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Lack of flood insurance in hard-hit Central Florida leaves families struggling after Hurricane Ian

<i>Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>People paddle by in a canoe next to a submerged car in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Orlando on September 29.
AFP via Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
People paddle by in a canoe next to a submerged car in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Orlando on September 29.

By Casey Tolan and Curt Devine, CNN

When Amanda Trompeta was woken up by her dog barking early last Thursday morning, she assumed he was just frightened by Hurricane Ian. But then she got out of bed — and found herself standing ankle-deep in floodwater.

By the time the storm passed, three and a half feet of murky, dark water had swept into Trompeta’s house in the Orlando suburb of Winter Springs. “It went everywhere, every single room,” she said. “All the floors, all the walls have to be redone — everything is ruined.”

Despite the devastation, when Trompeta called her insurance company, she came to an unpleasant realization: “They are not planning on covering anything.”

Homeowners insurance policies typically don’t cover flood damage, and most people living in Ian’s path across Florida didn’t have a separate flood insurance policy. Inland areas that experienced historic rainfall and catastrophic floodwaters were especially unprepared, according to a CNN analysis of FEMA flood insurance data.

About a fourth of single-family homes in coastal Lee County, where Ian came onshore, are covered by federal flood insurance. The coverage rates are higher in some of the hardest-hit areas of the county, like Sanibel Island, where about half of homes are covered.

But further inland, only about 4% of single-family homes in Seminole County, 3% of homes in Orange County and 2% of homes in Polk County are covered by flood insurance. All of those counties have reported significant flooding during Ian.

“The most concerning factor coming out of the storm and all the losses is the lack of flood insurance, particularly in the Central Florida area,” said Mark Friedlander, the corporate communications director of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.

While people without flood insurance will still be eligible for assistance payments from FEMA and potentially other aid approved by Congress, many homeowners will likely only receive a tiny fraction of the cost of the damage they suffered.

“People are going to be really disappointed when they see what funds they get and how short they are in helping them recover,” Friedlander said.

Ian cut a swathe of disaster across Florida’s mid-section, inundating communities with historic levels of rain from Fort Myers on the southwest coast, through the Orlando region and up into the northeastern corner of the state. The floodwaters turned towns into rivers, and forced some residents to kayak through their living rooms to assess the damage.

In inland Central Florida — which marked its wettest month on record in September — officials reported considerable damage and high flood levels that persisted even days after the storm passed.

In Seminole County, northeast of Orlando, more than 5,200 residential buildings have been damaged by the storm, primarily due to flooding, according to a county spokesperson. “We’ve never had anything to this nature,” said Jay Zembower, a Seminole County commissioner, calling the flooding “a 500-plus-year event of quick rainfall in a short window of time.”

Polk County has counted about 3,000 buildings damaged in the storm, Orange County has tallied about 1,200, and Volusia County on the state’s eastern coast has at least 4,000 damaged, county officials said. All of the counties said their numbers are preliminary — in some cases because damage assessment teams still haven’t been able to reach some flooded areas.

Previous hurricanes like Irma in 2017 also caused significant damage in the region. But much of that damage in Seminole County, at least, was from wind and debris, which is covered by typical homeowners insurance policies, and not flooding, the county spokesperson said.

Now, the lack of flood insurance is a major hurdle for families trying to get back on their feet. Homeowners are generally required to purchase flood insurance if they live in a FEMA-designated flood zone and have a federally-backed mortgage. But the flooding from Ian stretched beyond that floodplain in Central Florida and elsewhere, according to an analysis by the satellite mapping company ICEYE.

That means that many of those affected by the floods, especially away from the coasts, likely didn’t have flood insurance and can’t count on any insurance payments to help them.

In Winter Springs, for example, at least 2,000 buildings have been affected, according to county officials, but there are only about 525 federal flood insurance policies active in the city, FEMA records show.

Trompeta, whose neighborhood is littered with debris and waterlogged furniture piled on front lawns, said the lack of flood insurance on the home that she and her fiancé bought a few years ago threw her carefully planned finances out of whack.

“It’s obviously a big setback,” she said. “We both have student debt,” and with the federal forgiveness program, she added, “I was on track to be debt-free in a year.”

“Now we have to focus on rebuilding the house so that we have some place to live,” Trompeta said.

Without flood insurance, people like Trompeta will be forced to apply for other government aid like FEMA’s individual assistance programs. Those payments are capped at about $38,000, and after past hurricanes, many people ended up receiving roughly $5,000 to $10,000, said Roy Wright, the former chief executive of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

“The US disaster programs presume that homeowners are insured,” Wright said. The individual assistance programs “are there not even as a safety net but simply as a helping hand to those who were left in a bad spot,” he said.

Congress could also pass additional disaster aid — like lawmakers did in the wake of previous major hurricanes, like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey. But it could take months or longer for the funding to be approved and for affected communities to receive it, Wright said.

Experts like Wright said that the widespread damage from Ian should be a wake-up call that far more homeowners around the US need to purchase flood insurance — even if they don’t own a waterfront property. That’s especially the case as climate change leads to stronger and more frequent storms.

While some people have purchased private flood insurance that’s not captured in the FEMA data, the federal flood insurance program still accounts for about 80% of the policies in Florida, Friedlander said.

Research has also found that FEMA’s flood maps underestimate the danger in some areas as climate change advances, leaving some homeowners unaware of their level of risk.

Meanwhile, even some of the families affected by Ian who do have flood insurance are finding that it’s not enough to account for all of their damage. Federal flood insurance caps payouts for single-family home damage at $250,000 and contents of the home at $100,000.

Pamela Sanders said her family’s home in Geneva, Florida has had flood insurance for years, but she expects the damage the home suffered during Ian’s onslaught to exceed her maximum coverage. Floodwaters that swept through her neighborhood left the lower story of her house under water and mold is already growing on the second floor.

“It’s unbelievable,” Sanders said. “I always had a job, paid my bills, paid off my house, was all set for retirement — and now I’m 75 and homeless.”

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