When Amanda Trumpeta was woken by her dog’s barking last Thursday morning, she thought he was just startled by Hurricane Ian. But then she got out of bed – and found herself standing in ankle-deep flood water.
By the time the storm passed, three-and-a-half feet of murky black water had swept over Trompetta’s house in the Orlando suburb of Winter Springs. “It’s everywhere, in every room,” she said. “All the floors, all the walls had to be redone – everything was ruined.”
Despite the damage, when Trompeta called her insurance company, she realized an unpleasant fact: “They’re not going to cover anything.”
Homeowners insurance policies don’t usually cover flood damage, and most people who live on Ian’s road through Florida don’t have a separate flood insurance policy. Inland areas that have experienced historic rainfall and catastrophic flooding have been especially caught off guard, according to a CNN analysis of FEMA flood insurance data.
In coastal Lee County, where Ian came ashore, about a quarter of single-family homes are covered by federal flood insurance. Some of the hardest-hit areas in the county have higher coverage, such as Sanibel Island, where about half the homes are covered.
But inland, only about 4 percent of single-family homes in Seminole County, 3 percent in Orange County and 2 percent in Polk County have flood insurance. Severe flooding was reported in all of these counties during Ian.
“The most worrying factor for the storm and all of the damage is the lack of flood insurance, especially in central Florida,” said Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.
While people without flood insurance are still eligible for FEMA assistance and other assistance approved by Congress, many homeowners may receive only a fraction of the cost of the damage they suffered.
“People are very disappointed when they see how much funding they have been given and how little time has been taken to help them recover,” Friedlander said.
Ian caused a string of disasters in central Florida, from Fort Myers on the southwest coast to the Orlando area, all the way to the northeast corner of the state, with historic levels of rainfall flooding communities. The flooding turned the town into a river and forced some residents to paddle canoes in their living rooms to assess damage.
Inland Central Florida – where mark September was the wettest month on record — officials reported considerable damage and high flood levels even days after the storm passed.
In Seminole County, northeast of Orlando, more than 5,200 residential structures were damaged by the storm, mostly due to flooding, according to a county spokesperson. “We’ve never had anything of this nature,” said Seminole County Commissioner Jay Zembower, who called the flooding “a rapid rainfall event of more than 500 years in a very short period of time.”
About 3,000 structures were estimated to have been damaged in Polk County, about 1,200 in Orange County and at least 4,000 in Volusia County on the state’s east coast, county officials said. All counties said their numbers were preliminary — in some cases, because damage assessment teams still couldn’t reach some flooded areas.
Previous hurricanes such as Irma in 2017 have also caused significant damage to the region. But at least in Seminole County, most of the damage was from wind and debris, which is covered by a typical homeowners insurance policy, not flooding, a county spokesman said.
Now, a lack of flood insurance is a major hurdle for families trying to get back on their feet. Flood insurance is generally required if a homeowner lives in a FEMA-designated flood zone and has a federally backed mortgage. But according to an analysis by satellite mapping company ICEYE, Ian’s flooding has extended beyond floodplains in central Florida and elsewhere.
This means that many people affected by flooding, especially those far from the coast, may not have flood insurance and cannot count on any insurance money to help them.
For example, in Winter Springs, at least 2,000 buildings were affected, according to county officials, but FEMA records show that the city has only about 525 federal flood insurance policies in effect.
Trompeta’s neighborhood is littered with clutter, with flooded furniture on the front lawn, and she said the home she and her fiancé bought a few years ago had no flood insurance, throwing her well-planned finances out of control.
“It was obviously a big setback,” she said. “We all have student debt,” she added, and through the federal relief program, “I’m on track to be out of debt within a year.”
“Now we have to focus on rebuilding the house so we have a place to live,” Trompetta said.
Without flood insurance, people like Trompeta would be forced to apply for other government assistance, such as FEMA’s Personal Assistance Program. Those payments are capped at about $38,000, with many ending up with about $5,000 to $10,000 after past hurricanes, said Roy Wright, former CEO of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
“U.S. disaster plans assume homeowners have insurance,” Wright said. He said the personal assistance program was “not even as a safety net, but only as a helping hand for those in distress”.
Congress could also pass additional disaster aid — as lawmakers have done after major hurricanes before Katrina, Sandy and Harvey. But Wright said it could take months or longer for funding to be approved before affected communities receive it.
Experts such as Wright say the widespread damage caused by Ian should be a wake-up call that more homeowners across the U.S. need flood insurance — even if they don’t own a waterfront property. This is especially true when climate change results in stronger and more frequent storms.
While some people buy private flood insurance that isn’t included in FEMA’s data, the federal flood insurance program still accounts for about 80 percent of Florida’s policies, Friedlander said.
The study also found that as climate change progresses, FEMA’s flood maps underestimate the danger in some areas, leaving some homeowners unaware of their risk levels.
At the same time, even some families affected by Ian who had flood insurance found it was not enough to cover all their losses. Federal flood insurance caps coverage at $250,000 for damage to single-family homes and $100,000 for property.
Pamela Sanders said her family’s Geneva, Fla., home has had flood insurance for years, but she expects damage to the home during Ian’s attack to exceed her maximum coverage. Floods that swept through her neighborhood submerged the lower level of her house, where mold had grown on the second floor.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sanders said. “I’ve always had a job, paid my bills, paid off my house, and was all set to retire – now I’m 75 and homeless.”