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Romano: Even when you have flood insurance, sometimes you will still lose

Picture shows the water level of flooding at Bill and Jill Coyle's Crystal River home from Hurricane Hermine in September. Their home was declared "substantially damaged" by FEMA standards, which essentially means the house will have to be rebuilt at a higher elevation. [Photo courtesy of Coyle family]
Picture shows the water level of flooding at Bill and Jill Coyle's Crystal River home from Hurricane Hermine in September. Their home was declared "substantially damaged" by FEMA standards, which essentially means the house will have to be rebuilt at a higher elevation. [Photo courtesy of Coyle family]
Published Feb. 12, 2017

You do everything the right way. You buy flood insurance, even though you have no lender demanding it. You surround your doors with sandbags for the approaching storm. You evacuate just as local officials ask, even though you are hesitant to abandon the house you bought less than a year ago.

And where does it all get you?

Sleeping on a mattress on a hard floor for the past five months while you worry about the black mold creeping up your walls.

This is not the brochure of paradise Bill and Jill Coyle imagined when they sold their home and business in New Jersey and moved to Crystal River near the end of 2015.

But they have been caught in a bureaucratic vortex that the Federal Emergency Management Agency both created and now perpetuates through its National Flood Insurance Program.

"I'm a very optimistic person,'' Bill Coyle, 52, said, "but after 2½ hours on the phone with FEMA people, I looked out my window at the beautiful water and I thought, 'Now I know how someone could just walk into the water and end it all.' It really is that discouraging.''

The Coyles are not the only ones stuck in this predicament. Between Hurricane Hermine (in Citrus County) and Hurricane Matthew (in St. Johns), there are dozens of Florida families who were insured for floods but could still lose their homes after last year's storm season.

To be fair, there is no sinister plot or agenda driving this problem. In many ways, it makes sense philosophically. But there are gaping holes in FEMA's execution that could devastate a place like Pinellas County, which has more NFIP policies than 43 states.

"There needs to be more flexibility for communities like ours,'' Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford said. "It's ridiculously limiting.''

Here's the issue:

In an effort to rid communities of flood-prone houses, FEMA has essentially blackmailed municipalities to pass ordinances that require homes "substantially damaged'' by floods to be rebuilt at higher elevations. If those ordinances are not passed, FEMA will not make flood policies available there.

A home is considered "substantially damaged'' if the repairs exceed 50 percent of the structure's value. And it's important to understand the distinction between structure and property. A waterfront property might be worth $500,000, while the home on it might account for just $150,000 of that.

So if repairs exceed half the value of the structure, homeowners must raise the elevation of the house to FEMA's specifications or else they will not get the permitting required for repairs.

Now, raising the elevation of a home — which could require razing and rebuilding the entire house, or turning the existing house into a garage and building a new house on top of it, or physically lifting the home with a crane and fortifying the ground underneath — can be extremely expensive.

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And this is where homeowners have a problem.

Flood insurance will only pay for the repair amount.

This means one federal agency — FEMA — is basically declaring your house a total loss while another branch — NFIP — says it is only responsible for paying for specific repairs.

The result is you can't get permits to repair your home unless you can also afford to raise the elevation.

"We have people who are still out of their homes, and this is from a storm in September,'' said Crystal River city official Jackie Gorman, who has been responsible for verifying damages. "It's terrible; I feel so sad for them. But in order to keep insurance (policies available) this is what FEMA says we have to do.''

In the case of the Coyles, the money simply doesn't add up.

Using the money from selling their house in New Jersey, they bought their home mortgage-free for $360,000 in 2015. But most of that cost is tied up in the waterfront lot. The house itself is 50 years old, and the county property appraiser says, with depreciation, the structure is worth only $77,000.

A contractor put flood damage costs at $92,000. The NFIP said it was $65,000. Either way, they were well over the 50 percent "substantially damaged'' threshold.

The insurance company is offering roughly $90,000, which includes extra money for elevation compliance. Yet all the various methods of repairing the home with a new elevation have ranged from $155,000 to $240,000. That's at least $65,000 and as much as $150,000 the insurance policy isn't paying.

"I wake up at 2 a.m. and lay on my mattress on the floor, wondering how I'm going to resolve this,'' Coyle said.

Some residents initially thought the "substantially damaged'' clause was a windfall. They assumed their entire house would be renovated, and they pushed to get over the 50 percent threshold.

"Then later when they found out the insurance company wasn't paying for all of it, they came back begging us to reverse our decision,'' said Carl Jones, of the Citrus County building department.

Some residents have sought independent appraisals that might assess their homes at a higher value than the county, and lower contractor estimates to get under the 50 percent repair costs.

Coyle hasn't done this because he wants his elevation raised to avoid this problem in the future. Which is why FEMA has pushed through these ordinances. The conflict is the NFIP's unwillingness to accept that these homes are essentially total losses, even though FEMA has made them that way. Not only is this a hardship for homeowners, it's potentially a community problem if people continue living in damaged homes or choose to walk away from existing mortgages.

If this were anything other than flood damage, most homeowner's policies would cover the difference. For instance, an older home damaged by a fire could get additional insurance funds to be brought up to code.

Chris Heidrick, who runs an insurance company in Sanibel and is chairman of the Flood Insurance Task Force, said he has participated in seminars in Washington that address this very issue.

"The NFIP recognizes there is a gap there, and they're trying to enhance the product, which is the correct solution,'' Heidrick said. "It's hard to find silver linings in events like Katrina or Sandy, but one silver lining is renewed scrutiny of NFIP policies. The evolution of flood insurance in the last five years is greater than the 35 preceding years.''

Living in one of the communities most at risk for flooding in America, we should be grateful FEMA is moving in the right direction when it comes to the long-term protection of homes and taxpayer money.

It would just be a whole lot better if people didn't lose their homes in the process.


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