Hurricane Ian exposed a flood insurance nightmare for homeowners in Florida
Residents on Sanibel Island, a small coastal community outside Fort Myers, suffered a direct hit. A lack of insurance could prove life-altering for them and many other Floridians.

Article Courtesy of NBC NEWS

By Phil McCausland

Published October 17, 2022


Hurricane Ian’s storm surge brought numerous feet of water into homes on Florida's west coast, and left behind mold, muck, mud and a flood insurance nightmare for residents who want to rebuild.


Many Floridians who suffered extensive flooding did not carry a separate flood insurance policy to cover the damage caused by the deadly storm. It’s left homeowners — and even renters — with a hefty and, possibly, life-changing expense that could decide whether they are rendered homeless.

Susan Cavanaugh and her two kids are living through that ordeal after the first floor of their home on Sanibel Island, where all three live and work, was engulfed by the storm surge. Cavanaugh did not have flood insurance coverage.

Now she doesn't know how to get her family back into their home without an insurance check to pay for contractors and building materials.

“I can only do so much as a single mom,” said Cavanaugh, who is staying in a motel and is unsure where to live next. “We just want to go back to the house. It’s been deemed structurally sound, but we have to get it back online and it’s not just a cosmetic issue. It’s going to take blood, sweat and tears and it’s going to take a lot of muscle and a lot of work to get there.”

A displaced boat in the wake of Hurricane Ian on Sanibel Island, Fla., on Oct. 1.


Sanibel Island last month suffered a direct hit from the Category 4 storm and the surge of water, up to 15 feet in some places, it brought from the gulf into people’s homes. The community remains inaccessible by car, forcing many to pay boat captains to ferry them to begin the cleanup.

Cavanaugh is not alone in facing flood damage without the backing of insurance coverage. Many people in the small coastal community, which faces the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Fort Myers, did not have flood insurance coverage.

What's more, Sanibel Island is a microcosm of a greater insurance challenge facing Florida and the country.

nly about 18.5% of homes in Florida counties that faced a mandatory or voluntary evacuation order the evening before Hurricane Ian landed had a flood insurance policy with the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government program administered by FEMA, according to an analysis conducted by the risk management consulting firm Milliman. Even in designated flood hazard zones within those counties, fewer than half of the homes had a policy on file.

It appears that, despite an increased occurrence of devastating flood events, a declining percentage of people nationwide have flood insurance policies. The number of policies maintained by the National Flood Insurance Program has declined by nearly 700,000 since 2008, according to data acquired from the federal agency.

“There are many factors that influence this drop in policyholders, including the economic impact of the pandemic, the housing market, affordability, or purchasing flood insurance from the private market,” David Maurstad, the senior executive of the National Flood Insurance Program, said in a statement.

He said that FEMA “continues to market the flood insurance product throughout the country” in an effort “to increase the number of properties covered by flood insurance.” Currently about 5 million policies are under the National Flood Insurance Program, which was created in the 1960s because the private insurance market increasingly declined to cover flood events.

It’s an expensive undertaking for the federal government. Since 2008, the program has paid out $40.1 billion to slightly more than 910,000 claims, according to FEMA’s data, and the agency still owes about $20 billion to the U.S. Treasury after borrowing funds to pay out many of those claims.

With climate change leading to more dangerous storms and expanding the risk of flooding, the U.S. and its coastal communities are beginning to suffer the pitfalls of building in flood-prone areas.

“The risk is there as weather losses are on the rise,” said Lynne McChristian, the director of the Office of Risk Management & Insurance Research at the University of Illinois, “and those exposures are growing because we’re building more expensive things in the most vulnerable areas.”