Hundreds of thousands of homes in Florida are in flood-prone areas that are not federally designated as such, leaving many homeowners vulnerable to massive payouts for damages after Hurricane Ian.
According to data from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group, nearly 350,000 properties in the state are at risk of flooding but are not recognized as high risk in flood maps. of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
More than half, about 186,000, are in hard-hit areas along Florida’s west coast, where residents have been issued mandatory evacuation orders.
“Many very likely won’t have flood insurance because they wouldn’t have been told they were at risk of flooding,” said Matthew Eby, CEO of the First Street Foundation. “With a storm of this magnitude, the impacts of this are going to be catastrophic for these owners.
Ian is one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States. After making landfall on Wednesday, the Category 4 hurricane decimated many areas, although the extent of its destruction is still unknown.
In Charlotte County, where at least six people were killed in the storm, more than 50,000 homes at risk are not captured by FEMA maps, according to data from the First Street Foundation.
An additional 48,500 homes are at risk in Lee County, where officials say damage from Ian is extensive in Cayo Costa, Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Another 51,500 are in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, where Tampa and St. Petersburg are located, the nonprofit organization said.
Those without flood insurance can face exorbitant expenses, up to $50,000, to make structural repairs and get rid of mold, experts said. This does not include replacement costs for damaged appliances, furniture and personal effects.
“It’s almost limitless,” said Jennifer Lizardi, manager of Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, a nonprofit that helps potential buyers.
According to FEMA, a single inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage. The average loss paid by Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas in 2017, was $116,800, the Insurance Information Institute said.
Floods are the country’s most common and costly natural disaster, but many are ill-prepared for it, the institute said.
A 2020 survey by the group found that 27% of all U.S. homeowners insurance policyholders said they have flood insurance. Similarly, Wharton’s Center for Risk Management and Decision Making found that, on average, 30% of homes in the country’s highest risk areas have flood coverage.
Before closing on a property, mortgage lenders require homebuyers in FEMA flood zones to purchase additional flood insurance. But some new owners who don’t face that mandate may choose not to, largely because of high premiums, in addition to other crippling closing costs, Lizardi said.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind. That would be your normal scenario,” she said. “If I’m not in a flood zone, I don’t have to worry about it. It’s one less expense than I have.”
Others may opt out of flood insurance due to a lack of awareness. About 56% of consumers incorrectly assumed flooding would be covered by their homeowners’ policies, according to a 2021 survey by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
People who have recently moved to Florida may also lack knowledge about the flood risks residents have, said John Pantoja, chief operating officer and controller of South Florida Neighborhood Housing Services.
In the first full year of the pandemic, Florida’s population grew by nearly 361,000 — the largest annual increase since 2006, according to Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR), a branch research of the state legislature.
“It will be a learning process,” Pantoja said. “Those who come here, they will have this shocking experience at first.”
Eby said that’s part of why it’s critical that people have accurate, up-to-date information to determine their true vulnerabilities to flooding.
The First Street Foundation said it takes into account heavy rainfall, the impact of flooding of small waterways and climate change, and updates its models every year, while FEMA does not.
A 2017 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that FEMA “needs to improve its management and oversight of flood mapping projects to meet or reassess its program goals and ensure map production.” precise and timely flood warnings”.
FEMA did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. On its website, the agency said it “regularly releases new flood maps and data, giving communities across America access to useful, authoritative data they can use to take action. decisions about flood risk”.
However, FEMA flood maps aren’t the only way homeowners can learn about potential risks, said Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.
“There’s a lot of data out there that talks about flood risk, in addition to the information that FEMA gathers,” he said.
For example, Barry said, homebuyers should request a Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, report that can notify them of up to seven years of claims.
Massive flooding will likely continue to be more frequent and more destructive due to climate change, which will only put more homes at risk, Eby said.
“We need to think about these things now,” he said.
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