Short on Storm Coverage

Short on Storm Coverage

Lehrer Op-Ed in the Orlando Sentinel
July 16, 2007

So long as hurricanes continue to sweep through Florida's landscape, Floridians will have to find ways to repair the damage. As the Sentinel showed in a recent article, however, many Florida school districts expect that someone else will pay the cleanup bills.The Orange County School District, for example, carries only $20 million in insurance to protect nearly $5 billion worth of buildings. Other Central Florida school districts don't do much better.The problem, in fact, extends far beyond schools: roads, bridges, airports and other vital infrastructure all remain either uninsured or enormously underinsured. School districts and other government entities believe that the federal government, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), will pick up the bills for rebuilding.

They're probably wrong. While FEMA has provided plenty of grants and loans to repair these public works in the past, the gravy train has come to an end. Without much notice, the Bush administration gutted FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The agency has lost more than a third of its staff, most of its ongoing programs, and nearly all of its clout in Washington.While federal resources devoted to rescue and post-disaster security have increased, the federal commitment to recovery and mitigation has fallen by the wayside. Whatever aid Florida gets through FEMA will likely come courtesy of the arduous lobbying from the state's congressional delegation.While funds would still flow if a Category 5 hurricane devastated Miami, a tropical storm that took out a few Orlando schools and closed some roads wouldn't get the same level of attention. Had last year's Tropical Storm Ernesto followed a slightly different track, it might have been a "minor" disaster leaving "only" $250 million in damage. At least some aid would still flow, but without insurance or the certainty of a federal bailout there's a good chance that Orange County would have to stretch its own budget and raise taxes to repair the damage.While Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature have approved many new insurance laws over the past year, they've done little to protect the infrastructure that represents the state's most valuable asset. Instead, at immense potential cost to taxpayers, the Legislature has let quasi-public Citizens Property Insurance Corporation compete directly with private insurance companies to write homeowners' policies, while placing dozens of new restrictions on the private market.This hardly benefits inland Florida at all, even in the short term. Although many Orange County residents get slightly lower rates from Citizens than they would in the private market, the biggest beneficiaries of this program live along the coast, in South Florida and the Keys.In the long term, Citizens may not even save money for consumers in the areas it appears to benefit most right now. Unlike major private insurers -- which can spread risk across the entire country -- Citizens operates in only one state. A storm on the scale of Hurricane Andrew would wipe it out. And, to stave off a total collapse, nearly everyone in Florida would have to pay thousands of dollars in special assessments.Rather than taking on billions of dollars of risk to protect private homes along the coast, Florida would do much better to look at ways it might preserve state-owned infrastructure. Local governments could probably use some help purchasing larger private non-Citizens insurance policies, and the state government would do well to reserve some more funds to help repair roads, bridges, colleges and other facilities it controls. Increased government purchase of insurance might even encourage some of the private companies that have fled the state to start writing new homeowners' policies in Florida.Rather than trying to bail out every homeowner in a high-risk area, in other words, Crist and the Legislature should give serious thought to helping local governments protect, preserve, and repair their vital infrastructure in the wake of serious storms.