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Hurricane season ends, yet lingers

Officially, it's over today. But high insurance prices and construction delays could make the storms something we pay for all year.

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published November 30, 2005


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ST. PETERSBURG - The 22 hurricanes that missed Tampa Bay the past two years still have brought far-reaching changes in how we live and think.

Property insurance has become so exorbitant that people are going without it.

Major rebuilding elsewhere in the Southeast is causing a shortage of supplies and labor in the Tampa Bay area. Experts worry about a local construction slowdown.

And many residents now view hurricane season with a profound dread that is changing our habits, our decisions and our perspectives.

"My psyche has been devastated," says Ebe Bower, vice president of tourism for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. "I get anxious when the wind starts to blow really hard."

As another record-breaking hurricane season officially ends today, the impacts ricochet through the economy and collective psyche of an area that has not seen a major hurricane since 1921.

* * *

At her 361-unit mobile home park in Clearwater, manager Patricia Barnett says many residents simply have given up on property insurance.

"Fifty percent of my village is non-renewed. I've had people with $100,000 mobile homes fighting for $25,000 worth of coverage," said Barnett, manager of Bay Aristocrat Village Inc.

Nothing in Tampa Bay has been more affected by the hurricanes the past two years than insurance rates. In fact, every property owner in the state soon will pay more for insurance.

Thousands will be dropped by their insurance companies. This year, Allstate dropped 95,000 customers and Nationwide declined to renew 35,000.

Mobile home owners will struggle the most.

"Florida has more mobile homes than any other state in the country," said Sam Miller, executive vice president for the Florida Insurance Council in Tallahassee. "The private market is disappearing for mobile home insurance."

Many are turning to the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state's insurer of last resort. It is growing at a rate of 20,000 to 30,000 policies a month.

Richard and Christine Lance, retired postal workers from Ohio, couldn't get insurance for their $75,000 mobile home when they retired in Clearwater two years ago. They turned to Citizens and are paying $1,100 a year for $26,000 in insurance.

The insurance market is so dire, some state lawmakers are talking about creating a state pool that would pay for insured losses through a mix of state taxes and insurance premiums, Miller said. State officials also are lobbying the federal government to create a national catastrophe fund.

"If we continue to operate strictly with insurance companies, some folks think the premiums they'd have to charge to cover losses would be more than people can afford," he said.

Going without insurance is an increasingly popular option.

"I just keep my fingers crossed," said Nick Pollich, 70, a retiree from Michigan who has a $150,000 manufactured home at a park on Tampa Bay in Clearwater. "It's my choice not to insure it. I choose to gamble on it."

Citizens policyholders likely will pay at least 15 percent more in premiums in 2006. By mid-year, rates could go up 37 percent on homeowner policies and 80 percent for windstorm policies.

Property owners who still get insurance from a private company are being assessed a 6.8 percent increase in premiums to cover Citizens' $516-million deficit from 2004. The shortfall from 2005 is expected to top $950-million and translate to an 11 percent assessment for privately insured residents. A homeowner paying $1,500 a year in premiums would pay an additional $165 next year.

"This means that millionaires living in mansions on the water in Marco Island or Miami Beach are being subsidized by grandmothers on fixed incomes in trailer parks in Gainesville," said Bob Hartwig of the Insurance Information Network in New York. "It's an untenable situation."

* * *

About 2-million homes are built each year in the United States. But hurricanes will require the rebuilding or renovation of an additional 1-million homes in the next year, said Stan Geberer, an associate at an Orlando economic consulting firm.

Experts predict the flurry of building throughout the Southeast will lead to a shortage of building supplies and labor in the Tampa Bay area, meaning a probable slowdown in construction.

"To what extent, that's what has to be measured," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

The problem is that hurricanes have disrupted the ability of the rail system to get steel and other supplies to builders. In addition, fewer trucks are available because so many were diverted to Louisiana, said Mike Carroll, general manager of Carroll's Building Materials in St. Petersburg.

"There's mainly a problem moving stuff around and the (rebuilding) hasn't even started yet," Carroll said. "We haven't even seen the tip of the iceberg yet as far as Louisiana goes."

The higher cost of new homes, with a likely increase in interest rates, will further slow the real estate industry, Geberer said.

Florida real estate experts say they still have not seen the effects of the hurricanes on the real estate market in Tampa Bay. "I just think that the reasons to move to Florida are so many and varied and strong that I don't think a couple of hurricanes is going to change that," said Marvin Rose, president of Rose Residential Reports of Tarpons Springs, a real estate consultant. "It may make people think twice about buying on the beach, but it will just shift that demand to other parts of the state."

* * *

Joey Dima clearly remembers the 2004 hurricane season, when four hurricanes walloped Florida. That wasn't enough to make Dima consider selling his Indian Rocks Beach townhome. But this year, after Katrina, Rita and Wilma devastated the Southeast, Dima's thinking started to change.

"I found myself thinking about selling and moving farther inland or back to New Jersey," he said.

The frenzied hurricane activity of the past two years has made June through November a season of dread, six long months when fear increases like temperatures.

"When one goes by, that fear gets a little stronger that the next one is going to come here," said Jack Putzer, manager of a Pinellas Park mobile home park. "It's like rolling the dice. Sooner or later, you're going to get snake eyes."

The past two years have heightened awareness of hurricanes, from the science of storms to the havoc they can wreak. Ratings are up at the Weather Channel. We know more about spaghetti models, steering currents and ocean temperatures.

Residents also are more focused on the "potential impact," said Dr. Robert Moering, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

"They're a little more on edge," he said. "They feel vulnerable to some degree."

While several other Florida communities have learned the past two years what it means to get hit by a hurricane, Tampa Bay area residents can only wonder.

"I don't think we've internalized it," said Larry Gispert, Hillsborough County's emergency manager, "because we haven't taken a direct hit."

That could change. Experts predict the frenzy of hurricanes could continue for 10 to 20 years.

--Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 30, 2005, 07:18:15]


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