By Trevor Fraser
After the back-to-back named storms last year left billions of dollars in flood losses across Florida, one organization is warning that major reforms are needed to government regulations and flood insurance, especially inland as climate change makes storms wetter and more powerful.
As of January, FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, has paid out more than $2 billion of a projected $5.3 billion in flood claims from Hurricane Ian, according to the agency.
FEMA estimates 40,000 residential properties in metro Orlando are located in special hazard flood areas but only 18% of homeowners in Florida carry flood insurance.
Across the state, the Association of State Floodplain Managers estimates uninsured flood losses from Ian to be between $10 billion and $17 billion.
Chris Brown, executive director of SmarterSafer, a nonprofit that pushes for better disaster preparedness, says that’s how little homeowners understand about flood risks.
“We need better education so that people can make changes,” Brown said. “Even people who are legally required to have flood insurance don’t always [have it].”
In Florida, home sellers are not required to disclose whether a home has previously had flood damage, according to Lisa Hill, president of the Orlando Regional Realtor Association.
“We also always recommend that buyers get a home inspection before closing,” Hill said. “Inspectors can easily tell if a property was once wet.”
As storms become stronger, Brown warns that it isn’t only homes in designated flood zones that are at risk. A peer-reviewed study by universities in California and New York concluded climate change likely increased Ian’s rainfall by 10%.
Theresa Rogers’ home in Orlando’s Kingswood neighborhood flooded during Ian when a tree on her street fell and blocked the storm drain. Water got as deep as 10 inches in some rooms, Rogers said, requiring all her floors to be refinished, doors to be replaced and more.
After five months and “way beyond” $10,000 in expenses, Rogers says some rooms still need work. “It’s been very expensive and very traumatic,” she said. “And we’re lucky we have decent jobs.”
Rogers’ home isn’t in a designated flood zone, so she didn’t carry flood insurance. According to Orange County, about 33% of homes that experienced flooding in Ian weren’t in special hazard flood areas.
Brown says part of the issue is the way flood zones are mapped. He applauded FEMA’s Risk Rating 2.0, the agency’s first updated maps since the 1970s, which debuted last year.
“At the same time, more work needs to be done to ensure that the most advanced meteorological data is incorporated into the NFIP [the National Flood Insurance Program] and homeowners, renters and businesses have the most accurate and predictive information as possible,” Brown said.
Brown also wants municipalities to take a more active role in mitigation by preventing or limiting development inside flood zones.
Orange County doesn’t prohibit development in special flood hazard areas, said Daniel Neron, the county’s chief engineer, but the county does have special regulations for building in them, including an elevated floor and replacing fill dirt to make sure the floodplain can still retain water.
“People who buy in these areas need to know what the actual risk is, and they need to be paying the actuarial rate,” Brown said.
Brown doesn’t want to see people displaced from their communities. Among other reforms, Brown’s organization is looking to remove bureaucratic hurdles to having private flood insurance count toward coverage requirements. And he’s pushing municipalities to invest more in flood prevention.
“It’s going to take a lot of small things to make a difference,” Brown said. “We have to do some of this preventative stuff at home.”
A teacher at Lyman High School in Seminole County, Rogers, who said she looking into flood insurance now, said the experience taught her a lot she didn’t know about her own policy.
“It doesn’t cover rising water from a sewage backup,” she said. “It’s not just in the event of a hurricane. It can happen anytime.”
Trevor Fraser is a business reporter for the Orlando Sentinel covering insurance, real estate and general business news.