It’s been two and a half years since Heather Conley had to climb a tree to get into what used to be her home. Sometimes, she said, it seems like a lifetime ago.
The little she was able to salvage from what was once the rental where she lived with her husband and two dogs fit nicely into the 300 square-foot camper where they ended up.
The couple lived in the RV until two months ago. Conley said the space was so small that she and her husband could whisper to each other from opposite ends of the vehicle.
Available houses were slim pickings after Hurricane Michael, Conley said. It took the couple two-and-a-half years to find the three-bedroom in Wewahitchka that she and her husband purchased in July.
The house’s foundation is stable, and it sits in a 100-year flood zone. But still, when a large enough storm hits, Conley said she relives the trauma of the hurricane.
“Our house was our sanctuary,” she said. “And when we lost that, it was like we were not the same people. My husband and I went through some deep depression for over two years.”
The Conleys had been planning to buy their first home before Michael hit. That goal was placed on the backburner after assessing their losses from the storm.
Their landlord did not have contents insurance, Conley said, so the couple was set back more than $30,000.
Even with the additional work they were able to pick up for Complete Clean, a carpet and upholstery cleaning business the couple manages, it took them years to start shopping for houses again. By then, Conley said homeowner’s insurance rates had skyrocketed.
Across the state, lawmakers have been struggling to curb the rapid spike in housing insurance rates that began when losses from Hurricanes Michael and Irma caused around $29 billion worth of claims.
In a scramble to stop Florida’s soaring homeowner’s insurance rates this past legislative season, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 76, which reduced the amount of time to file a claim. They hoped the bill would help resolve some of the longstanding issues in the insurance market, in which Florida insurers lost more than $1.57 billion last year even without a hurricane making landfall in the state.
Consumers in some parts of the state reported seeing double-digit rate increases or restricted coverage.
According to some experts, rate increases are the effect of the combination of multiple factors – including increased litigation, which resulted from higher levels of catastrophe losses from multiple hurricanes over the past five years.
In June of last year, the state legislature passed laws reducing the amount of time lawyers had to file suits in insurance cases following disasters.
“I’ve got a wonderful client who’s been fighting with their insurance company this entire time... but guess what? I’ve only got a few days to get them into suit because of changes in the law,” said Port St. Joe-based attorney Clayton Studstill. “The Florida Legislature and various lobbies trying to appease the insurance industry at the cost of the good people of Gulf County.”
Studstill said he has helped Gulf County residents file hundreds of lawsuits against underprepared insurance companies that did not pay them enough to recover from Hurricane Michael.
He said often the issue is that his clients just were not aware of what their property was worth, and how much of it was covered prior to the disaster.
“They were underinsured to begin with before the storm,” he said. “Somebody like Pat – even though he got his policy limits, he had a great recovery – he probably had maybe a quarter of a million dollars worth of uninsured losses.”
Pat McGuire, Studstill’s former client, is closing his antique shop on Reid Ave., but not because he can no longer afford to keep it open. Instead, the veteran has decided he will dedicate his time to making his brand-new house a home for his wife and him. Getting into a stable home, he said, had been a long process.
McGuire had put out sandbags the night before Michael struck, faithful they would keep the flooding at bay. When he returned to his home right after the storm, he couldn’t see his driveway and ran his car into the ditch. The neighbor’s house was in the lot next door. His home wasn’t in much better shape.
For the next few months, McGuire and his wife would bounce between friends’ homes. The landlord of his shop let him stay in the room upstairs for a little while, and eventually the couple ended up in FEMA housing.
“I know a lot of people have problems with FEMA, but I have no problems with them,” McGuire said. “They took good care of us. I can’t quite say the same for our insurance company.”
Jeff Harvey, a paralegal who works with Studstill, said insurance companies were underprepared to pay large sums of money to clients following the hurricane. The solution to rising insurance rates, he fears, might be difficult to discern.
“How do you balance the fact that if (insurance companies) pay out too much, they’re not going to be able to stay in business and your premiums are going to go up?” he asked. “How do you balance that with ‘I’ve got multiple people on my street who just in varying ways went through terrible situations they shouldn’t have gone through?’”
Studstill said for some people, homeowner’s insurance just will not be affordable, at least not for the levels of coverage required in catastrophes.
“Insurers all had to reassess what it would cost them to insure a property around here,” Studstill said. “We were no longer forgotten to the insurance companies, and they had to figure out what our stuff is worth.”
Conley was almost unable to get a mortgage to buy her new house with homeowner’s insurance rates reaching new highs. The deal she was offered from Kin Insurance was her last hope.
For a while, she said, her family’s housing insecurity had been a massive weight on her shoulders. She fears for those who will not be as lucky as she was.
“We actually feel like we’re in a safe place now, because we were in that uncertainty – stuck in this limbo of homelessness and still having a place to lay our heads but not having a place to call our own," she said.