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America’s flood insurance chief has a message for all Floridians: You’re at risk

If you live in Florida, you need flood insurance, he says.
City workers inspect the Dania Beach parking lot which has been shut down for three days due to flooding and tons of sand flowing into the parking area as ocean swells continue to push onto South Florida's coast Tuesday.  (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
City workers inspect the Dania Beach parking lot which has been shut down for three days due to flooding and tons of sand flowing into the parking area as ocean swells continue to push onto South Florida's coast Tuesday. (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Published Mar. 7, 2018

If you're a homeowner in Florida relying on flood zone maps to decide whether to buy insurance, you may want to check your driver's license instead.

"If it says Florida, you need flood insurance," said Roy Wright, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program, which covers more policies in Florida than any other state. "It may be more helpful than trying to find the right map."

Hurricane Irma is only the latest case in point, said Wright, who was in Miami Beach on Monday for an insurance conference.

When the massive storm churned toward Florida, hurricane-force winds extended 140 miles, nearly the breadth of the state. As the storm rolled across the Lower Keys, it pushed a storm surge across the islands and continued swamping the coastline as it moved north along Southwest Florida. Homes in Everglades City and Chokoloskee filled with mud up to five feet deep. On Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami, water washed over seawalls and out of the Miami River, swamping the business district.

In Jacksonville, far from the storm's eye, a confluence of storm surge and high tide swelled the St. John's River and caused the worst flooding in a century.

The national flood insurance program is now $20 billion in debt, largely because of Irma and other catastrophic storms like Harvey. Wright, during a break in the insurance conference, sat down with the Miami Herald to outline a plan to stabilize a troubled federal program vital to Florida's real estate industry. It includes ambitious goals to double enrollment over the next five years amid a major makeover that will include more aggressive purchases of re-insurance and catastrophe bonds.

By law, only homes with federally-backed mortgages in high-risk zones are required to have insurance.

Flooding on Dania Beach on Tuesday. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

In the lead-up to Irma, an Associated Press analysis found that the number of Florida homes covered in high-risk areas had dropped by 15 percent in the previous five years. Fewer than half in hazard zones were protected from flood damage.

Wright blamed the problem partly on flood maps that, like hurricane tracking maps, can mislead homeowners on actual risks.

"We really gotta help people move beyond and quit focusing just on the lines," he said. "Because nature, the day it rains, pays no attention to the lines."

By contrast, when Harvey slammed the Texas coast, the national flood program insured 70 percent of the homes in moderate flood zones in Harris County. After the storm passed, 60 percent of the claims came from those moderate zones, proof that storms don't always follow the contours of a flood map, Wright said.

Waves pound a Dania Beach lifeguard station Tuesday as high tide approaches. The Dania Beach parking lot which includes access to a marina, the Dania Beach Bar &Grill and the Quarterdeck restaurant have been closed for three days. The parking lot is experiencing flooding and sand buildup. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

"That's true in areas of Florida as well," he said.

So far, flood claims for Irma in the state have amounted to $850 million — about 28,000 in total were filed. The payouts included about $100 million in the Florida Keys, $30 million in Miami-Dade County and $7 million in Broward County, said spokesman John Mills. Jacksonville received more than $130 million.

Private insurers paid off another 900,000 claims for other damages, with just over 1,700 in flood claims, valued at nearly $8 billion.

For the first time the flood program also released $20,000 payouts just after the storm hit, so homeowners could begin early clean-up work rather than wait for a complete appraisal, Wright said

In addition to flood claims, FEMA paid for hotels and housing assistance for 27,000 households. About 1,100 families remain on hotels Mills said.

As part of its overall, the flood program is also taking a look at rates to insure fairness.

In Florida, rates in moderate zones are affordably priced at less than $500 annually. While they go higher in high-risk areas, Wright say still don't cover payouts, accounting for the $20 billion debt.

"We paid claims with a very high proportion of discounted rates — so the people who are not paying the actuarial price for the cover — and that's the way Congress designed the program. So what are we doing?" he said.

Securing more re-insurance and transferring risk with tools like catastrophe bonds should help avoid piling up more debt, he said. The agency is also examining properties on coasts and in flood plains that have been repeatedly rebuilt "that we probably shouldn't be providing cover on," he said.

Like with windstorm insurance, there's also a push to attract more private insurers — although that also raises concerns about private companies cherry-picking policies and leaving the NFIP on the hook for the riskiest properties.

"There's a set of policies that the private market is never going to touch. I understand that," Wright said. "But part of my message today is we need to see growth in this space. There's a mutual gain approach. And while there may be some erosion to our book overall, far more people need coverage than have it today."

There is also debate over whether the agency should be paying to rebuild expensive property on vulnerable coasts. Wright said that decision would be left to the states, but the Keys made a good case for successful rebuilding.

A day after the Keys reopened following Irma, he toured Marathon and Big Pine.

"If you were built over the last 20 to 25 years, you were built higher and stronger and when the water came in, you lost your grill. And if you were built earlier than that, it was a very different world," he said. "What I know is the folks who are rebuilding are rebuilding higher and stronger in a way that when storm surge comes in, they can withstand it."

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