Floridians are looking to rebuild after Hurricane Ian wrought what Gov. Ron DeSantis described as “historic” damage to the Sunshine State. Lessons learned from past storms like Hurricane Michael can prove valuable when planning for future storms — but lack of insurance coverage could prove costly.
Hurricane Ian touched down as a Category 4 storm in Charlotte and Lee counties where DeSantis said in a press briefing from “ground zero” in Matlacha, Florida, that the storm “packed its biggest punch.” The storm knocked out a causeway, cutting off access from the mainland to Sanibel Island, home to more than 6,000 people. It also flattened businesses and homes in nearby Fort Myers Beach.
President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for the state of Florida earlier in the week, clearing the way for emergency services like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to provide disaster relief efforts. He did the same for South Carolina, after the storm strengthened into a Category 1 storm before making landfall a second time.

Many Lack Appropriate Flood Insurance Coverage

For homeowners dealing with the aftermath of the storm, rebuilding will be costly. Normal homeowners’ insurance may cover wind damage from a hurricane but not flooding. And many homeowners may not be aware they aren’t covered from the damages associated with floods.  In order to have a federally insured mortgage in zones designated as special flood hazard areas, homes must have flood insurance. Still, just 50 percent of households in special flood hazard areas have coverage, and even fewer — just 14 percent — have coverage across the broader state of Florida, according to independent consulting firm Milliman.
Nancy Watkins, principal and consulting actuary at Milliman, said people often underestimate the need for flood insurance.
“The rule about flood is, if you live in an area where it rains, you can have a flood loss. And people are not really aware of how significant their flood risk is,” she said.
If so many people need flood insurance, why do so few have it?
Watkins said it boils down to a few key problems. Some homeowners, like those living outside of special flood hazard areas in Florida, may think they don’t need it. But even those homeowners could face some fallout from a storm like Hurricane Ian. Still other homeowners, especially those in at-risk areas, may believe their normal homeowners insurance covers flood damage when, in fact, it doesn’t. 
Finally, there’s the cost. According to Forbes, flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance program costs on average about $995 annually.
But the cost of having no insurance at all can be much higher in the case of a disaster.
“Just a few inches of flood water in a finished area can cost tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Just think about if it's in your kitchen, and you've got six inches of floodwater. Then you've got to replace all the lower cabinets, and that implicates the countertops and the appliances. I mean, think how expensive that is,” Watkins said.
And unfortunately for homeowners, funds offered through federal disaster relief programs can be disappointing. Disaster assistance can come in the form of FEMA disaster grants or Small Business Administration loans. The average FEMA grant is about $5,000 per household, according to FEMA. Flood insurance claim payments over the past five years, by contrast, were about $69,000 on average.
Conducting a cost-benefit analysis of insurance versus potential damage may be tempting, but Watkins said insurance, while costly, is a vital investment for homeowners.
“You shouldn't look to your homeowners insurance policy as some sort of a savings bond where you get your money back,” Watkins said. “You hope that your house never gets destroyed and that you never have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. This is supposed to protect you in the worst case scenario from being destitute.” 
Outside of purchasing insurance coverage, there are some things prospective homeowners can do to shore up their homes for big storms.

The House That Survived Michael

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida in 2018, the storm was shocking in its speed and intensity. It made landfall in the town of Mexico Beach, Florida, as a Category 5 storm and devastated the area. But one home, visible in satellite imagery, made headlines for looking virtually untouched by the storm. Called the Sand Palace by owner Russell King, the home was built to withstand the effects of an aggressive storm. This meant constructing the home with reinforcements far beyond what Florida building codes require.
“It was our intention to build or to try to build a house that would survive a storm. And that was the year of Michael,” he said on a call after returning home to Tennessee. King said he drove in from Florida at 3 o'clock that morning after going to check on the condition of the Sand Palace amid Hurricane Ian. 
The Sand Palace is elevated on 40-foot pilings that extend well into the ground, ensuring it was raised above potential storm swells. The walls were constructed with reinforced concrete and filled with rebar, according to Charles Gaskin, an architectural draftsman who worked on the home. The roof was designed to minimize the amount of wind that can reach up and potentially decapitate the home. And the lower level was built with breakaway walls, designed to blow off during a storm.
King said he was inspired to build the home after reading a book by former Vice President Al Gore. And he hopes that others will follow in his footsteps.
“I know houses in Mexico Beach that were built to code, beyond the code. They were elevated. They did everything right. But they lost a window. The window was knocked out, because somebody else's house fell apart,” King said. “I don't want you to build a house in my neighborhood that doesn’t survive. Because if it doesn't, it's going to take somebody else's house out.”
Making preparations like King’s can help homeowners steel their homes against storms scientists say will become more frequent and more intense due to climate change. But it's expensive. Gaskin said the cost to install reinforced concrete walls can be double that of more conventional walls. Another tip, Gaskin recommended, is to avoid building on the beach altogether.
“I do a lot of buildings for people from the north: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. I've probably done 200 houses since Hurricane Michael hit. And they're still coming down here by the droves. I say, ‘Why do you want to build on the beach?’ ‘Oh, I just love the beach,’ and once they say that, you can't talk them out of it,” he said.

Education Is Crucial

That’s not to say Florida’s building codes are lacking. Gaskin said that aside from special requests, much of the Sand Palace was built to code. And Watkins praised the state of Florida for being “a leader” in strengthening its building codes to suit the increasing intensity of storms. 
Still, many Floridians staring down the damages of Ian may take cold comfort if they have an older construction or have homes built to code that are still facing catastrophic damage from the storm. 
Authorities have pushed to inform the populace about the risk of flooding through public education campaigns. Watkins urged homeowners to educate themselves and check up on their policies to ensure that they are covered, while also acknowledging many people don’t understand insurance, even their own policies. She said much of the onus should lie with realtors and insurance agents to educate the public.
“A lot of us don't really understand how insurance works, and we don’t understand that we might need to buy something that we're not required to buy. We rely on our trusted professionals, the insurance agents and the [real estate] professionals to give us good advice,” she said.
Homeowners can acquire flood coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) or from private insurers. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation lists just under 50 insurance companies that are qualified to offer primary or excess flood insurance outside of NFIP.