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In Arcadia, many residents without insurance struggling to rebuild after hurricane

Insurance unaffordability has compounded problems in this city far from the coast that was hit hard by Hurricane Ian.
 
An aerial view of flooded homes along the Peace River on Sept. 30 in Arcadia. The landlocked city of 7,400 took a hellacious wallop from Hurricane Ian.
An aerial view of flooded homes along the Peace River on Sept. 30 in Arcadia. The landlocked city of 7,400 took a hellacious wallop from Hurricane Ian. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 11, 2022|Updated Dec. 13, 2022

ARCADIA — Crawford Slaughter sat in his favorite chair on his covered porch when the storm hit and blew the roof off. As the rain poured into his home, he drilled holes in the floor so the water would drain instead of flooding his residence.

The quick-thinking, 80-year-old Vietnam veteran and his modest home are a testament to the reality that hurricanes don’t just batter coastal areas, the places where Weather Channel reporters stand on a pier in sheets of rain, shouting into a mic.

This landlocked city of 7,400, nestled near the Peace River and bisected by U.S. 17, took a hellacious wallop from Hurricane Ian.

It is still getting back on its feet.

In this community set squarely in Florida’s heartland, far from the coastal areas that received the lion’s share of attention after Ian, Arcadia residents and those in the surrounding area have hauled brush, dumped waterlogged furniture, discarded ruined rugs, repaired electrical boxes and patched roofs — at least those that can be salvaged. And many have done it while paying out of pocket, without the benefit of windstorm or flood insurance.

People like Crawford Slaughter, and Fred and Cindy Meyers and Eulogio Martinez and Kathy Lorenz.

Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground underwater on Sept. 30. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising.
Catastrophic flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia left the Peace River Campground underwater on Sept. 30. Officials warned that the river had not crested yet, and waters were still rising. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | Bradenton Herald ]

In Florida, insurance has gotten so expensive that many in this city, where 20% live below the poverty line and the median income is half that of the state as a whole, have decided to forgo it.

A market in turmoil

Skyrocketing insurance premiums can derail the dream of home ownership, one of the foundational rocks on which Florida is built.

To buy a home with a mortgage requires securing insurance. The policy protects both the homeowner and the mortgage issuer in the event the home is damaged or destroyed.

When a home is owned outright — if, say, the mortgage is paid off over a lifetime — insurance becomes optional. And some in Arcadia, finding themselves in that position — while juggling medical bills and other living costs and figuring they were a good distance from either coast — simply opted out of the insurance market.

And then they got slammed by Ian.

For some who acquired inexpensive or moderately expensive properties over a lifetime of labor, the numbers involved in buying a policy no longer add up. The average insurance premium in Arcadia is $2,296, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, while the median income, as reported by the American Community Survey, a product of the Census Bureau, is $34,003.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides some assistance in the event of a catastrophic storm, a maximum of $41,000 for housing assistance and $41,000 for other needs assistance, but not nearly what it costs to rebuild a wrecked home.

The Florida Legislature is holding a special session on Monday to discuss measures to shore up the market. One stopgap fix would be to excuse from tax obligations those whose properties were ruined by the storm. Beyond that, the weeklong session will look at ways to curb litigation against insurers, shore up Citizens Property Insurance, the state’s insurer of last resort, and increase the availability of reinsurance, which is insurance for insurers that allows them to lay off some of their risk.

Related: Florida lawmakers reveal major proposed changes to property insurance laws

At the 160-acre Peace River Campground just west of Arcadia, the DeSoto County seat, the river crested far beyond its banks, reaching the roofs of the campground bathrooms. Campground owner Lenny Limpenau spent the first day post-Ian ferrying people in his boat from the west side of the river, which had become isolated from the town on the east side.

Limpenau himself did not have windstorm or flood insurance coverage. He has owned his land for the past 25 years. He calculated that paying for windstorm insurance would not make financial sense, a choice property owners increasingly are making as the cost has soared — 33% over the past year alone, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute calculates that 13% of Florida property owners are forgoing insurance, sometimes called “going bare.”

“That is the problem we are facing. So many communities where residents can no longer afford home insurance,” said Mark Friedlander, the institute’s director of corporate communications. “It is happening more and more across the state.”

At the same time as potential customers opt out, insurers have been going out of business or fleeing the state, reducing competition and likely raising costs even more. That forces more property owners into the arms of Citizens Property Insurance.

A complicating factor in Arcadia is that much of the damage from Ian was inflicted by flooding — and flood damage is not covered by windstorm insurance. Flood insurance is a separate policy, and that is another piece of coverage that many residents lacked.

Arcadia — 57 miles east of Sarasota, surrounded by citrus groves and cattle ranches and far off the beaten tourist path — represents an older version of Florida: rural, agricultural and with a significant African American population that dates back to the days of slavery.

