By Patrick Rucker
HOPE MILLS, N.C., Sept 18 (Reuters) - Flood insurance was far from Stephanie Walker's mind in 2015 when she moved her family into a home in Fayetteville in central North Carolina, nearly 200 miles (320 km) from the coast.
The next year, a creek at the end of her street swelled during Hurricane Matthew, sending several feet of water into her living room. Without flood insurance, the family spent $70,000 on repairs. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency covered $25,000 but the family had to borrow the rest for her home.
The houses on the street were built in 2005. Matthew was the first storm that caused flooding, but the fear of another flood is causing greater anxiety.
"This street should be demolished. Houses never should have been put here," said Walker, 41.
After Matthew, the family bought flood insurance and felt protected when the waters touched their doorstep again during Hurricane Florence.
But they are a rarity. Only about 1 percent of homes in North Carolina's inland counties are insured through the national flood insurance program, according to federal data, compared with 25 percent to 50 percent of homeowners on the coast.
FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program supplements regular homeowner policies, which do not generally include flood damage. For homeowners who do not buy the flood insurance, federal aid generally only partially covers repairs.
The average national flood insurance policy, which tops out at $250,000, costs about $700 per year, but varies depending on the elevation of the home, according to FEMA. Homeowners can buy supplemental insurance policies for more valuable homes through private insurers.
FEMA will send claims adjusters into North Carolina in coming days to help speed up the claims process. But homeowners in inland areas long thought to be safe will be in for a rude awakening.
"The majority of those people don't carry flood insurance," Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator. He said insurance agents and real estate agents have tended to tell people they did not need it.
The National Flood Insurance Program is expected to pay out $7 billion on claims related to Florence's flood, more than 10 times the $648.7 million paid after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
The agency made $8.7 billion in flood insurance payments after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year.
Meteorologists believe that more storms in coming years will mirror Harvey and Florence, slow-moving disasters that flood homes with several feet of rain over days.
The flooding from these storms shows that regions outside of the riskiest areas designated on flood maps are vulnerable too, Fugate said. Sixteen rivers have hit "major flood" levels in North Carolina, the National Weather Service said.
Experts said U.S. government maps that outline so-called "flood zones" were developed to set insurance rates and can mislead homeowners living outside of those regions into not buying flood insurance.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that current flood maps only reflect about one-third of the people who are at significant flood risk.
But of the 10 top-ranked states where major flood events have occurred in the past 10 years, the top five are land-locked, according to data from Pew, including Oklahoma and Iowa.
"There's a common misperception that if you don't live near the coast and can't see the waves crashing on the shore, you might not be at risk," said Forbes Tompkins, a Pew Charitable Trusts expert on flood-prepared infrastructure. "But where it rains, it can flood."
Just 134,306 properties in North Carolina and 204,342 in South Carolina are enrolled in the National Flood Insurance Program, according to FEMA. The bulk of those are clustered in coastal communities.
For those without flood insurance, all they can hope for is federal funding, usually about $30,000, said Ray Lehmann, director of finance, insurance and trade policy at the R Street Institute.
"It won't be enough to rebuild an entire home," he said.
(Reporting by Patrick Rucker in Hope Mills; Additional reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Suzanne Barlyn; Writing by Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by David Gaffen and Lisa Shumaker)
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