Hurricane Ian floods leave chaos, insurance issues behind

Christine Barrett was inside her family’s home in North Port during Hurricane Ian when one of her children started screaming that water was coming out of the shower.

Then he started coming in from outside the house. Eventually the family had to climb over their kitchen cupboards – they put water wings on their 1-year-old – and were rescued the next day by boat.

After the flood waters receded, Barrett and her family were cleaning up the wet and muddy house. Spread out on the front lawn were chairs, a dresser, couch cushions, floorboards, and a pile of wet drywall. Similar scenes played out across the block as residents scrambled to clean up the wet mess before the mold took hold.

North Port is about 5 miles (8 km) inland and the Barretts – like many of its residents – live in areas where flood insurance is not required and therefore do not have it. Now many are wondering how they will afford the necessary repairs.

“Nobody in this neighborhood has flood insurance because we’re a non-flooding area,” he said. “But we had 14 inches of water in our house.”

Many people associate hurricanes with wind damage – downed power lines, shingles or roofing materials, trees downed on homes or windows broken by flying objects, and Hurricane Ian’s 150 mph (241 km/h) winds ) certainly caused extensive damage.

But hurricanes can also pack a huge storm surge like Ian did in places like Naples or Fort Myers Beach.

Heavy rainfall from hurricanes can also cause widespread flooding away from the beach. Ian dumped hours of rain as it lashed across the state, sending waterways overflowing their banks and hitting homes and businesses far inland from where Ian arrived. People were using kayaks to evacuate their flooded homes, and flood waters in some areas have yet to recede a week after landfall.

“This is such a big storm, that brought so much water, that you’re basically dealing with a 500-year flood,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

But flooding is not covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy.

It must be purchased separately — usually from the federal government. Although most people are able to purchase flood insurance, it is only required on government-backed mortgages located in areas that the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers higher risk. Many banks also require it in high risk zones. But some homeowners who pay off their mortgage drop flood insurance once it’s no longer required. Or if they buy a house or RV with cash, they may not choose it at all. And flooding can and does occur outside of high-risk areas where flood insurance is required.

There have long been concerns that not enough people have flood insurance, especially at a time when climate change is making powerful hurricanes even stronger and making storms generally wetter, slower and more prone to rapid intensification. According to the Insurance Information Institute, only about 4% of homeowners nationwide have flood insurance, even though 90% of U.S. disasters involve flooding. In Florida that number is only about 18%.

“We’ve experienced catastrophic flooding across the US this year, including in Kentucky and Missouri, where virtually no one had flood insurance,” said Mark Friedlander of the Institute.

Hurricane Ian caused widespread flooding in areas outside the high risk zones. About 18.5 percent of homes in counties under evacuation orders had federal flood insurance issued, according to consulting firm Milliman. In areas under evacuation orders that were outside the high-risk zones, 9.4% of homes had a policy.

Last year, FEMA updated its flood insurance pricing system to more accurately reflect risk called Flood Rating 2.0. The old system looked at a house’s elevation and whether it was in a high-risk flood zone. Risk Rating 2.0 looks at the risk of an individual property being flooded, taking into account factors such as its distance from water. The new pricing system increases rates for around three-quarters of policyholders and offers price reductions for the first time.

FEMA has long said the new ratings will attract new policyholders. But a FEMA report to the Treasury secretary and a handful of congressional leaders last year said far fewer people would buy flood insurance as prices rise. Since Florida’s new evaluation system went into effect, the number of police officers in the state has decreased by about 50,000 as of August 2021.

After a federal disaster, homeowners with flood insurance are likely to get more money, faster, to recover and rebuild than the uninsured.

After major flooding in Louisiana in 2016, for example, the average payout to a flood insurance holder was $86,500, according to FEMA. Uninsured homeowners could receive individual assistance payments for needs such as temporary housing and property damage, but the average was about $9,150.

Congress sometimes provides additional aid after major disasters, though it can take months to years to arrive.

“If you don’t have flood insurance, the federal government is not going to give you enough help to rebuild your home,” said Rob Moore, director of the water and climate group at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the North Port neighborhood Ian was cleaning up, Ron Audette wasn’t sure if he would get flood insurance in the future because of the cost. The retired U.S. Navy sailor was cleaning his one-story home on a corner lot after floodwaters buckled laminate flooring, swelled wooden furniture and left the leather recliner where he watched Patriots games a muddy, watery mess.

“I don’t think we could live here if we had to buy flood insurance,” he said.

But down the road, Barrett’s neighbor was definitely planning to get it.

“Get flood insurance even if it’s not required,” he advised. “Because we sure will now.”


Phyllis reported from St. Louis, Missouri.


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