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Politics

Promise of money may deter protection

Some are postponing storm improvements because they're waiting for the state to pay.

By IVAN PENN
Published March 23, 2007


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It was supposed to increase the number of homes protected against hurricanes.

But the slow pace of the state's My Safe Florida Home program is having an opposite, unintended effect: Fewer homeowners than normal are seeking to strengthen their homes, some because they're waiting for the state's promise of up to $5,000 in grant money.

Contractors and manufacturers of hurricane shutters, windows and doors say the lure of government assistance is leading consumers to hold off on making improvements. That's causing an unusual drop in sales.

"It's a joke. It's a total joke in this industry," said Mark Wark of MBP Hurricane Preparedness in Largo. "Consumers are waiting to see what happens with the program. The whole program is killing sales."

Thomas Johnston, vice president of the International Hurricane Protection Association, a 200-member Florida organization that includes state agencies and local governments, said he thinks the state meant well. But he said action needs to be taken to help the slumping businesses.

"The program itself is not a bad thing," Johnston said. "But it did put a damper on business."

Johnston said sales at his company, Town & Country Industries of Fort Lauderdale - which makes hurricane shutters, windows and doors - is down 70 percent from this time last year.

At Home Depot, spokesman Don Harrison said he could not quantify the drop, but, "Sales of hurricane shutters have slowed compared to last year. They have slowed noticeably."

The hurricane protection products industry did not blame all of the decline on My Safe Florida Home. It attributes some of the slowdown to last year's uneventful hurricane season, to a shortage of disposable income because of high property taxes and insurance, and to the downturn in the building industry.

Garrett Walton, chairman of the state's Windstorm Study Committee, said he does not think a statewide decline in hurricane protection products could be attributed to My Safe Florida Home. "That's a little hard to imagine," Walton said. "I can see it having some impact, but it's not significant."

If a lot of people are waiting for grants from the state, "Some people are going to be disappointed," he said. "There just isn't that much money."

The decision by homeowners not to protect their homes couldn't come at a worse time. Forecasters predict a busy hurricane season with as many as 17 named storms.

The Legislature created the My Safe Florida Home program in May in response to the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which devastated communities and prompted a dramatic spike in homeowners insurance costs.

The program offers free home inspections and matching grants of up to $5,000 for qualified homeowners to make recommended improvements.

The program has hit a series of snags, starting last summer with troubles in the computer system that logged applications.

The pilot phase ended with about 14,000 receiving the free home inspection but 50,000 others stuck on a waiting list. The inspections are expected to begin again in mid April.

This week, the Department of Financial Services announced that it would reissue letters to homeowners who qualify for the matching grants because the first letters were confusing.

Not a single homeowner has received any money, though the department said Thursday that's about to change: Six homeowners have completed their recommended improvements, and the state could be issuing them checks soon.

Four thousand homeowners have applied for grants, which department spokeswoman Tara Klimek said is "a positive sign that thousands of Florida homeowners are currently hardening their homes."

Alex Sink, who inherited the program when she took over as chief financial officer in January, and other government officials have been critical of the missteps and slow pace. Sink has said checks should have been in homeowners' hands long ago.

Now comes the frustration of those in the hurricane protection industry.

"The thing was destined to run aground," said Greg Pugh, a hurricane protection contractor with Florida Energy Systems Inc., which also is suffering from the sales slump. "It's like somebody flipped a switch and everybody stopped buying hurricane products."

Wark of MBP Hurricane Preparedness said some contractors are looking to hire a lobbyist to get lawmakers to address the problems with My Safe Florida Home.

Wark says the program needs leadership. "The problem is the program is so poorly managed and poorly run."

Ivan Penn covers consumer affairs issues. He can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

[Last modified March 23, 2007, 07:19:01]


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