Atmospheric Rivers and Coverage for Flooding

secure Editorial Standards

SmartFinancial Offers Unbiased, Fact-based Information. Our fact-checked articles are intended to educate insurance shoppers so they can make the right buying decisions. Learn More

Over the past couple of years, there’s been much talk about atmospheric rivers and how they are affecting areas, like California, which are not exactly known for heavy rainfall. These atmospheric rivers result from the accumulation of moisture in the air that is then dumped down in heavy rains. California suffered roughly 6B in losses and prompted many home insurers to leave the state. California was affected by a total of 12 atmospheric rivers in winter 2023.[1]

These rivers can carry up to 15 times the amount of water in the Mississippi River, according to studies. They have caused flooding, mudslides, loss of life and damage to homes and belongings.

Last January, thousands of uninsured or underinsured home and car owners, as well as business owners, faced extensive losses because they didn’t have the right insurance. Many were unaware that they needed flood insurance to be covered for these events, not just home insurance or commercial property insurance. Car owners without comprehensive coverage also had to eat their losses.

Last year, most researchers agreed that atmospheric rivers are expected to grow 25% longer and 25% wider due to climate change. They will also affect other parts of the country, not just California. Severe weather, it seems, is wreaking havoc everywhere.

Here’s everything you need to know, if you experience losses due to an atmospheric river.

Key Takeaways

  • 2024 winter storms in California are likely to include atmospheric rivers and flooding. 
  • Flood insurance on your home is necessary for you to recoup losses, rebuild and replace items if a flood destroys your home and belongings.
  • Flood insurance on a rental home will help you recoup losses if a flood destroys your personal belongings.
  • Comprehensive coverage on a personal car and commercial auto insurance on a business-use vehicle will cover you if your vehicle is damaged in a flood.
  • Your home’s flood policy will not cover your business equipment. To be covered, you must have a commercial flood policy.

Winter Storms and Atmospheric Rivers

A storm is due to make landfall in Southern Oregon and guide an atmospheric river of moisture toward Northern California towards the end of January, with rains of half an inch per hour as well as 25 to 35 mph winds One to two feet are expected in Northern and Central Sierra, including Donner Pass. This will be the first atmospheric river event of the winter but most likely not the only one.[2]

Preparing for Atmospheric Rivers: What To Do Before the Next Flood

Experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center say there is a 35% chance that an atmospheric phenomenon will hit the U.S, specifically California, in winter 2024. Last year’s rainfall and unprecedented snowfall were not just a fluke, and it’s important for residents to start preparing for the next atmospheric river now because seven million Californians are at risk of experiencing flooding.[1]

Consider what’s at stake, if there’s a severe flood in your house, condo, apartment or business. You’ll have to evacuate if it happens, but there’s no way to get your things out or to protect the structure itself. And what about your vehicle(s) and business property?

Aerial surveillance cameras are now ready to be used to determine which areas are hit hard and need immediate assistance after a heavy rain or snow. However, it’s not a good idea to rely on FEMA to rebuild your life if your home, car or business property are damaged or destroyed. Luckily, the new technology has already been able to predict which of California’s 58 counties will be hardest and the safest routes to take to help evacuate residents.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent budget includes more than $430 million for statewide flood response and 2.4 million more sandbags than were available last winter. However, according to the California Department of Insurance, only about 2% of California homeowners have a flood policy.

Create Checklists For Insurance Purposes

Using this checklist, create inventories that include each item that falls under each category. Get specific about each piece of personal property and its current value. Create a video or photos of what you are documenting to a cloud software for safekeeping.

These are the categories of inventories you’ll need for all the things that may be destroyed due to severe weather:

  • An inventory that includes home improvement and renovation receipts as well as titles
  • An inventory of personal belongings, including clothes, furniture and appliances
  • An inventory of car(s) and titles
  • An inventory of business property (including a business-use car and the building, if you own it)

Next, create a checklist for each type of insurance policy you have and keep all paperwork in your evacuation bag:

If you do not have these types of insurance and know you should, it’s never too late to buy, and you can get a good deal if you compare insurance rates for each type of insurance you need.

At the very least, most people have car insurance and homeowners insurance, sometimes renters insurance. However, if they do not have comprehensive car insurance, they will not be covered for weather-related losses.

Most people, especially in California, do not have flood insurance. Floods are becoming more common after severe rainstorms and snowstorms.

Create a Checklist for Important Evacuation To-Go Bags

You’ll want to have enough of the following to hold you over for three days.

