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Brace yourself for hurricanes

The season starts June 1, but a new program to help homeowners prepare won't be ready for 45 to 60 days.

By JONI JAMES
Published May 17, 2006


photo
[Times file photo]
Under a new law, many homeowners can qualify for up to $5,000 in matching dollars from the state to make hurricane-savvy renovations, such as adding storm shutters.
Read the relevant part of Senate Bill 1980

TALLAHASSEE - Floridians hoping a new state program will help them brace their homes for hurricanes are on their own until this year's storm season is well under way.

The $250-million hurricane mitigation program, part of a homeowners insurance overhaul signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Jeb Bush, will take at least 45 days and perhaps as long as 60 to set up, said Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, whose agency is charged with overseeing the program.

The hurricane season starts June 1.

Under the law, homeowners in site-built properties with insured values of $500,000 or less can qualify for up to $5,000 in matching dollars from the state to make hurricane-savvy renovations, such as adding storm shutters or reinforcing roof-to-wall connections. Low-income homeowners can receive grants up to $5,000 that don't require them to have matching money.

Gallagher said it could take up to two months to get the program organized. Among the tasks facing the Department of Financial Services: finding and vetting building inspectors who will first visit a property to determine its storm needs; and setting rules to prioritize which homeowners will be first in line for inspections and grants.

The law gives the department discretion in deciding which properties should get priority, such as coastal homes vs. those in interior counties. And Gallagher noted that his office will likely run background checks on inspectors, since they will be entering homes as a representative of a state agency.

"My goal is to get the hurricane damage mitigation program started as quickly as possible," Gallagher said. But "I suspect we are 45 to 60 days away from when we will start letting people know how they can apply and by what method."

Gallagher's remarks came as he and other state leaders attended Bush's signing of SB 1980, which Republicans have called the most sweeping insurance reform since the aftermath of 1992's Hurricane Andrew.

Besides the mitigation program, the law's highlights include more flexibility for private insurance companies to set premium rates; a new rate-setting structure for the state-run insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and a new way to assess property insurance policyholders when Citizens runs a debt.

Also Tuesday, state officials said three insurance companies have expressed interest in another program created under the law: a $250-million matching loan program for insurers that invest new capital to support additional policy writing in the Florida market.

State insurance officials declined to identify the companies, saying none have formally applied. The program limits loans to $25-million per company.

But even as state officials celebrated Bush's signing of the law, nearly all expressed concern that nothing in the law ensures that Florida won't face an even bigger insurance crisis if hit with more hurricanes this season. The state was hit by eight hurricanes in the past two seasons.

Citizens, which insures properties for owners who can't find it from a private company, has more exposure than a year ago, in part because of the collapse last month of three insurance lines owned by Poe Financial Group of Tampa.

State Farm's Florida unit also announced last week that it was shedding all 1,500 of its condominium association policies Jan. 1 and is transferring wind coverage for 39,000 homes in coastal areas to Citizens.

"We are at a critical point in the insurance marketplace in Florida," said Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty. "We have to brace ourselves for the upcoming hurricane season."

Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 17, 2006, 06:10:38]


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