Hundreds of homeowners are living in fear of flooding as the North, the Midlands and North Wales experience torrential rain and rising water levels.
The Environment Agency has issued more than 50 flood warnings in the wake of the severe weather conditions, while a further 79 areas are on flood watch.
Neil Whittle, a claims adviser for insurer More Th>n, has been particularly busy in the past week. He supervises eight advisers who cover the region stretching from Wolverhampton to Cheshire and North Wales. One of the towns on his patch has seen as much rainfall during the past five days as would normally be expected in two months.
"We are as proactive as possible and as soon as an area is flooded, we are knocking on doors asking homeowners if they are insured with us," says Mr Whittle. "If they haven't yet got round to making a claim, we set the wheels in motion."
He believes that quick action from the insurer makes life a lot easier for the policyholder, while reducing damage caused by floodwater. "We can immediately help by removing the homeowner's belongings, getting rid of excess water, stripping wallpaper and installing humidifiers. Sometimes the policyholder prefers alternative accommodation while the work is being carried out. Others prefer to live on the first floor of the property during this time. We will make a payout to them for their inconvenience."
With the Environment Agency estimating that around two million homes in England and Wales are now in flood- risk areas, many insurers are introducing similar damage-limitation plans.
It is vital for homeowners to check that they have enough buildings and home contents cover in case their property is flooded. Even if you don't live on a recognised flood plain, freak storms are possible.
The four-storey home of Doreen McCarthy, a 78-year-old widow who lives in Ripon, North Yorkshire, was hit by a freak flood in 2000 caused by a small footbridge collapsing into a nearby river.
"There was no record of flooding in the past, but after the bridge collapsed, the river was diverted into my house," she says. "The water flooded into my basement kitchen and workshop, ruining CDs, tapes, a collection of cookery books stretching back to 1821 and a couple of tapestries waiting to be reframed."
While the flooding was a traumatic experience and it took six months to get the house back to normal, Ms McCarthy was delighted by the attitude of her insurer, CIS. "A surveyor who lives across the road from me assessed the damage and informed CIS," she says. "I insisted I only wanted local tradesmen to carry out the work as I had recently been widowed and didn't want lots of strange people in the house. CIS agreed to this."
She is also pleased that her premiums have risen by just £15 a year - a typical increase for most householders. "I think CIS recognised that this was a one-off."
Although there have been fears that homes at risk of flooding will be judged uninsurable, the Association of British Insurers has agreed that its members will continue to cover these properties as long as the Government carries out its own commitment to build and maintain new flood defences.
Some insurers are implementing new technology so flood risk can be calculated more accurately. Norwich Union has commissioned a digital map of Britain which is being translated into flood-risk data. From March, the scheme will be rolled out across the country, starting with high-risk areas such as Shrewsbury.
"Premiums will start to change but most people will benefit because flood risk will no longer be based on postcode," says a spokeswoman. "If you have a postcode where flooding has occurred, even if your home has never been affected, you may be paying a higher premium than necessary. The digital map will tell us the exact risk to your house."
She does admit that those at risk are likely to see a rise in premiums, however. This underlines the importance of shopping around for cover, using a broker or websites such as www.moneyextra.co.uk
Hold back the tide: how to protect your possessions
* Listen for flood warnings on local TV and radio. Check the Environment Agency's 24-hour information service on the internet or by calling 0845 988 1188.
* Keep sandbags and boards ready.
* Keep your insurance policy documents in a watertight bag in a safe place.
* Make a note of your insurer's helpline number and keep it handy.
* Prepare a "flood pack" and make sure everyone in your home knows where it is. This should include: a torch, battery-operated radio (with spare batteries), first-aid kit, warm clothes and blankets. Keep it in a safe place upstairs. Take your mobile phone upstairs when you go to bed and keep it charged.
* Think before parking your car. Is it safe? * Where are your pets? Be ready to move them to a safe place.
* Be prepared to move furniture and valuable items upstairs and out of danger. Remember to include photograph albums and other possessions of sentimental value that will be difficult to replace.
* If you receive warnings of imminent flooding, switch off gas and electricity supplies.
* Have a map of your local area handy. If you decide to evacuate, bear in mind that local roads may already be impassable.
* Do not attempt to drive across submerged roads.
* If your home is flooded, contact your insurer as soon as possible.
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