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The rush for flood insurance comes too late

By Lisa Gartner
LARA CERRI | Times
Caldwell Insurance agent Rob Sep?lveda is being inundated with flood insurance inquiries, but few people are buying when told coverage takes 30 days to kick in.

GULFPORT — The calls kept coming, the ringing like a whine over the wall-unit air-conditioner in the little office, the messages piling up. Insurance broker Rob Sepúlveda leaned over his hands, his fingers laced together on his desk. "I want a policy that will protect me if my house blows away," the latest caller said. She wanted what everyone else did, the thing people usually never wanted: flood insurance.

"We do that," Sepúlveda said. But when the agent told her the policy wouldn't kick in for at least 30 days, she said, "Never mind." Hurricane Irma would be long gone by then.

In the past few days, the agents at R.W. Caldwell Realty and Insurance have been dealing with their own flood, that of phone calls. Clients in Tarpon Springs and first-timers in St. Petersburg want to know if they can protect homes and high-rises; snowbirds in Canada and Holland check on their policies.

The phone typically rings once or twice a day over flood insurance in the room littered with Post-its and children's toys that Sepúlveda shares with agent Kim Barger. The office, in the back of the mom-and-pop business that Sepúlveda's in-laws own, did not expect the more than 40 calls that have come in less than 48 hours.

By 3 p.m. Wednesday, Sepúlveda still hadn't eaten his sandwich from Smokin' J's BBQ, unable to give his mouth a break from the receiver. As the second line rang at Barger's desk, she whispered, "Stop, stop, stop, stop," before picking up the phone. "Caldwell," she said, considerably chirpier. "This is Kim."

Most people in Tampa Bay don't buy flood insurance unless they have to, for waterfront property or in a neighborhood slow to drain. Would-be home buyers demur from making offers at the prospect of paying $2,500 extra each year.

But the Category 5 Hurricane Irma, a swirling mess of colors as wide as the state on Barger's computer screen, coupled with Hurricane Harvey's recent destruction of Houston, has introduced a new logic: panic.

"Even if I was dealing with someone who lived on the fifth floor of a condo building, they wanted to know about flood insurance," Sepúlveda said. He said there was not a single extra call last year when a tropical storm swept through and catfish swam with traffic down Gulfport Boulevard. "Nothing like this at all."

And he's had to tell all these callers, frantic for their homes and all that they've built, "There's nothing I can do about that."

They seem to expect it, he said. They're deflated, or disappointed, or if they're angry, they're angry at themselves. "I got some f-bombs, but luckily not directed at me," Sepúlveda said. "They understand I'm not making the rules, just playing by them."

Most of the callers have said forget about it, the impulse to buy lost. But the agents say they end up providing another service.

"There's been a lot of counseling," Sepúlveda said. "I'm telling people to calm down, that there's not much they can do about it right now, just to take care of their families and hope for the best."

He tells them to consider getting the insurance anyway. Instinctively, he starts to say, "It'll be good for the next one."

But then Sepúlveda pauses, and thinks, "Wait a second.

"It might not even be good for the next one. The next one could be right around the corner."

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner.