Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma. Katie Klann/Naples Daily News
Hurricane Irma reduced every home in the Fisherman's Cove trailer park to a mountain of garbage by the sidewalk, leaving only empty structures with demolition notices spray-painted on the side, the smell of sewage and low tide lingering from the storm's flood that engulfed Everglades City.
"I was doing OK until this came along," said Wayne Young, 65, who was hauling anything out of his trailer not destroyed by contaminated seawater: the microwave, some old photos, a couple of lamps.
Like most mobile home residents here, Young can't afford flood insurance. The federal government doesn't require him to have it because he doesn't pay a mortgage, even though he lives in one of Florida's flood hazard zones.
"This is what I got now," he said before slumping into a chair under the shade, surrounded by the garbage that was once his home.
Irma not only destroyed houses, but it exposed how mobile home residents are often left unable to rebuild.
Much of Florida's most vulnerable housing is in areas threatened by floodwaters, providing shelter to some of the state's neediest residents who can't afford insurance coverage to protect against flood damage, according to an analysis by USA TODAY NETWORK — FLORIDA.
“The program gives no special consideration to people with low income,” said Roy Wright, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's director of the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires people living in a flood hazard zone to buy federally underwritten coverage only if they borrowed money to buy. Mobile home residents typically don't have a mortgage.
USA TODAY NETWORK — FLORIDA's analysis uses federal flood insurance data, state health department records and census data, revealing large populations of mobile home residents all over the state, without coverage, living in areas likely to flood. These numbers don't include Palm Beach County because FEMA hasn’t yet released that area's flood zone data.
Among the findings:
- There are more than 5,200 mobile home parks in Florida. About one in five are in a high hazard flood zone.
- The three counties hit hardest by Irma’s storm surge have some of the highest concentrations of mobile home parks in susceptible areas: 82 percent of the parks in Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys, are in a flood zone; 74 percent in Collier; 48 percent in Miami-Dade.
- Eighty percent of Florida's households don’t have flood insurance. Even in the two counties with the highest rates of coverage, Monroe and Collier, half of the homes aren’t insured. Two thirds of Miami-Dade homes didn’t buy policies.
- Large numbers of residents in low-income counties are uninsured. Hillsborough County, with a median income that’s about half of the state’s wealthiest, has almost 500 mobile home parks, the second most in the state. But just 10 percent of households there are covered by flood insurance.
Florida’s flood zones, areas of high hazard that surged up to 9 feet during Irma, blanket the state, covering vast swaths of city streets, coastal communities and any inland neighborhood that happens to be within the reach of a canal or lake.
Residents in one of those zones, without coverage, won’t likely qualify for long-term FEMA help after a disaster like Irma, a loophole that Wright acknowledged leaves poor people more vulnerable than their wealthier neighbors.
“We have to find better answers than we have today,” he said.
Many of the people in those communities chose mobile homes because they are more affordable for low-income residents in places such as Florida's Lower Keys, where Irma made its first landfall as a Category 4 storm.
The Florida Manufactured Housing Association estimates half of the state's 850,000 mobile home residents who rent or own their trailer outright don't have insurance because it’s too expensive.
FEMA's flood insurance program does not require mobile home owners to carry coverage, despite the fact that about a fifth of Florida's trailer parks are in flood zones.
The insurance for a mobile home doesn't pay the owner replacement cost; instead, it pays only depreciated value for damage. So those who live in older trailers see buying coverage as a waste of much needed money.
“If it’s a choice between food and insurance,” said Bradley Kading, president of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, “you're going to go for the food.”
He said Florida has the highest amount of uninsured property exposed to the highest frequency of hurricanes in any place of the world.
Wayne Karystopa, an Everglades City fishing guide, tried to salvage his mobile home, which was damaged by 3 feet of flooding.
“No, no insurance,” he said. “I don’t make very much money.”
Jeremey Kee, an airboat captain and crabber, lost his trailer and everything in it to Irma’s flood.
"I don't have any insurance," Kee said a day after the storm hit, "so I just don't know what I'll do."
Down the road, Lisa Marteeny’s husband, Lee, died from an infection after wading through the floodwaters that destroyed their Plantation Island trailer on the bank of a canal. She couldn’t afford the $900 yearly premium for flood insurance, and with nowhere else to go, Marteeny is trying to rebuild a place most would consider unlivable.
“They told us we were on our own now,” she said.
Irma’s victims send a bleak message to regulators and the thousands of other low-income Floridians living unprotected in a flood hazard zone. As Wright put it: “You will not be made whole.”
So far, about 22,000 homes in Florida have filed flood insurance claims, the majority from Monroe, Miami-Dade and Collier counties.
Some industry experts, including Kading, have advocated for private companies to help fill the flood coverage gap for low-income residents.
A hurricane disaster tax relief bill that passed the U.S. House on Thursday includes provisions to encourage a private insurance market in the state to compete with the federal flood insurance program. Advocates say those companies could offer other options for people living in flood zones.
“By allowing private flood insurance to count as coverage for mandatory areas, it creates a much larger market for flood insurance, which could potentially lower cost,” said Katrina Bishop, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
A recent study from Seattle-based consulting company Milliman estimated private insurance could offer cheaper flood insurance premiums for three-quarters of single-family homes in Florida.
But FEMA’s Wright is wary of turning the keys over to the private sector, which he said wouldn't necessarily cover more mobile home residents because it’s not likely companies can offer the same discounts the government can.
From the stark lessons learned in Florida and Houston, FEMA regulators are writing a report for Congress to address the issue of flood insurance affordability.
Wright said the outcome could well change the entire framework of the flood insurance program to better suit low-income people who fall through the cracks — such as mobile home residents in flood zones.
“As designed today,” he said, “the ability to afford the insurance policy has no impact on what we’re making available.”