The small downtown area features antique shops, an old train station and a onetime opera house turned museum that legend has it is haunted. In the rural outskirts, there are mobile home communities, orange groves and the occasional roadside bar and grill, a gun range and a 62-year-old rodeo venue that is for sale.

Residents here worry they will be forgotten as legislators gather in Tallahassee and FEMA bureaucrats huddle in the nation’s capital and celebrities host fundraisers.

According to DeSoto County’s director of emergency management, Richard Christoff, 32% of properties in town were damaged by Ian.

Overall, DeSoto County has the 13th most reported insurance claims in Florida from Ian, with 5,682 as of the end of November. That’s more a reflection of the small population than the intensity of the storm, which brought 115 mph winds.

“We’re all survivors,” said Arcadia’s mayor, Keith Keene, whose own home insurance went up $1,200 last year. “We’ll make it.”

Fred Meyers, 79, and his wife, Cindy, 69, used to spend most of their time sitting on the screened-in porch that Meyers built onto his home, watching animals in the yard. The former maintenance workers had retired to a small home on the Peace River and would sit in the wintertime and watch the migratory birds pass through — cardinals, blue jays, hawks, woodpeckers, finches and indigo buntings.

“You can see almost every bird in the bird book down there,” Meyers said.

They did not have a policy.

For weeks, the couple called FEMA to request someone to come and inspect their property. Their hope was they would get some money and move on. The initial outlay from the agency — $700 — wasn’t much, but it was enough to buy some clothes and other essentials.

All of the homeowners and residents the Herald spoke with who had damage to their homes were within the flood hazard area, as designated by FEMA, but as with windstorm there is no requirement to buy if the home is owned outright.

In DeSoto, only 26.6% of homes in the flood area had flood insurance, according to FEMA. Outside of the flood area, that figure falls to 3.3% of homes with flood insurance when Ian struck.

The problem goes beyond unaffordability, according to attorney Amy Boggs, who as chairperson of the Florida Justice Association Property Insurance Section represents policyholders. There is also a lack of understanding of what is covered.

Boggs said that homeowners who have purchased insurance can be blindsided when they have a claim and discover myriad loopholes and sizable deductibles.

Limpenau, the Arcadia campground owner who used to have insurance but no longer does, concurred.

“The insurance companies are very short with their assessments. So they want to settle real fast and get out of there as cheaply as possible,” he said.

With the money he saved while not paying for windstorm insurance, Limpenau hopes to replace his old campground office and dance hall. He had put some money aside for a “rainy day.” He is using that to get the campground up and running.

“I don’t want to fight with them,” he said. “The people who have insurance are going to have a tough fight against their insurance companies.”

Related: Legislators have goals for fixing Florida’s property insurance market

‘For us, it was everything’

Insurance loopholes weren’t an issue for Eulogio Martinez because he doesn’t have insurance. He lives on the east side of the Peace River, where the city is.

He and his wife, Lisa, and their 8-year-old daughter, Evelin, used to enjoy hanging out with their six dogs, two cats, 12 birds and goats on their small parcel. They hosted parties in their yard with piñatas bulging with candy and enjoyed mangoes, dragon fruits and plums from the trees in their yard, which they brought from Guanajuato, Mexico, where both of them grew up. Just recently, Martinez retiled the shower of their home.

The storm left all of it in ruins. A tree fell on the roof, causing it to cave in, followed by the collapse of the walls. Furniture and family heirlooms were coated in dirt and beyond unsalvageable.

“For us, it was everything,” Martinez said in Spanish while on a break between working on cleaning up his property and driving to Home Depot to stock up on materials and equipment. Lisa Martinez applied to FEMA right after the storm, and although the money is a help, it is not close to enough.

“When you have insurance, it is hard to use it,” he said. He chose not to purchase a policy because he believed FEMA would be more likely to help in the event he lacked a policy. (A FEMA spokesperson said that is not necessarily the case.)

They cannot afford to rent a place to live, so Eulogio, Lisa and their daughter ended up living temporarily in the two-bedroom trailer across the street with Norberta Ramos Martinez, Eulogio’s mother, and his 15-year-old sister. Norberta gave up her room to Eulogio and Lisa, moving to the living room.

The town operated a shelter in the aftermath of a storm, but it closed Nov. 11. In any event, some Arcadia residents preferred to stay in their partially destroyed homes.

Crawford Slaughter, the Vietnam vet who drilled holes in his floor, reckons he had $12,000 in damage, but when the Herald paid a visit shortly after the storm, he had received “not a cent” from FEMA. He lives off $1,100 a month from Social Security benefits — half the annual cost of an average policy.

Related: How Hurricane Ian swamped Florida rivers: Before-and-after photos show record floods

He’s lived in his trailer for 20 years but gave up paying for insurance after the first year when he realized he couldn’t afford it.

