Arlington families get a painful lesson on the importance of flood insurance

News images of an Arlington woman in a wheelchair being led through floodwaters by firefighters last week were only half of Florence Dobrey's story.

Dobrey, 84, and her husband, Jack Dobrey, 89, saw their home near Rush Creek rendered temporarily uninhabitable by about 3 feet of water. They have no flood insurance.

"The family thought he had it," said Jim Stewart, the couple's son-in-law.

In the meantime, Stewart has his own water problems. His house is also among the 60 or so that flooded last week in the neighborhood north of Arkansas Lane and east of Green Oaks Boulevard. He also has no insurance coverage, since regular homeowners policies don't cover rising water.

Stewart said he recently let his flood insurance lapse when he paid off his mortgage because Rush Creek had never flooded his house in the nearly 20 years he has lived there.

"I figured we didn't need it," Stewart said. "It's been a hard lesson for me."

Such is the fate of many of around 200 homes in Arlington, Euless and Mansfield hit by flooding last week. As Stewart's experience shows, flood insurance is often dictated more by mortgage lenders than homeowners, says Chuck Hulett, who runs an Arlington insurance agency under his name.

Your banker shouldn't be your only guide on whether you need the coverage. But how do you know?

"There's no magic answer," Hulett said. "You can get a torrential rain, and because of construction miles away from you that changed the terrain, you could end up flooded. You don't have to be in a flood plain to make a prudent decision to buy flood insurance."

Flood insurance typically costs about half as much, or less, as a standard homeowner's policy, Hulett said. He said one of his clients in the same Rush Creek neighborhood pays an annual premium of around $300 for $58,000 of coverage for the structure and $24,000 for contents.

Flood insurance, which is backed by the federal government under the National Flood Insurance Program, offers comprehensive coverage, from testing for water damage to reconstruction. If you insure personal contents, flood insurance pays to clean clothes and replace furniture, electronics, carpets and curtains.

Arlington homeowners in a special flood hazard area receive a 10 percent discount on flood insurance, and those outside of it get a 5 percent discount, thanks to the city's Class 8 status under the flood insurance program's Community Rating System.

Some other North Texas cities, including North Richland Hills, Grand Prairie and Dallas, have similar ratings that allow discounts. The ratings system requires 18 standards in four areas -- public information, mapping and regulation, flood damage reduction and flood preparedness -- to receive the maximum discount. Cities can earn discounts from 5 percent to 45 percent.

Fort Worth does not have a rating, so it is not eligible for discounts. But that is about to change, according to Clair Davis, the city's flood plain administrator.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency met with Davis this week -- the final hurdle in the application process.

"Fort Worth has made a lot of progress towards participating in CRS," Davis said. "We hired a consultant to prepare our CRS application package, and we anticipate being active in the program in 2011."

Davis expects the city's first ranking to be a Class 9, which allows for a 5 percent discount in the flood zone.

More than 15 percent of Fort Worth, around 48 square miles, is in a flood plain. Structures in a flood plain have around a 1 in 4 chance of flooding over the course of a 30-year mortgage. Less than 30 percent of property owners in the Fort Worth flood plain have flood insurance policies, Davis said. There are 2,315 flood insurance policies in force with coverage of close to $500 million.

In Arlington, homeowners have another complication: The city requires that a structure be lifted two feet if rebuilding costs exceed of its value. The City Council is considering whether to rescind the rule.

"The City Council said they were meeting in two weeks to discuss this," Stewart said. "But we need action fast, not two weeks away."

Meanwhile, the Dobreys, who both use wheelchairs and need 24-hour care, are living in a neighbor's house down the street, Stewart said. Carpet and tile have been pulled up, and the lower 4 feet of dry wall have been cut out. Furniture has been either trashed or removed to be cleaned, and more than a dozen fans dry what remains. A ruined car still sits in the driveway. Debris clutters the lawn.

"A problem for my in-laws is cost to rebuild," Stewart said. "Presently, a significant amount of their retirement income and any financial reserves they have is going to provide care for them."

Stewart said he has set up a charitable fund for them. Contributions can be made to The Dobrey Flood Recovery Fund at any area Wells Fargo branch.

Teresa McUsic's column runs Fridays.