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Hurricane Andrew's Costly Insurance Legacy

MIAMI (CBS4) - Hurricane Andrew was a nightmare for anyone who went through it.

It was a life-changing event that's not easily forgotten as we mark the 20th anniversary of the day it roared ashore.

South Miami Heights Homeowner Larry Jones remembers.

"We was praying, we was actually praying more so for us, our neighbors, our relatives because we never faced a storm like Hurricane Andrew before," said Jones.

Falls resident Bobbi Stanley never imaged her neighborhood would be hit so hard.

"You could not recognize the neighborhood. It was just mind boggling. I started to cry, it was horrible, it was really horrible," said Stanley.

Charles Danger, Miami-Dade's Director of Building and Neighborhood Compliance Department, said he never imaged the destruction would be so widespread.

"It was like an atomic bomb went off up there. It was an amazing sight from the point of view of complete devastation," said Danger.

Twenty years later, the bitter legacy of the killer storm still affects us all. More than 28-thousand local homes destroyed, another 107-thousand damaged. As many as 160,000 South Dade residents suddenly found themselves homeless.

Why were so many homes literally blown apart, what went wrong?

Hurricane Andrew brutally exposed a failed system: bad designs, shoddy construction and poor oversight by local inspectors. It was a recipe for disaster.

"We did not build things the way they were supposed to be built according to the code we had. That we were very relaxed in the construction techniques, very relaxed on the inspection techniques, so it was a complete failure, you may say, on the process of construction from the point of designing all the way to the point of inspecting," said Danger.

With some $26 billion dollars in damage, Hurricane Andrew remains one of the costliest natural disasters in U-S history and we're still paying the price today in the form of higher homeowners' insurance.

"Twenty years later you're definitely feeling the effects, definitely. Because we have not been able to fix the problem," said South Florida insurance industry expert Dulce Suarez-Resnick.

How bad have insurance rates climbed the past 20 years?

The average Miami-Dade homeowner's policy cost $568 back in 1992. Today, it's skyrocketed to $3184.

Broward was even less back then at $500, but it now averages $2804.

Stanley remembers the killer storm like it was yesterday. Her insurance bill 20 years ago was $751 dollars. Today, it's more than $10,000 and she says it's hurting her family's financial bottom line.

"It's outrageous, I don't know how people can afford it. I mean it's really, really unbelievable.
I love my house, I always wanted to stay in my house and just recently I said to my husband 'Maybe it's time that we don't have a house because it's just getting prohibitive'," said Stanley.

When asked if she felt she was being literally being priced out of her home, it didn't take long for an answer.

"Yes, absolutely and so are a lot of other people. Like so many other south Dade residents who lost their homes, when I rebuilt, I wanted to make sure the roof would stay-on the next time I got hit by a bad storm," said Stanley. "I paid extra for storm shutters and other improvements to make my home more storm proof."

Larry Jones did too.

"We never experienced a Hurricane Andrew and since that time we wanted to make sure if there was another Hurricane Andrew, we'd be able to weather the storm a lot safer," said Jones.

For a while, Larry's extra work to improve his home's construction paid off. He was able to cut his insurance bills by about 30 percent through the state's windstorm mitigation program which offered discounts for storm shutters and roof improvements.

But following complaints from the industry and heavy lobbying in the Florida legislature, those discounts for older homes, like thousands of Hurricane Andrew re-builds, were basically thrown out.

Larry Jones is not happy about how it's affected his growing insurance bills.

"Twenty years later you can forget about it, you know what I mean? They came back in and did re-inspections on a home for mitigation just so they can say we're going to increase your home's premiums. This really isn't fair and they've made millions and billions of dollars throughout the course of the year.

Industry insiders say fixing the state's insurance problem requires luring more companies to insure homes here which would increase competition and lower rates.

It also requires a way to lower the cost of the companies' so-called re-insurance expenses, so they can find cheaper ways of underwriting homeowners' policies. There have been discussions of creating a national catastrophe fund to provide affordable coverage for disasters like hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. But state and federal lawmakers remain unable or unwilling to approve any possible fixes.

Suarez-Resnick said state lawmakers have done little to try and solve the problem.

"Twenty years later our premiums are high, 20 years later the state program has less coverage for more premiums and 20 years later we still have a band-aid, there's no solution as of yet," said Suarez-Resnick.

Today the state's biggest insurer, Citizens Property Insurance, is asking to boost rates by another 10 percent for next year's policies. The head of "Citizens" recently told CBS4 chief consumer reporter Al Sunshine that he'd like to see a full 30 percent price hike. For the victims of Hurricane Andrew, it's a bitter reminder 20 years later; the big storm is still haunting them.

"Our elected officials give them all the breaks. You've got board members of these insurance companies living very luxurious, there's nothing wrong with living very luxurious," said Jones. "But when it's on the back of the people that's an issue. And this is what's taking place in the State of Florida, it's on the backs of the people and that's sad."

"I don't see them addressing the issues at all as far as stabilizing it. All I see is them approving more and more increases for the insurance companies," said Stanley who added that the insurance companies interests are being served at the expense of the consumer.

While homeowners struggle to find affordable insurance two decades after Andrew, industry profits continue to soar. Combined income for private property insurers like State Farm, Allstate and Travelers was about $3.2 billion dollars just for their 2nd quarter profits.

Citizens Insurance is now sitting on more than $6 billion dollars in reserves and continues asking for higher rates.

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