web site.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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