I started Coastal Insurance Agency in 2000 with a mission of selling quality insurance with a primary focus on helping area real estate agents and their buyers have a smooth insurance process for closings. Having moved here from Jackson, MS I was familiar with hurricanes but never really given them a lot of thought.
In 2000 and the two years to follow our business flourished. We were growing fast and my family and I were having a blast. Hurricanes were certainly on my mind but was clearly not my primary focus. I was selling insurance and having fun. That all changed in 2004.
Hurricane Season 2004 proved to be the most costly hurricane season on record. There were 9 hurricanes and 6 major hurricanes. Florida was hit with three major hurricanes; Charley, Francis and Ivan. The real estate market was in chaos. There were so many tropical storm and hurricane alerts that real estate closings were delayed over and over again as insurance companies would close to new business.
In August it all came to a boil. Hurricane Charley hit central Florida on Aug. 14 causing major damage and only weeks later on Sept. 2 Hurricane Frances also hit central Florida. I remember sitting in my office one morning a few days after Frances thinking “it is September and being thankful that hurricane season was nearly over and that our beloved emerald coast had been spared.” Then, an employee entered my office and asked me if I was tracking the new system coming out of Africa. I recall saying “you have got to be kidding me.”
In the days that followed we all watched as Ivan grew in strength as it entered the Gulf of Mexico. The storm quickly strengthened to a Cat 5 hurricane and was headed dead at us. I knew that I would never take hurricane season lightly again. I prepared myself mentally to deal with the aftermath of a direct hit from a Cat 5 hurricane. A couple of days before the storm my staff and I readied the office and reviewed our plans and they evacuated. I stayed behind to continue preparations for the claims that would be coming our way.
It was two days before the storm. I entered my office all alone and to my surprise our office phone was ringing off the hook. Clients were calling to make sure they had the correct coverage. Some were calling to tell us that they had forgotten to pay their premiums. Others were asking me to go by their homes and check on them. I felt terrible because there was little I could do to help them. The storm is 36 hours away and these issues should have already been addressed.
I planned to evacuate but had to get things ready here first. I should have planned better and had my office in order months earlier. I was keeping in touch with my staff and family that were already on the road getting reports of it taking 8 hours to get to mobile and 16 hours to get to Jackson, MS where I had planned to go. I headed back out to Grayton Beach and chalked up another lesson well learned. Next time I will be better prepared. “I will plan ahead and I will help my customers plan better as well.”
On the morning of Sept. 15 we all watched as this huge storm roared toward the Emerald Coast. Hurricane forecasters were relatively certain that the storm would come ashore somewhere between Panama City and Gulf Shores. We were still sitting at ground zero and I was scared. As the hours past, the tracking showed a westward move giving us all some relief but still knowing that being on the East side of a Cat 5 hurricane would still bring record damage to our area.
As the winds began to rise I could hear the surf pounding some half mile from my house. We lost power in Grayton Beach and you could hear the eerie sounds of generators in the night. I did not have a generator as I was not prepared and had planned to evacuate.
Just after midnight reports came making it clear that landfall would be around Gulf Shores. Reporters also announced that the west wall of the storm was collapsing and the storm was being down-graded from a Cat 5 to a Cat 3. I did not know a lot about hurricanes but knew this was good news for our area and good news for my customers.
The next day as I ventured out and looked around it was apparent that we had been spared major devastation. As it turned out even though our area was not hit that hard in our agency we still have about 200 claims from Ivan. Thankfully, the people that had called me and told me that they forgot to pay their premium came away without damage to their homes.
I vowed that I would never take hurricane season lightly again. It would be my mission to make sure that my customers, my friends and neighbors would be prepared for the next major storm that came our way. I would study hurricanes and damage and read the stories told by those that had experienced devastation and learn from their mistakes.
Hurricane season 2005 brought another active season. We all experienced Hurricane Dennis in the Summer of 2005 at some level but again were fortunate not to have major damage in our area. However 2005 brought the storm of the century that we should all pay close attention to and learn from. Hurricane Katrina will forever change how I look at hurricanes.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, LA. In the days that followed we all watched in horror as the human tragedy unfolded in New Orleans. Katrina’s storm surge led to more than 50 levee breaches in New Orleans trapping tens of thousands of residents. Eventually more than 80 percent of the city flooded and the death toll in Louisiana was more than 1,500 souls. We had never seen anything like it.
