Visualize: Insights that power innovation

Visualize: Insights that power innovation

Commercial properties may be shut, but it’s open season for spring flooding

By Marc Treacy  |  May 6, 2020

At a time when many business owners would normally be looking to the skies and nearby waterways for seasonal flooding threats, thoughts are elsewhere in the spring of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has the full attention of companies of all sizes as they work one day at a time to keep operating amid stay-at-home orders that have affected as much as 95 percent of the U.S. population at one time.1

But the weather isn’t on lockdown. Forecasters are predicting another active season of spring flooding, especially in a central swath of the country from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf Coast and across the Southeast. Much of this territory is threatened with at least minor flooding, while moderate to major inundation is forecast along the Mississippi and Red River Valleys, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.2

Meanwhile, severe weather typical of early spring has already lashed the Southeast,3 and Arizona will face its annual monsoon season in the summer—a phenomenon some scientists believe is intensified by climate change.4

Overwhelming distraction

The question is, will businesses be able to maintain their usual flood preparedness this year while coping with a global pandemic? As the crisis consumes much of their time and attention, their capability to address flood risk, from preparation to response, may be reduced. And for commercial insurers, this could raise risk profiles across their portfolios.

A nonessential business that is shut down may not have the staff on-site to take the usual precautions, such as moving equipment and inventory out of harm’s way or sandbagging in the face of an imminent threat. Even after lockdowns are lifted, a business in the throes of restarting operations and reconnecting with its customers may lack the bandwidth to give proper attention to flood hazards and mitigation. And in the aftermath of a flood, pandemic restrictions may compound the difficulty of getting employees on the premises to take actions that would help contain the damage.

Usual sources of help may also be stretched beyond their limits. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already faces a country under disaster declarations from coast to coast because of the pandemic. Will it have the resources to mount the expected response to widespread major flooding? Likewise, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could be slowed down in its response. Federal agency roles depend not only on personnel but also supplies and equipment, and the pandemic is having unpredictable effects on supply chains throughout the economy.

Insight into exposure

Given these uncertainties, insurers writing commercial flood coverage may have a heightened need to maintain awareness while their clients’ energies are focused on the crisis at hand. It’s important to understand exposures on multiple levels, from individual risks to entire portfolios. These exposures encompass not only FEMA flood zones oriented toward river hazards but also surface and flash flooding that can strike suddenly as a result of severe thunderstorms or monsoon rains.

WaterLine™, Verisk’s flood risk scoring tool, applies advanced models of river, surface, and storm surge flooding to help insurers underwrite commercial properties, including those not traditionally considered flood-prone. For insurers that don’t offer flood insurance, WaterLine can help them provide customers with critical information about their level of flood risk. That in itself could be a valuable service at a time when it may be hard to focus on the big picture.


  1. Sarah Mervosh, Denise Lu, and Vanessa Swales, “See Which States and Cities Have Told Residents to Stay at Home,” The New York Times, April 7, 2020, < https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-stay-at-home-order.html >, accessed on April 17, 2020.
  2. U.S. Spring Outlook forecasts another year of widespread river flooding, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 19, 2020, < https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/us-spring-outlook-forecasts-another-year-of-widespread-river-flooding >, accessed on April 17, 2020.
  3. Brynn Anderson and Jay Reeves, “Destruction from Storms Across Southeast ‘Worst in a Decade;’ Death Toll Rises to 30,” Insurance Journal, April 15, 2020, < https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/southeast/2020/04/15/564938.htm >, accessed on April 17, 2020.
  4. Elizabeth Whitman, “In the Southwest, Monsoons Are Becoming More Intense and Frequent, Study Finds,” Phoenix New Times, July 24, 2019, < https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/climate-change-monsoon-southwest-arizona-phoenix-rain-intense-11332193 >, accessed on April 17, 2020.

Marc Treacy is managing director of flood insurance for ISO. You can contact him at MTreacy@verisk.com.