TALLAHASSEE -- It’s been 20 years since Hurricane Andrew ripped the roof off of Dr. Albert Zbik’s South Miami-Dade home, and flung it into his pool.
Zbik recalled that his insurer at the time, State Farm, reacted “superbly” in the chaotic hours after the storm, handing him a $10,000 check for his family’s immediate living expenses.
Now, he’s covered by Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has been raising rates and slashing coverage under the premise that it is one storm away from financial collapse.
“I don’t think Citizens would treat me as well” as State Farm, he said. “They’re cutting back on coverage. It’s an impending nightmare.”
Though history and science indicate hurricanes like Andrew hit Florida about once every 50 years, its 20th anniversary and the latest approaching tropical storm — Isaac — have many asking a crucial question: What would happen to the state’s largest insurer this year if another super-storm slammed Florida?
Despite Citizens’ claims of financial instability, a review of its books shows the insurer would, in fact, have enough money to pay its claims after an Andrew-like storm. After seven hurricane-free years, Citizens has amassed a giant cash surplus of $6.2 billion, making it highly unlikely that the state-run insurer would have to levy so-called “hurricane taxes” to pay for claims after a storm.
However, homeowners covered with Citizens may find that getting a claim filled can involve of a whirlwind of litigation, coverage denials and fine-print surprises.
For Zbik, rather than receiving $10,000 upfront, he estimates that he would have to pay as much as $7,000 out-of-pocket before his Citizens coverage kicked in. Since Hurricane Andrew, private insurers like State Farm have pulled out of large swaths of the state, leaving homeowners with a government-run insurance company that, in many cases, does not want them.
“Our objective is to remove policies from Citizens, and then provide them with qualified alternatives to Citizens,” said company president Barry Gilway. “That will be a huge area that I focus on and my team focuses on.”
At the direction of Gov. Rick Scott, Citizens has advanced a series of rate hikes and coverage reductions, in an aggressive campaign to make the state-run insurer less attractive than the shrinking private market.
Company leaders regularly point to state law that says when Citizens runs out of money, it must levy so-called “hurricane taxes” on most consumers to cover its shortfall. Those taxes are tacked onto annual insurance premiums as “assessments,” and Floridians are still paying charges stemming from the brutal 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
But during the recent hurricane-free streak, Citizens has saved up billions of dollars, a treasure chest that could withstand all but the most devastating of storm seasons without needing a taxpayer bailout.
Compared to the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons — which did trigger a taxpayer bailout and emergency assessments — Citizens today has four times as much cash to cover a storm. It has nearly twice the number of policies (1.4 million). It has $13.6 billion in investments, and an additional $8.4 billion in backup insurance to cover claims.