Florida’s aging population and preparing for the next big natural disaster

Last week I got a call from a writer based in Florida who is doing an article for the AARP Magazine (American Association of Retired People). The reporter was doing research to coordinate information that may be useful to folks whom may have the unfortunate experience of suffering through a catastrophic event that many of us in the insurance claims business have dealt with for our entire professional careers. The article, I am told, will be focused on how to prepare for and survive a natural disaster and other catastrophic events for this unique population of folks who are 55 years young and older.

During the course of our somewhat lengthy conversation, we discussed issues that will likely arise following a hurricane or other massive destruction especially in densely populated geographical areas like Southeast Florida which includes the miles of coast that seemingly draws folks to the ocean shore like a moth to a flame. We shared some common experiences like the impact Hurricane Wilma had in both Southwest and Southeast Florida back in 2005. Issues such as power outages, lack of fuel, traffic gridlock and folks stuck in high-rise condominiums, especially elderly residents that had no working utilities, food or a way to exit the high-rise building due to inoperative elevators.

As our conversation went on, my mind kept flashing back to all the storms and destruction I have seen over the last 32 years as a public adjuster handling property insurance claims. The one common denominator I kept coming back to was the desire of folks wanting to get their life back (as it was before the storm) as soon as possible, which of course may not happen when the next big one rolls by. So with deep reflection, I really could not offer any sage advice that would be bullet points that folks should or could follow, as facts and situations are always different with each catastrophic event.

The one thing that kept coming to mind that is an absolute requirement for folks who choose to live in harm’s way was the need to embrace personal responsibility for themselves and their property.  So you ask, what is personal responsibility?  Well, the short answer is that one needs to plan on taking care of oneself and their family.  I don’t say this lightly as I know a lot of folks are always working on disaster preparedness issues both at the state and federal level.  But from my experience, life, health and safety issues from first responders will come first.  After that, long-term issues like property repairs, replacement, alternative housing (both short and long term), real economical losses such as loss of jobs and displacement of large populations will likely be left to individuals to fend for themselves.  Of course there will always be some type of intervention from some well-meaning government and private agencies, but one best not be lulled into complacency. Just remember, the mantra has always been to “get your life back like it was before tomorrow.”  That folks is not going to happen.

In fact, I would not be surprised to see (following a massive Cat event) the media reporting on the disorderly scenes we see nightly playing out in Europe. Don’t think that won’t happen here?  Think about a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane that hits between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale with an exit of the storm from Florida’s West Coast and then maybe a strike in the Northern Gulf or west to Texas. If you think that’s not going to happen, then research the track of Hurricane Andrew back in 1992. Then factor in the massive population increases we have seen in Florida over the past 25 years.

Even when things were relatively good (financially) back in 1992, who could forget Kate Hale’s (Dade County’s Emergency Manager) famous words as people emerged from the ruins of their homes-“Where in the hell is the Calvary on this one? ” 

Fast forward to today.  With budget shortfalls in both the federal and state sectors, the money and resources that once flowed freely in past massive Cat events is not likely to be there now. And remember, even if one has the money, there will always be the issue of material shortages, labor issues, building code’s upgrade requirements and of course, the insurance adjustment component. And then there is always the nightmare scenario of two Cat events, one on the west coast (think earthquake) and a Cat 3 or above hurricane on the east coast. Don’t think that’s not a real concern?  Think again, as I have been part of conversations with officials and insurance professionals that shared their common concerns about this worst case scenario with me.

Please remember, personal responsibility for your survival and recovery is first and foremost in your hands. The state or federal government is not going to save you, nor will the insurance industry be the knight in shining armor riding into town to rescue you. While this is not the news people want to hear or think about and since I have no detailed template to provide folks about a personal responsibility disaster plan, the following are a few tips you may want to think about.

1. The number one consideration I tell folks in seminars and workshops is that they need to be keenly aware of their location in terms of geography. Where your home or business is located will likely determine the most pressing and likely risk factors. As an example, if you live in an area likely to flood and I don’t mean just a federal designated flood zone (or even an area with no history of flooding), take the time to read the definition of a “flood” in the National Flood Insurance Policy. Planning for high water and especially a safe exit route before the flood water rises is critical. Water is as great or a greater cause of damage to real property and loss of life as hurricane winds.

2. Next up is outlining a plan for housing or an alternative site to restart your business. This should be high on everyone’s list. How many people have a plan to secure housing long term? Not many.  Remember FEMA failed in Hurricane Katrina with their plan for housing.  That turned out to be a very bad plan given the toxic odors from formaldehyde that were off gassing in the small housing units shipped in and set up by FEMA.  FEMA planning changed after Super Storm Sandy due to the dense population and mass amount of damages on the Northeast Coast line affected by Sandy’s flooding. The thinking was to have people shelter in place long term. This plan was formulated to pay for building items that would allow for heat and water in damaged homes up front and let the insurance adjustment and permanent repair process follow later.  In many cases the repair replacement process went on for years because of building law and ordinance issues. For the most part, this was money that was advanced under the NFIP (flood program). With no flood insurance, your options were limited.  Just so you get the picture, people were living in houses that had been gutted but heat and water were available, so homes were so called “livable” but often with blue tarps covering the roofs and gutted interiors. 

3.  Which brings me to my favorite subject; property insurance.  As I said above, the insurance industry is not going to save you, but if you have some coverage it’s at least a start. Remember, property insurance policies are like Swiss cheese, full of holes. As part of your personal responsibility plan, get your policy out and see if you can understand (or get an insurance professional to help explain) exactly what is and isn’t covered. Remember to check dollar amounts, property covered, perils excluded, definitions, etc.  Yep, not going to put you back where you were any time soon dealing with the maze of insurance speak as well as the buy low, sell high game of insurance adjusting settlement strategies and tactics.

4. Next up is money.  A few years ago, a lot of media were reporting about the bad financial shape millions of Americans were in. What made this story catch on was that it cited the fact that millions of Americans could not come up with $500 to cover an emergency expense. Think about that, $500 dollars! Then consider the emergency expenses that will be required following a massive Cat event. Sure, if you have insurance, your company may give you an advance and FEMA may issue a grant of a few thousand dollars; but trust me, unless you are very well off financially money will be a huge issue. Lastly, on the money issue, if your property is in a flood zone and you do have flood and wind insurance, guess what? If both perils cause damage, you are in for the financial fight of your life. Why?  Because it’s the chicken vs. the egg argument of which came first the wind or the water?

I could go on and on about issues our public adjusting firm has seen and been involved with but what I can tell you is that the folks who have a well thought out plan centered on a personal responsibility theme tailored to their specific situation are the folks that generally make it through.  If you are depending on your insurance company, the federal, state or local government, well you are just that -depending on them.

So far, how has that worked out for you?

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"On Property" Insurance Claim Tips Blog

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