Insuring against nature unleashed

Debris lies on the ground after a building was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in Texas at the end of August
Richard Henderson

LAST month the innocently named Hurricane Harvey deposited a jaw-dropping 50 inches of rain over Texas and buffeted the Lone Star State with 130mph winds.

Houston was inundated with a year's supply of rain in just a week. The devastation in the city, where it appears that planners and developers have attached too little importance to floodplains and wetlands, was as grim as predicted.

Not long afterwards Northern Ireland's north west, was subjected to its own extreme weather, although thankfully nothing on Harvey's scale. That said, well over half of August's average rainfall inundated the region in less than nine hours.

Bridges, roads, belongings and cars were washed away. One hundred people were rescued from their homes and the airport was forced to close as flood waters filled its security area.

Flooding is an indiscriminate natural disaster, most closely associated with householders in the public imagination. It is, however, a major source of destruction and disruption for the farming community.

The effects of flooding on a farm business are multiple and long-term. The consequences include damage to outbuildings, equipment, fields and crops. Water-logged fields are unworkable and take time to recover. Yields suffer, nutrients are lost and there may be pollutants and waste water to treat.

Landslides add to the chaos, wiping away access roads and bridges, all of which takes time and money to fix. Livestock is also particularly vulnerable, and relocation and veterinary costs can soon accumulate.

In the long-term farmers who suffer from flooding regularly will also encounter logistical, financial, and planning problems that can significantly undermine their profitability or even viability.

It goes without saying that ensuring that your farm business has up-to-date insurance cover is a must. This is particularly true because, as a natural disaster, the amount of protection which insurers can provide against flooding is limited (although farm dwellings can be fully covered).

Given the complexities of flood cover it's important that you have a detailed discussion with your broker about what protection is available. Ideally, this discussion should take place on site so that your provider has a good feel for your farm's individual circumstances.

In light of these cover limitations it's vital that farmers do all that they can by themselves to reduce the impact of flooding. This will aid business continuity and reduce insurance premiums.

A sensible starting place is to have a flood plan so that you, your family and staff, know what to do in the event of a flood. What higher land is available to move livestock and equipment to? Do you have any chemicals on site, are they properly secured? Do you have access to things such as sandbags or even pallets to lift materials onto out of harm's way?

Part of the difficulty of flooding though is that there are few preventative measures that farmers can realistically take. Fortunately, the farming community is made of stern stuff and have a remarkable sense of community spirit which rallies around in times of need.

Flooding, though, is a heart-breaking experience for anyone, despite that amazing community support which was evident in the recent north-west floods. We'll never be able to stop the full destructive force of nature unleashed, but it should be possible to mitigate its worst effects.

:: Richard Henderson is head of agriculture at Autoline Insurance Group (

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