Every news bureau in America focused their lenses on New Orleans and the grim stories still remain etched in our minds now nearly 10 years later. The unprecedented level of news and the public’s obsession with the pictures coming out of New Orleans largely over shadowed the devastation that Katrina brought to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The New Orleans damage was directly attributable to the levee breaks. The more typical types of damage that we normally see from hurricanes were found 70 miles to the East along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast
Katrina brought winds at their maximum level at 175 MPH. The largest storm surge in American history was recorded at 28 feet. Homes along U.S. Hwy. 90 that have survived the previous storm of the century, hurricane Camille in 1969, simply vanished from the Katrina storm surge. Major bridges were washed away. Some 90 percent of all beachfront neighborhoods within ½ mile of the Gulf were totally destroyed by the wind and massive storm surge. Storm surge flooding reached from 6-12 miles inland bringing major damage to dozens of communities both south and north of the Biloxi Bay. Some beach villages along U.S. 90 simply disappeared.
What if Katrina happened here?
There is no reason to think that we would fare better than the Mississippi Gulf Coast with similar winds and tidal surge from a major hurricane. The distance from the Gulf to The Choctawhatchee Bay is only about three miles and less in some areas. The concentration of beachfront property here is staggering when compared to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where most Gulf Front property is across Hwy. 90. The relative building values here are likely 5-10 times greater on average than Mississippi.
All areas here with elevation of under 28-feet along the beach and ½-mile inland would likely sustain major damage if not total devastation. A 28-foot tidal surge is near twice as high as hurricane Opal. All property between the Gulf and Bay would likely see some flooding with only few higher ground properties being spared the surge, but likely sustaining major wind damage from 150-plus MPH winds.
Like the Mississippi Coast, our low elevation beach communities could literally disappear after the storm surge comes ashore.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has never fully recovered from Katrina. The resilient folks over there have worked hard but faced many obstacles to recovery and re-development. The primary reason was the lack of proper insurance for residents and businesses. Many residents and businesses did not have flood insurance or had inadequate flood insurance. Many long-time coastal residents and businesses had made the conscious decision not to have flood insurance. Even their insurance agents told them they did not need the coverage. They were all wrong.
FEMA aid was slow coming and is never adequate for full recovery. Businesses failed, people had to move away from their beloved Gulf Coast way of life. Any Gulf Coast resident that moves here will tell you how important having your insurance in order is.
Getting Prepared for our Katrina:
We may never see a storm here with the level of Katrina. One thing that seems to be true is storms are getting bigger. We have had our share of near misses over the past few years.
There is tons of information out there about Hurricane Preparedness. A great site to view is www.nhc.noaa.gov/prepare/ but it does not address being prepared financially. We owe it to ourselves and our community to have our insurance in good order. Our community cannot recover if our residents and businesses are not properly insured. Let’s face it FEMA is financially stressed and some would say they are broke. Congress is going to be reluctant to approve emergency loans and grants because the money simply is not there.
Getting prepared for a hurricane takes planning. But the simplest plan is to get your insurance in good order and evacuate.
There are several insurance areas that we should all address now before we have our Katrina. It is critical that you have the proper coverages in place and confirm that your policies have been renewed. You should keep your policies in a safe place. Remember, your local insurance agency might sustain major damage in a storm. Your policies can direct you on how to file a claim and who to contact.
Flood Insurance: Is available through most insurance agents secured through a variety of servicing carriers for the National Flood Insurance Program. Storm surge is flood and is not covered by your Homeowner Insurance Policy. Buy flood insurance now if you don’t already have it.
Excess Flood Insurance: The NFIP( National Flood Insurance Program ) only provides up to $250,000 of building coverage for homes. This is not adequate for many homes in our area. Excess Flood insurance is purchased to provide the additional coverage needed.
Homeowner Insurance: Everybody probably has this, or do you? My biggest fear for my clients and neighbors is they overlook their renewal notices and do not pay their premium. It happens often. Be sure and put your renewal on your calendar for all of your insurance policies. Review your coverage limits and make sure that you are carrying enough insurance. If your policy renews during hurricane season don’t wait until the last minute to pay your premium. Remember there is no grace period on homeowner insurance.
Wind Insurance: Some homes have a separate policy for Wind (hurricane). Make sure that you renew both your Homeowner policy and wind policy if you have one. Remember your wind policy is not a flood policy, you still need flood insurance to be totally insured for a hurricane.
Business Insurance: Businesses should have coverage for their buildings, contents and inventory but also secure business interruption coverage. After a storm it could be months before your income starts again. Business Interruption insurance is relatively affordable and available for some businesses.
South Walton is the most wonderful place in America to live and play. Being prepared for a hurricane involves good planning and no part of the plan is more important than getting our insurance in good shape. We owe it to our families and our community to be in a position to rebuild after the storm.
As a 25-year veteran of the insurance business my role in this community goes far and beyond just selling insurance. At this stage in my career I am passionate about helping people be prepared. If you need insurance we are here to help you but also know that you can call me for free advice and guidance. I can be reached at my office 850-231-0042 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Blackwell owns Coastal Insurance Agency in Seagrove Beach. Coastal is among the largest agency providers of coastal property insurance in Florida. Coastal Insurance has twice been names FEMA National Flood Insurance Agency of The Year.