  • Medication
  • Epi pens and other health tools
  • Change of clothing, underwear and socks
  • Water
  • Non-perishable food
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered radio
  • First-aid kit
  • Whistle
  • Batteries
  • Insurance documents

Car Insurance and Flooding

State minimum required car insurance will not protect you and your car if it is damaged due to flooding caused by an atmospheric river. The only type of car insurance that will cover damages due to flooding is comprehensive coverage. Note that if the car is declared a total loss, you will only get what the car was worth the day it was declared a total loss. You may not want to buy comprehensive coverage if your car is worth $4,000 or less.

People who finance or lease a car buy both collision and comprehensive coverage together because it’s required by lenders. However, it’s a really good idea to have both if your vehicle is worth more than $4,000 because in the case of heavy rains, you are more prone to accidents in addition to flood damage.

If you raise the deductible on collision and comprehensive coverages, your monthly payments will be more manageable. The deductible is the amount you’re responsible to pay after you file a claim and it is deducted from the claim payout.

Homeowners Insurance and Flood Insurance Are Separate

Even condo owners need homeowners insurance. If a flood washes away your floors or destroys your furniture and you don’t have flood insurance and home insurance, your HOA’s master policy will probably not cover your losses.

If you own a house or have an existing mortgage on it, you need home insurance for the amount of money it takes to rebuild your home and to replace all of your personal possessions, which includes appliances that need to be replaced. However, if a flood caused the damage, you will not get any assistance unless you have flood insurance.

Home Businesses and Floods

If you run a business out of your home, you should be aware that a commercial flood policy will cover these contents, not a homeowners flood policy. Make sure your insurance company is aware that you have a home business so you have the right insurance policies in place so that you’re protected after an atmosphere river dumps water in your area.

Renters Insurance and Flood Insurance

People who live in an apartment or rent a home need renters insurance to cover their belongings, clothing, furniture and appliances but in the case of flood damage you’ll need flood insurance for renters.

Commercial Insurance and Floods

If you have a business, you most likely have commercial property insurance to protect your business equipment and furniture, even the building if you own it. However, only flood insurance will cover your losses if an atmospheric river causes flooding and destroys or damages your business property, which includes inventory.

You may have commercial auto insurance for any business-related vehicles. Make sure your commercial auto insurance has comprehensive coverage, which will cover a flooded company vehicle. Your personal auto insurance policy will not cover a vehicle used for work purposes.

Do You Live or Are Planning to Live in a Flood Zone?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assesses where flooding occurs and how frequently. Special Flood Hazard Areas (SHFA) are locations where residents are required to buy flood insurance. Prices for flood insurance and requirements are based on where you live and if it’s a flood zone.

However, it’s important to consider that atmospheric rivers are a new phenomenon and, as we’ve seen in California, they may affect counties not listed as at-risk areas.

How Much Flood Insurance Should I Buy and What Does it Cost?

You’ll need enough flood insurance coverage to rebuild your home, which is different from the market value of the home. FEMA can only offer emergency help, which is nowhere near enough to rebuild a home or replace all your possessions. You may get a payout of around $10,000 or even less, without a flood policy, which you can buy from FEMA or from a private insurance company.

To calculate how much it will cost to rebuild your home, take the size of the home and consider how much material and labor will be needed. Consider inflation, too, which has significantly raised costs for both materials and labor. There is currently also a shortage of construction workers.

Next, look at your personal property and consider the depreciated cost as well as replacement cost of each item. Consider the fact that there are limits to individual items, like furs and jewelry, which you may need to itemize separately.

Only buy a flood policy after you figure out what it would cost to rebuild your home and replace everything. Your premiums may be as low as $500 a year or as high as $5,000, depending on where you live.

Coverage for Flooding From Atmospheric Rivers FAQs

Is flood insurance required?

If you live in a flood zone, flood insurance may be required by your mortgage lender. However, atmospheric rivers have affected people who live outside of high-risk flood zones.

Will comprehensive insurance cover the stuff that was destroyed in my car?

The items inside your car will be covered by the flood insurance you have on your home because they fall under the category of personal property. Your commercial property insurance will cover items in a commercial vehicle. Comprehensive insurance would cover the car only.

How much is comprehensive car insurance?

Comprehensive coverage is, on average, less than $200 a year. How much you pay depends on the value of the car, where you live and park the car as well as other factors related to your profile, like how many claims you’ve filed in the past few years.


  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What are atmospheric rivers?
  2. San Francisco Chronicle. An atmospheric river storm is approaching California. Here’s when rain could return.

Get a Free Insurance Quote Online Now.