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Date of Issue: May 17, 2007

Insurance: State wants you to storm-proof your home

Message to homeowners from the state of Florida:

Protect your house and we'll try to help.

If you don't, we won't.

That is the idea behind the latest storm-proofing legislation, which the governor is expected to sign this week.

It is also the philosophy of the state program established to encourage people to harden their homes against hurricanes by offering free wind inspections, matching grants and consumer education.

The program, known as My Safe Florida Home, has been streamlined and is in the process of expanding its campaign for storm proofing, also known as mitigation.

State Rep. Bill Galvano (R-68) explains: "The only way we are going to solve the insurance crisis ultimately is to make hurricanes less costly. And the only way to make them less costly is by properly mitigating and preparing for them."

Galvano, who represents Anna Maria Island and other parts of western Manatee County, said that state officials have adopted a "system of incentives and thresholds" to encourage individual homeowners to stormproof their houses.

"The early stages are all about incentives, to get people to start thinking about hurricanes and how to minimize damages," he said.

Among the "incentives," he said, are the free wind inspections and matching grants that are available to eligible homeowners through My Safe Florida Home.

The "thresholds," Galvano said, include the new legislative requirements that owners of expensive coastal homes install shutters on windows and doors, as of 2009, when they remodel or apply for hurricane coverage from the state-operated Citizens Property Insurance Corp. These requirements would apply to all homes valued at $750,000 or more in high-wind areas.

"It is this simple: If you want taxpayers to help you, you have to help yourself," Galvano said.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose department oversees My Safe Florida Home, is also talking about the possibility of naming a state "mitigation czar" to promote the state's campaign for stormproofing.

"We are looking into that," a Sink spokeswoman told The Islander.

The good news is that the state effort to encourage interest in mitigation with the offer of wind inspections and $5,000 matching grants has been a huge success.

"To date, we have had more than half a million phone calls," said Tami Torres, the special program administrator for My Safe Florida Home, which operates under the direction of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

The bad news is that 53,000 homeowners - including 1,300 in Manatee County - who applied last year are still waiting for their long-promised inspections.

"We recognize the homeowners' frustration," Torres said.

She said that officials have been scrambling since the program was established in May 2006 to hire personnel, find and train inspectors and develop the technology and procedures needed to fulfill the legislative mission for the $250 million program, which is the first of its kind in the nation.

In the pilot phase last August, the program conducted more than 14,000 free wind inspections across the state, including 441 in Manatee County. As of May 3, the program had awarded about $200,000 in matching grants to 88 Florida homeowners who hardened their homes against hurricanes.

Torres said the inspections resumed in April.

But new applicants should not expect a free wind inspection before August, she said, because the 53,000 people on the waiting list from last year, including 1,300 in Manatee County, have priority.

For a glimpse into the current status of the program, here are excerpts from an April 22 e-mail that My Safe Florida Home sent to one Holmes Beach homeowner, who has been waiting for nine months to get the free wind inspection:

 "Last fall, you applied online for a free wind inspection through the My Safe Florida Home program. Your application has been pending with us until we reopened the program to resume inspections again. That time has arrived.

"We have selected 11 inspection firms to conduct inspections statewide and will first serve the 53,000 applicants who applied last year. You are one of the 53,000 applicants. You do not need to do anything else to receive your free wind inspection - except wait to be contacted by an inspection firm or inspector.

"If you have not heard from a wind inspection firm or wind inspector by June 30, call us at 866-513-6734. Please allow the inspection firm or inspector 60 days to schedule your inspection before calling us."

 

Who is eligible?

To qualify for a free wind inspection, you must be a homeowner with a homestead exemption. The house must be a single-family detached structure or a unit in a residential building of no more than four units. And you have to apply and obtain approval in order to receive the free wind inspection.

Properties not eligible for free wind inspections include mobile homes and manufactured homes, apartments, condominiums and businesses.

There are other eligibility requirements, but some of them are on the verge of changing because the Legislature has tightened the rules. Under the 2006 law, an applicant living in a home with an insured value of $500,000 or less was eligible for a free wind inspection. The 2007 legislation says the applicant's home must have an insured value of $300,000 or less to qualify.

Program officials are reluctant to comment on the new eligibility rules until the 2007 legislation is signed and can be incorporated into their operating procedures.

Meantime, there is a considerable amount of information about the program on the Web site, www.mysafefloridahome.com, and homeowners who want to apply for the free inspection and grant funding should go there and click on "I want to apply."

Those who do not have access to the Internet can call the toll-free number, 866-513-6734.

 

Steps you can take

Program officials say there are steps you can take to make your family and your home safer, even if you don't qualify for the free wind inspections or the matching grants.

And the program Web site is full of tips to help you, including "easy fixes you can do yourself." These include:

  • Anchor large exterior items such as sheds, gas tanks and air conditioning units to the ground or the foundation so they don't become flying objects.
  • Caulk and/or install weather stripping to all doors and windows to keep wind from entering.
  • Have cut-to-fit board and mounting frames ready for all windows and doors, if you don't have storm shutters.

The Web site also has some how-to videos, myths and facts about hurricane proofing, suggestions for choosing a contractor and reasons to safeguard your home.

If you want to pay for a wind inspection yourself, either because you don't qualify for a free inspection or because you are not interested in the state inspection program, you may want to contact a wind inspector on your own.

For help finding one, go to www.mysafefloridahome.com and look for the state's list of 11 wind inspection firms that have undergone the state's mandatory training in mitigation techniques and have passed background checks that included fingerprinting and drug testing.

Any homeowner may contact one of the approved firms to schedule a wind inspection. The inspection fee, according to the Web site, is $150.

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