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Bowen: Confronting the flood of insurance frustrations

Published Dec. 4, 2014

Scott and Carol Fisher have their home and a lawn maintenance company in Lutz, and a 35-year-old mobile home on property off Old Pasco Road in Wesley Chapel. The land is home to a green barn, a shed, horses, dogs, pigs and a cat stretched out on the seat of a tractor.

It is a tree-lined 5.4 acres in what can be described as the middle of nowhere. At least for now.

Cows dot the pasture across the road, but the closest sign of a neighbor to the north is a placard informing the public that the Pasco County School District plans to build a high school there.

Future traffic or high school football stadium noise isn't what troubles the Fishers. Their land has a newly identified risk. It could flood, according to the U.S. government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the Fishers' property is now in the 100-year floodplain. The bank told them they have 45 days to obtain flood insurance.

"It's kind of ridiculous,'' Scott Fisher said, an understatement likely to be repeated around the county now that new flood maps have been released.

Later, while providing a tour of the property, his wife, Carol, agreed.

"It's kind of laughable,'' she said.

Ridiculous and laughable. Not exactly ringing endorsements of the imperfect science of mapping flood threats.

The property that needs to be insured is the mobile home, even though it sits 5 feet off the ground. The only water appears to be a tiny pond toward the back of the pasture, a considerable distance from the mobile home. Essentially, the water would have to rise up, sweep across what looks to be about 100 yards of land, cross through 16 horse stalls in two barns and make its way inside the elevated mobile home, which has a taxable value, according to the Pasco Property Appraiser's Office, of less than $14,000.

FEMA's marketing campaign doesn't instill much confidence, either. Last week, mail came to our domicile addressed to "Household Decision Maker.'' The first decision to be made is who gets this mail? Me or the Mrs.?

The correspondence warned said decision maker of the perils of going without flood insurance. It contained three fictional receipts suggesting that if our home flooded, the cost to replace drywall and baseboard molding, paint, buy a new sofa, tables and bookshelves (cherry, no less), and install new oak hardwood flooring beneath an "Enchanted Forest'' rug could run us more than $7,700. It is the equivalent of $385.25 per year for 20 years or close to the same price we paid in flood insurance premiums for two decades without ever filing a claim. No thanks.

We carried flood insurance before retiring our mortgage. The threat apparently stemmed from a man-made canal at the rear of the property that serves as the stormwater retention area for our one-block cul-de-sac. The prior owner highlighted the irony of flood insurance. He pointed out that the house was built atop a substantial amount of fill dirt, giving it a higher elevation than a public middle school located about a mile and a half away — the same middle school used at the time as a hurricane evacuation shelter. So, our home was at risk of flooding, but the school sheltering storm refugees wasn't?

And then there is this caveat to add to the frustration. For every dollar Floridians pay in flood insurance premiums, state residents get back just 23 cents to pay for flood damage. The biggest beneficiary, according to FEMA, is the state of Mississippi, which has received $5.20 for every dollar paid in flood insurance premiums since 1978.

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The Fishers find themselves facing a new mortgage requirement because the county released new flood insurance maps two months ago that moved nearly 8,600 parcels into the 100-year flood zone. Federal law requires flood insurance protection for federally backed mortgages on those sites considered to be part of so-called special hazard flood areas. Previously, the 8,600 properties were considered part of the 500-year floodplain, excusing their owners from flood insurance worries.

The Fishers plan to appeal since only part of the property is in the special hazard zone. Regardless, Scott Fisher likes his odds: a 100-year flood risk on a property that hasn't flooded in the 35 years since the mobile home was plopped down on the site.

It survived the Christmas Day tornado that touched down at the nearby Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club in 2006 as well as hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. Before the Fishers owned the property, it withstood the El Niño rains of 1997-98 that dumped more than 19 inches of winter rain in Florida, leaving some west Pasco neighborhoods looking like Venice, Italy, and some homeowners in Lutz unable to flush their toilets because of flooded septic systems.

"I'd say,'' Fisher said, "I'm doing pretty good.''

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