AP Report, Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
TALLAHASSEE (AP) — Thousands of Florida homeowners will get free inspections of their house and a report telling them how to shore it up against hurricanes through a new program that began Tuesday, part of an effort by state officials to deal with soaring insurance costs.
The state began accepting applications for the program Tuesday and within hours more than 3,500 had already applied online for an inspector to come to their home to assess its hurricane weaknesses.
‘‘Retrofitting homes must be a part of our culture of preparedness,’’ said state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, whose agency is running the My Safe Florida Home program.
Legislators passed a wideranging bill last year aimed at several elements of the state’s out-of-control insurance market, where many residents have said they can’t get private coverage and those who can often can’t afford it. With eight hurricanes in two years and insurance company losses hitting nearly $40 billion, premiums have spiraled.
Many experts and insurance industry officials say one of the biggest things that can be done to reduce insurance costs is to reduce the amount of damage after hurricanes.
Part of the bill lawmakers passed in May set out $250 million for the mitigation program.
To be eligible, residents must live in a single-family home with an insured value of $500,000 or less and have a homestead exemption. Once an applicant submits the required proof of that, the state or a local community partner will send out a home inspector. The inspection is free.
Then, the homeowner will receive a report within 10 days outlining up to seven areas where they could make improvements to their home to help harden it against storms and prevent damage.
Among the things inspectors will look for are whether the roof-to-wall connections should be reinforced, whether garage doors might be replaced with a stronger door, and whether shutters should be installed.
‘‘It’s not hundreds of things that need to be done,’’ said Gov. Jeb Bush. ‘‘It’s a handful of things.’’
The program will also outline for the homeowner how much such retrofits should cost. If the homeowner elects to make any of the improvements, they may be able to get matching money from the state for the upgrade, and certain low-income homeowners may be eligible for grants up to $5,000 with no matching requirement.
Gallagher announced the start of the program at Tuesday’s meeting with Bush and the Cabinet.
The initiative is supported by the insurance industry.
‘‘We’re looking to, obviously, reduce losses,’’ said Allstate Floridian executive vice president George Grawe. ‘‘Encouraging Floridians to strengthen their home is certainly part of the answer.’’
How many people will get to have the inspection isn’t totally clear — although Gallagher said the goal is for 12,000 inspections to happen before November and possibly as many as 50,000 could be evaluated in the next year. After that, it would be up to legislators to continue the program and give it more money.
Bush said that’s the biggest flaw in the program — it isn’t permanent and the number of people who want an inspection will outstrip the program’s ability to provide them. He said he’d like to push to make the program permanent, but he will leave office in January and won’t have much of a say on what next year’s Legislature does.
Officials in Gallagher’s office said the first inspections would be done in South Florida, primarily in Miami-Dade, Broward and Lee Counties, where more than 100 inspectors have already been hired and trained.