Twenty years ago, Hurricane Andrew’s punishing Category 5 winds left 180,000 homeless and altered the landscape of what was then known as Dade County. Today, even as another storm, Isaac, sweeps across the Caribbean toward possible landfall nearby, residents of South Florida and the rest of the state are in many ways better prepared for a direct hit by a violent windstorm than they were on Aug. 24, 1992.
• Building codes have been upgraded and our homes are safer, thanks to hurricane shutters, impact windows and other improvements paid for, in most cases, by homeowners themselves.
• Better forecasting and better science offer a clearer picture of what nature has in store for us. This gives residents more time to prepare and evacuate.
• The Internet and other forms of communication keep residents better informed and connected to each other.
• Necessary improvements to harden and safeguard vital infrastructure, including electric power and telephone lines, have been made, though they have yet to be tested under conditions similar to the devastating power of Andrew.
• Emergency managers and responders have been able to draw from the lessons of that storm 20 years ago, and others since, to react more quickly and efficiently when disaster strikes.
When it comes to insurance, however, it’s another story.
Large parts of the state have been effectively redlined by the private insurance sector. The state-backed “insurer of last resort,” Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, has become the biggest insurance company of all, with 1.45 million policies in force.
However, its customers are an unhappy lot, with much to be unhappy about. The latest initiative was a unilateral attempt to improve its balance sheet by creating a reinspection program that squeezed $137 million in premium increases out of its customers. Some South Florida legislators rightly claimed that this was an attempt to pull an end run around legislative rules and guidelines.
Last week, responding to the public outcry, Citizens revamped the program, but that alone is unlikely to satisfy its customers.
The agency has been saying that it faces a crisis because its rate structure is actuarially unsound, thus requiring higher rates, but there is a question about just how much of a risk it really faces. In May, Chief Financial Officer Sharon Binnun said that even another Andrew would not necessarily trigger more emergency assessments because the company is in better condition than ever, thanks to six years of no major storms.
It had some $19.5 billion in total resources to pay claims, including the state’s backup catastrophe fund and its own reserves, which have grown since then. This is a good area for inquiry by legislative leaders: What is the real state of Citizens’ finances?
It’s also fair to ask if the hurricane models used by Citizens, which tend to target South Florida because it’s a “high-risk area,” reflect the fact that of the 12 named hurricanes in Florida since 1994, only Wilma was limited in scope to South Florida counties. The other 11 struck central and northern Florida counties by a ratio of more than four to one.
The ultimate solution for Florida and other coastal states is a national, federally-managed windstorm insurance program. Florida’s congressional delegation should keep pushing to make that happen. Until then, state legislators need to keep pressing Citizens to come clean about its finances and treat its customers with greater fairness.