“If they made it more affordable, it’d be all right,” he said of insurance. His plan is to replace the floor himself. But he cannot do his own roof because he says he is too old to climb that high.

In the month since Hurricane Ian hit, Slaughter’s friend who has his power of attorney, Martha McCombs, says her neighbor has remained hopeful but has broken down in tears at times, mourning the damage to his home.

“It’s all he has left,” she said of the recently widowed veteran.

McCombs, who was best friends with Slaughter’s late wife, Shirley, says her neighbor is known in the community as someone who would do anything to help others. Now, the community is stepping up to help him as much as his proud nature will allow. She is planning to file an appeal on his behalf with FEMA, which she says has thus far provided him with $300.

Flooding from the Peace River washes out County Road 661 outside of Arcadia on Sept. 30.
Flooding from the Peace River washes out County Road 661 outside of Arcadia on Sept. 30. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The cost of litigation

The discourse around legislating and reforming Florida’s insurance industry has been largely focused on litigation. Insurance companies and some experts say that the high cost of insurance is a result of third-party contractors who make illegitimate claims on behalf of policyholders. They say there has been an excessive number of lawsuits filed against insurance companies that have driven up the cost of insurance. Feeding that, according to critics, is the ability of victims of a storm to sign over their benefits to a contractor hired to do the work.

But Boggs, a lawyer who represents consumers in court against insurance companies, says that the high number of lawsuits is because consumers have been underpaid or not paid in a timely fashion.

Related: Florida insurance company execs saw big payouts in years without hurricanes

A 2021 report by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation lends credence to Florida’s reputation as a litigious place. The report cited national statistics showing that Florida accounted for 76.45% of all homeowners’ lawsuits against insurance companies in the United States in 2019.

Boggs said no policyholder desires to be embroiled in years of litigation just to get their homes rebuilt. Rather, a lawsuit is a last resort when insurance companies underpay their claims, leaving them unable to rebuild.

Staying with her cats

Kathy Lorenz sits on a bench outside the Red Cross shelter set up at Arcadia’s Civic Center. She says volunteers have been encouraging her to leave DeSoto since her mobile home was destroyed during the hurricane, but she does not want to leave her cats behind.

Lorenz’s dream was to have her own mobile home with her four cats, and a place where she could have a fruit and vegetable garden. Since 1996, she has owned her trailer and rented a lot in an Arcadia mobile park off Highway 17.

The storm totaled the home, initially sending her to the now-closed Red Cross shelter at the town’s local civic center. She had no insurance.

She was hoping FEMA would provide help.

“I think I’d be lucky if I got 30K and that’s not even enough to put down for a new mobile home,” said Lorenz, 68.

“At my age, I cannot afford to pay out for a mortgage or anything.”

She used to work in a restaurant and then in nursing homes. Now, she supports herself through Social Security and disability payments. “It’s like our government doesn’t care. They have forgotten the elderly, and it’s not just the elderly that are having the problems.

“I think our government needs to step up. I am just so disgusted in general, the things that are going on around me. I don’t have the ability to change and make things better.”

A repeat of Charley

“I don’t have insurance; I can’t afford it!” said Deborah Carter Kilpatrick, whose trailer’s roof broke during the hurricane. Her home flooded, and sewage sluiced through her yard.

Kilpatrick has been here before. The trailer was given to her by FEMA after she lost her home during Hurricane Charley in 2004. Such trailers are supposed to be temporary, but FEMA told the Herald it sometimes allows recipients to hang on to them in cases of particular hardship. Kilpatrick said she was not the only one in her neighborhood still living in FEMA housing since Charley.

She was most concerned about her friend and neighbor Sharon.

“I am worried that a storm wind might come down on top of her,” said Carter Kilpatrick of Sharon, who ended up sleeping on the floor of her totaled home despite FEMA telling her she should move.

“That house is really unlivable,” she said of her neighbor’s two-story home, which she has owned for the past 10 years. Her friend is a correctional officer with a heart condition that keeps her in and out of the hospital.

“I shouldn’t be living here, but I do,” the friend said over the phone on a day when she was not feeling well.

Paradise lost — for now

Bruce Matthewson and his wife, April, built and designed their retirement dream home on the river. To them, it was paradise. And now they get to do it all over again. At least the “building it” part.

As soon as he saw the storm heading in his direction, he called in an order for new shingles in anticipation of having to replace his roof.

“Insurance sucks — that’s why I self-insured,” said Matthewson, who lives with his wife in the same neighborhood as his daughter and son-in-law. Instead of paying for insurance, he saved up money to help with recovery costs.

Every day of cleaning up his property and making repairs has felt like a week, a regimen made all the more harsh by having to sleep on an air mattress in a shed. And yet he knows he is lucky to have the resources to rebuild. And so he will.