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South Floridians pay most for windstorm insurance, stressing out homeowners

South Florida homeowners: Here's the reality. Other sections of the state, with miles of coastal development and plenty of hurricane risk, are still paying far less for windstorm coverage than you are.

For instance, buying $200,000 of Citizens Property Insurance coverage for a home in Escambia, which was walloped by Hurricane van, costs $2,028. The same coverage in parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties is $4,968 and $3,824 respectively.

Homeowners in northern coastal Miami-Dade enjoy the not-so-welcomed distinction of paying the most for windstorm insurance in Florida: $24.84 per $1,000 of coverage.

Residents east of the Intercoastal Waterway in Broward are only slightly better off: $19.12 per $1,000 of coverage.

Although this may be little comfort to South Floridians, Citizens as well as State Farm, Allstate Floridian and Nationwide of Florida are raising rates more in other areas of the state.

For instance, State Farm's rates along the Panhandle from Escambia through Franklin counties are going up 149 percent compared to a 125 average gain in Miami-Dade's coastal area. Citizens' rates in Brevard and Volusia counties are increasing more than 108 percent, compared to about 42 percent in parts of Broward.

Even though this year's storm season has been calm, having eight storms slam Florida in 2004 and 2005 is a key reason why insurers are seeking outsized rate increases.

îîGoing forward, you want to be sure that you're charging adequate rates. In the 1990s, rates weren't adequate,'' says Chris Neal, a spokesman for State Farm, which has been granted a 52 percent statewide hike. îîNo one knows what hurricanes in Florida should

cost. We have been wrong every time before.''

REINSURANCE FACTOR

Neal says a big factor for State Farm is reinsurance … insurance that insurers buy to reduce their losses. Reinsurance rates have jumped 50 percent to 100 percent this year. îîThat's what accounts for the sticker shock increases we're seeing,'' adds Neal.

For consumers, there's a bit of good news: The Office of Insurance Regulation has recently nixed rate hikes by Nationwide, Florida Peninsula and USAA. Last week, Allstate slightly reduced its rate request.

But that's of little use to Catherine Williams of Perrine. She was shifted to Citizens when her insurer, Clarendon National, bailed out of Florida. Her new premium will be about $3,800, up from $1,500.

That eats up more than half her annual fixed income. îîIt's impossible for me to pay that kind of money,'' says Williams.

This homeowner is not alone. South Florida's high rates perplex many residents.

Hurricane and insurance experts say the region's dense population and development increase the risk of exponential losses if a massive storm makes a direct hit.

In the past 100 years, 24 hurricanes classified Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale have made landfall in Florida. Twenty hit the southern half of the state … south of Tampa and Cape Canaveral … while only four hit the north. Three storms affected both parts of the state.

The 2004 storms were true to this pattern: Charley, Jeanne and Frances made landfall in the southern half of the state, while Ivan hit the north.

While having the state's strictest building code is definitely a positive, that's offset by South Florida's history of hurricanes, says

Shahid Hamid, director of financial research at Florida International University's International Hurricane Research Center.

Steve Burgess, the state's insurance consumer advocate, says that insurers tend to set rates based on a statewide projection of maximum future losses first and then calculate what potential losses could be on a regional basis.

Yet, he believes South Florida's dense development shouldn't be that big a negative. While there are more homes and buildings to insure here, there are also more premiums to collect. So, the losses should be relative, says Burgess.

Citizens' profits and losses in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe seem to back this up. From 2002 through 2004, with losses low, Citizens recorded $963 million in profits. But in 2005, because of Wilma, there was a $372 million net loss for the three counties.

CALCULATING LOSSES

After Andrew hit South Florida, insurers realized they needed a new way to figure their potential losses in a region. With fast computers and data including weather patterns, geography, building structure and population, insurers developed the computerized models that can crunch multiple scenarios for the possible losses if a massive storm hits, say, South Florida.

Nowadays, rates are set based on private models, which traditionally have looked at losses and storm patterns over 100 years. Florida is the only state to have built its own public model, which is being used by regulators to examine rate increase requests. Insurers can use the public model, but so far no company has taken that route.

As the modeling firms revise their models to incorporate the data from these past two years, a couple of firms have put more emphasis on the recent experience, resulting in predictions of higher losses and therefore higher rates needed to cover them.

Randy Dunn, associate professor of risk management and insurance at Florida State University and a member of the state board that approves the models each year, says without updating, the current models would underestimate the losses in 2004 and 2005.

îîTo my mind, the assumptions they are using are reasonable. Time will tell if it's correct or not.''

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