By Fred Grimm, Sun Sentinel columnist
In 2004, Hurricane Charley crossed western Cuba on a trajectory that threatened to devastate the Tampa Bay megalopolis.
Instead, the storm tilted eastward, rolled over Cayo Costa and battered coastal communities in Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Collier counties. Charley then took a destructive route northeast to the Atlantic.
Charley spared Tampa Bay, but the storm’s incursion into Southwest Florida added $15.5 billion in damages to the state’s perpetual insurance crisis.
Southwest Florida suffered a miserable déjà vu last week, as Hurricane Ian blew across Cuba on a track that once again menaced the low-lying cities clustered around Tampa Bay.
But like Charley, Ian swerved east toward landfall on the Cayo Costa barrier island. Again, 150 mph winds pushed a fearsome tidal surge into those same coastal communities, before taking another brutal route northeast to the Atlantic Ocean.
It was as if Ian was tracking the death and destruction left by Hurricane Charley 18 years ago. But when Florida’s insurance industry calculates the 2022 losses, similarities will fall away.
The Southwest Florida metropolis walloped by Charley — including Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte — have since added more than half a million residents. Home values in Southwest Florida have doubled and tripled since Charley. And this time Ian — wider, slower and meaner — pushed much more sea water into those communities. For much longer.
This time, the brutal surge reached Naples, adding another 20,000 residents to the 2022 misery quotient.
Lives were lost. Hundreds of homes, maybe thousands, were ruined. Businesses were destroyed. Roads and bridges were erased from the barrier islands.
The repair costs seem incalculable, except the state’s insurers well know that 2004′s $15.5 billion in losses represent just a fraction of the damages wrought by Ian.
One sure thing: Whatever the cost, you’ll get the bill.
Florida homeowners are already paying the highest average insurance premiums in the nation: $3,585, up 55% since 2019, according to Insurify, which tracks insurance costs.
Despite charging such stupendous rates, a dozen insurance companies have quit doing business in Florida since 2020. So far this year, another six insurers have been declared insolvent by state regulators. The Insurance Information Institute describes Florida, with three-quarters of its population living in coastal counties, as “not a sustainable market.”
Before Ian, insurers blamed their losses on bogus roofing claims and spurious litigation (both apparently South Florida specialties). The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation reported that in 2019, Floridians accounted for 8.16% of all U.S. homeowner insurance claims, yet they filed 76% of lawsuits challenging the outcomes.
Maybe state legislators can craft laws to stop the scammers and staunch the lawsuit epidemic. But new legislation won’t fix the fundamental problem faced by the insurance industry.
The historic data home insurers use to calculate risk has been skewed by climate change. Carbon emissions have altered weather patterns, increasing instances of wildfire, drought, heat waves, flooding and superstorms like Hurricane Ian.
Gov. Ron DeSantis described Ian as a 500-year storm. Nowadays, insurers grapple with 500-year disasters as regular occurrences.
NOAA reported that last year, the fourth hottest on record, was the third consecutive year in which the U.S. endured at least $20 billion-plus climate calamities.
Cascading natural disasters have wrecked the insurance industry in states unencumbered by Florida’s peculiar legal situation. Hurricanes in Louisiana, floods in Texas and wildfires in California have sent insurers into insolvency or caused them to cancel thousands of policies.
For good reason, Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier issued an emergency order last week, even as Ian loomed over coastal Florida, that barred property insurers from canceling homeowner policies until at least Nov. 28.
Perversely, the tidal surge and flooding that caused most of the storm damage may be what keeps Florida’s insurers solvent. Most of their insurance policies don’t cover those particular losses. Homeowners, instead, depend on federal flood insurance.
So, hurray, maybe the feds will cover a big chunk of the Ian losses. Or maybe not.
The New York Times reported Thursday that only 18.5% of homeowners in the Florida counties ordered to evacuate ahead of Ian had purchased policies from the National Flood Insurance Program.
I can’t imagine how Florida deals with that discouraging situation.
It’s no comfort for the disaster survivors of Southwest Florida, but the rest of us might find a tiny bit of solace knowing that, like Charley, Ian swerved east, away from Tampa Bay.
At least, amid all this misery, we’re not dealing with the aftermath of 12-foot waves smashing over the homes of 3.1 million Floridians.
That scenario would have just about ended affordable homeowner insurance in Florida.
This column originally ran in the Sun Sentinel. Fred Grimm, a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale, has worked as a journalist in South Florida since 1976. Reach him by email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @grimm_fred.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.