Archive for November, 2013

Flood insurance has ‘huge implications’ for beach communities

(I wrote this for, Nov. 27)


If you’ve lived in Florida for a while, you’ve heard stories of people repeatedly rebuilding homes damaged by storms because subsidized insurance and other government programs cover the cost.

Now, there’s a move to eliminate the practice, especially on homes that are not primary residences and structures that repeatedly get flooded.

So far, so good, but the process is ugly. It’s another reason to wince at the thought of Congress running anyone’s life.

Still, you need to watch it unfold, especially in Florida, where almost 40 percent of the nation’s flood insurance policies are located. The changes will raise premiums — some by thousands and thousands of dollars per year.

Waterfront real estate could become less desirable and local governments could lose lots of critical revenue from the seasonal homes. Plunging waterfront property values will send tremors through most beach communities.

“It has huge implications,” said Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist for the University of Florida’s Sea Grant program.

Federal flood insurance transformed Florida after it was enacted in 1968, the first time it was available since private insurers fled the market after a horrendous 1928 flood.

Since its inception, the National Flood Insurance Program has encouraged people to build more homes, bigger homes, fancier homes and many more businesses on the coast and in low-lying areas.

It’s a huge change from the days before flood insurance, when the beaches were dotted with mostly cinder-block buildings, the only type that owners could afford to lose to the inevitable storms.

Let’s stop here to acknowledge that flood insurance and beach development can be very valuable. They make beaches more accessible to more people. Also, development and tourism finance jobs for people who lack high-tech skills. The challenge is to make everything co-exist less expensively.

From 1968-85, the program relied heavily on taxpayer subsidies; then it spent about 20 years being largely self-supporting. However, now you and I once again are funding huge chunks of the program because of the expensive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s about $25 billion in the hole. (Yes, that’s b-as-in-b billion dollars.)

Now come some twists.

The State of Mississippi is suing to stop flood insurance reform, arguing that FEMA, which administers the program, doesn’t have enough information to make the changes.

That’s probably true. Congress told FEMA to study the problem within six months, but Congress didn’t set aside money for a study, and then Hurricane Sandy came along and FEMA had more pressing matters.

Also, the study probably would take two years and require “a mammoth amount of data,” Ruppert said at a recent workshop in Pensacola on flood insurance issues.

Like Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.

“It’s where we’re building,” Ruppert noted.

Maybe modest cinder-block houses will once again become the style on Florida beaches.

The old man and the sea birds

I went bird-watching on Santa Rosa Island with my 92-year-old neighbor, who’s been studying birds for 80 years or so. Age won’t keep Alan Sheppard from a good day at the beach watching birds.

Paddling: A fish story

Mullet to the left, redfish to the right, kayaking around Santa Rosa Island on a sunny Pensacola day.

Read the story here:

The joke’s on those who mock Flori-duh

(I wrote this column for the November issue of Splash!, a magazine for Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach.)

It’s almost time for my annual trip to Massachusetts to visit my loving family and endure another round of Flori-duh jokes.
I’ll have to listen to comments about our spooky Gov. Skelator, the 50,000 bees that invaded an Orlando neighborhood, and the man who made his girlfriend swallow a diamond ring when she tried to break off their engagement.

This family tradition began with the wacky 2000 presidential election filled with Florida voters who got so confused picking between George W. Bush and Al Gore that the state supreme court had to decide the issue.

Those hijinks set off a non-stop parade of craziness that keeps my relatives laughing as they read about my adopted state. They think it’s strange that I moved all the way from Massachusetts to Florida to be governed by four Escambia County commissioners who were removed from office, led by local legends W.D. Childers and Willie Junior, who shared $90,000 in a collard pot.

They keep peppering me with tidbits of Florida freakiness — the female teacher/male student sex scandals, the Taj Mahal courthouse in Tallahassee, the man stopped for drunk driving and found to have a squirrel in his shirt, the woman who threw her baby at cops who were trying to arrest her for shoplifting.

Then there was the 346-pound Florida man who punched the pizza delivery guy for forgetting his garlic knots, the man who died after winning a cockroach-eating contest, and the person who was born a man but identified as a woman and allegedly posed as a cosmetic surgeon and injected a woman’s backside with cement, super glue, mineral oil and Fix-a-Flat tire inflator and sealant.

Yes, these are our fellow Floridians, and it’s hard to defend them as isolated cases, because even weirder ones surface all the time.

There are many theories why the Sunshine State is “the home of more nuttiness per square mile than any place on earth,” in the words of Elliot Kleinberg, author of “Weird Florida.” Maybe it’s because so many people move here from elsewhere. Only about a third of Florida’s current residents were born here, and many of the brightest are dying to move out of state to get better jobs.

Some of our newer residents are whack jobs drawn to our climate, low taxes and our determination to fund only the most meager of mental health programs.

Our anything-goes mindset draws criminals, too. Florida is “a sunny place for shady people,” writes former Pensacolian Craig Pittman, a journalist who recently turned out a month’s worth of mind-boggling stories about Florida follies for

Still, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and most of Florida’s craziest stuff takes place far from Pensacola.

At my next family reunion, I could defend Florida and point out that Massachusetts has had its share of miscreants, malefactors and other Kennedys, but I have a different strategy.

I will just listen to their jokes about Florida and smile.

“Yes, Florida is crazy, crazy, crazy,” I will tell them. “Don’t ever move to Florida.”

Hey, I’ve been in Florida for 35 years, long enough to know that I don’t want any more Yankees here.