Florida program has been boon for FLASH

The nonprofit, founded in Tallahassee, now has a national profile after the state awarded it a storm-mitigation contract.

Published January 17, 2007

When the state made the My Safe Florida Home program the centerpiece of its response to the property insurance crisis, it raised the profile of a nonprofit organization called FLASH.

The state awarded FLASH - the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes - a no-bid contract of almost $3-million to help launch the program. FLASH's mission was to create a system for training inspectors and contractors and to conduct free inspections to see how homes can be armored against hurricanes.

So what is FLASH?

Its president, Leslie Chapman-Henderson, says it seeks to be the disaster safety equivalent of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a scientific and educational organization that seeks to prevent losses due to highway crashes. She says FLASH is a consumer organization like no other.

It is rooted in the insurance industry. A FLASH newsletter in 2000 stated that its founding members were Allstate Floridian Insurance Co., the Florida Insurance Council, State Farm Insurance Cos. and the Institute for Business & Home Safety, an insurance industry trade association.

FLASH incorporated in March 2000 as the Florida Alliance for Safe Homes. The Tallahassee-based nonprofit formed as an educational organization with a purpose of promoting public awareness about the need for protection of homes and communities against loss and damage from natural disasters.

About a year later, FLASH added nine board members to the corporate record, including Chapman-Henderson, who was a former spokeswoman for Allstate Insurance and former chairwoman of the Allstate Foundation.

Of the eight other members, six either represented or lobbied for the insurance industry.

In February 2002, the organization changed its name from the Florida Alliance for Safe Homes to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes to reflect the broadening scope of its vision.

FLASH now travels nationwide and has worked with disaster officials in Maryland, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and others.

"Before we existed there was no one-stop shopping location to learn how to fix your house," Chapman-Henderson said.

That was FLASH's mission when it formed as a spin-off of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a 30-year-old, Tampa-based insurance industry trade association.

Spokeswoman Wendy Rose said the organization provides free research and assistance to FLASH for its work.

"We still work closely together on the same issues," Rose said.

Because of Chapman-Henderson's work as head of FLASH, then-Gov. Jeb Bush named her his consumer representative and, along with the Legislature, appointed her to advisory panels on insurance issues.

Insurance companies and state contracts have provided FLASH with much of its revenue, which averages about $1.2-million a year.

Last year, FLASH received $375,000 from State Farm, a frequent contributor that also sits on the nonprofit organization's board.

The FLASH board now has 14 members; six are tied to the insurance industry. They are:

Nancy Baily-Williamson, president and CEO of Travelers of Florida; Cecil Pearce, a vice president of American Insurance Association; Andy Martinez, public outreach and education director for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and formerly the legislative director for Nationwide Insurance; Kent Jespersen, an assistant vice president for State Farm; Deborah Murphy, a vice president of USAA insurance; Sandy Safley, a lawyer who was a registered lobbyist for USAA and other insurance companies in 2006.

(Chapman-Henderson's husband, Robert A. Henderson, is an assistant vice president and a senior lobbyist for USAA. She said he did not lobby on behalf of the My Safe Florida Home program in the last legislative session, when lawmakers created the program.)

The remaining board members are: Gary D. White, the Home Depot; Ben May, Walt Disney World Co.; Steven Cooper, the National Weather Service; Richard Weiland, the International Code Council; David Halstead, state Division of Emergency Management; Charles McCool, Emergency Preparedness Division of the Northeast Florida Regional Council; Steve Seibert, former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.

"I find it a very caring and sensible board" that looks out for consumers, said Seibert, now a private lawyer. "I just think it's a very noble cause and quite effective in getting out a message people seem to respond to."

FLASH has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and on CNN and a program with TV home improvement personality Bob Vila.

"Certainly they've been in the forefront on education in providing education brochures and resources for people that are trying to build safe homes and improve their homes," said Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Licensing Board who was part of a FLASH advisory panel when the organization began.

Chapman-Henderson, 47, said she was the first of the company's 14 employees, taking the position as head of the organization when she left the insurance industry after 12 years.

Her salary rose from $110,000 in 2000 to $176,593 in 2005, according to the organization's most recent tax filings.

Said Chapman-Henderson: "We are incredibly proud of what we are and what we do."