Floridians need to shake off the rust at today's start of the Atlantic hurricane season. No hurricane has hit the state in five years. But that luck is not a license to let down our guard. This spring's tornadoes that killed hundreds across the South and Midwest are tragic reminders of the terrible and unpredictable force of nature. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature also have passed on more of the financial risks from these devastating storms from insurers to property owners. State and local responders should get ready. And residents need to check up, stock up and put the finishing touches on their plans for hardening their homes now and evacuating promptly when and if the orders come.
Floridians have upped their guard considerably in the two decades since Hurricane Andrew. Stockpiling water and medicine, securing homes and important papers and making evacuation plans have become routine rites of summer. Residents should see to it they have the basics — water, nonperishable food and the like — working equipment such as flashlights and radios and spare batteries. Residents also should know their evacuation zones and be prepared to leave if ordered to by the authorities. Being ready saves lives, and it reduces the need to send police, firefighters and other emergency crews into dangerous situations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts a busier-than-usual 2011 season, predicting 12 to 18 named storms in the Atlantic basin, with six to 10 hurricanes. Three to six of those storms are expected to be major, with winds of 111 mph or higher. Officials say warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures will make for an active tropical season.
Tampa Bay residents should be especially vigilant. With almost 3 million people across the region — many residing along the coast or in low-lying areas — the bay area is vulnerable not only to high winds but to storm surge and inland flooding. The bay area bridges also could become quickly clogged in the event of a major evacuation. Hillsborough and Pinellas county officials have done better at communicating with each other over emergency response plans. Continuing that level of coordination is essential. Hurricanes hardly limit their damage to political boundaries. Florida's head of emergency management, Bryan Koon, is new to the state and needs to be up to speed and ensure a seamless line of communication between federal, state and local authorities.
Florida's Republican leaders failed again this year to bring strong, pro-consumer reforms to the property insurance market. The legislation Scott signed into law allows insurance companies to more easily pass on reinsurance costs to policyholders, shortens the time for filing storm-related claims and allows insurers to drag their feet in paying to repair damaged property. Private insurance remains either unaffordable or unavailable — or both — in too many areas. The state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is on more solid ground, with $5.6 billion in reserves and the capacity to pay claims of up to $14.7 billion. But it still needs to gradually raise premiums so its rates come closer to being actuarially sound.
Floridians should go the extra step in preparing now that the governor and Legislature have put more of the burden on homeowners. And state officials should give up the fantasy that free market competition is the answer to the property insurance mess and come up with a more innovative public-private solution that better spreads the risk. The state has had a good run of luck lately, but it will not dodge hurricanes forever.