When the rains come

By Christine Barlow

FC&S Online

Hurricane season has officially begun, and there has already been one named storm and a tropical depression. As a result, it seems prudent to take a look at what is or is not covered by the homeowners and flood policies, and the very important differences between the two. Does the flood policy neatly cover what the homeowners policy excludes, or are there gaps of which the insured should be aware?

Homeowners exclusions

The homeowners policy excludes water damage, and water damage is defined as "flood, surface water, waves, tidal water, overflow of a body of water, or spray from any of these whether or not driven by wind". It is a fairly comprehensive definition. A sticking point that commonly occurs is what, exactly, is surface water, and how does it differ, if it does, from flood water? Surface water is generally defined as water that meanders over the surface of the ground and does not follow any particular path. Heavy rains will create surface water. Surface water does not have to cover a given portion of land; as long as an amount of water is free flowing along the surface of the ground, it is considered surface water. Flood waters, on the other hand, must cover a certain amount of space; so while a flood may be caused by surface water, not all surface water creates a flood.

NFIP flood definition

The standard flood policy defines flood as a temporary condition that involves partial or complete inundation of normally dry land consisting of two or more acres or two or more properties, one of which is the insured's. The cause of the flood must be from:
  • overflow of inland or tidal waters
  • unusual or rapid accumulation or runoff of surface waters from any source
  • or mudflow
Mudflow is defined as "a river of liquid and flowing mud on the surfaces of normally dry land areas, as when earth is carried by a current of water". Mudflows are not to be confused with landslides, slope failure, or saturated soil masses that move by liquidity down a slope. A mudflow is basically surface water that has mixed with dirt and flows along the surface of the ground; the dirt became mixed with the water after the water began flowing. A landslide is in large part caused by the weight of the dirt being pulled down the slope; water may be mixed in, but is not necessary for the landslide to occur. In landslides and slope failure, gravity plays a large role. In mudflows, it is the water carrying dirt along the surface of the ground, not necessarily down a slope or hill.

Flood is also defined as the collapse of land along the shore of a lake or similar body of water; the collapse is caused by erosion or undermining caused by waves or currents that exceed normal levels. This results in a flood, as defined earlier. For example, strong rains cause the water level in a lake to rise beyond normal so that the bank collapses, causing flood waters to enter residents' yards and basements.


The area requirements in the flood policy leave a large gap between what a homeowners policy will cover and what the flood policy covers. There is basically no coverage for surface water until it reaches flood stage; any water below that level is the responsibility of the insured.

Mudflows and landslides are separate things, and only mudflows are covered under the flood policy. Returning to the homeowner policy, both mudflows and landslides are excluded under earth movement. While mudflow has its own definition on the flood policy, the area requirements that apply to flood water applies to mudflow; two acres or two properties must be inundated. Therefore, the homeowner is again responsible for damage from a small mudflow that is not large enough to reach flood size. Landslides must be covered by a separate earth movement endorsement, as neither the homeowner nor the flood policy provides coverage.


There is still quite a learning curve before insureds realize how important flood insurance is for the protection of their property. Added to that learning curve is the fact that not all water that inundates a property can be considered a flood, and that even with the best homeowners and flood coverage, an insured may still be exposed to risk of water damage.

The area requirements for water to be considered a flood are critically important. Insureds savvy enough to have a flood policy may not be aware of the requirement that two acres or two properties must be inundated; they may be under a false assumption that any water is flood water. As insurance professionals, it is important to provide clarification of these points to your clients, and help them get the best coverage possible.

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