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As Lee residents face 25% flood insurance increase, county tries to shift blame

Lee County officials, despite FEMA letters, say they were blindsided by rating downgrade.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:45 p.m. April 1, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Florida has higher insurance rates than most states partially because of wind-related storms, like Hurricane Ian that hit the Fort Myers area in September 2022.
Florida has higher insurance rates than most states partially because of wind-related storms, like Hurricane Ian that hit the Fort Myers area in September 2022.
Photo by Stefania Pifferi
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Lee County residents will see their flood insurance rates rise about 25% after the Federal Emergency Management Agency says the county and several of its cities failed to meet some requirements needed to qualify for a rate discount following Hurricane Ian.

Lee County officials, in emailed statements and news releases, pushed back at the hike — coming at a time when the property insurance market in Florida is already one of the more confusing, and costliest, in the country. 

When contacted with specific questions about discrepancies between the county's assertions and FEMAs, a Lee County spokesperson wrote in an email Monday evening, "We fulfilled requests by deadlines with the information available to the county."

According to FEMA, Lee failed to adhere to regulations that allow for premium discounts for policy holders in communities that qualify through the Community Rating System. The agency says the county did not meet the requirement to qualify for the discount due to the large amount of unpermitted work, lack of documentation and a failure to properly monitor activity in special flood hazard areas, including substantial damage compliance.

FEMA informed officials in Lee, Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Estero and Fort Myers Beach on March 28 that it would be downgraded in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System beginning Oct. 1.

This change means the average flood insurance bill will rise 25% later this year. According to the county, just in unincorporated Lee there are 51,103 National Flood Insurance Program policies with coverage of more than $13 billion.

County officials, in response, launched a public relations blitz that blames FEMA, saying in a press release the agency informed the localities of the move “without prior notice.”

That assertion was made in mass email Friday afternoon and before FEMA provided the Business Observer and other media organizations three letters sent between February and December 2023 showing the county had ample warning of the looming downgrade and that the agency had made several requests for information to fix the issues.

“During the visit, Lee County’s substantial damage and floodplain development permit processes were reviewed and discussed,” FEMA writes in a June 7 letter to now retired Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais.

“County staff indicated that inspections and substantial damage determinations were not being conducted proactively, rather only when requested by the building owner at the time a permit is requested," the FEMA letter also states. "When communities wait for homeowners to apply for permits, they risk losing the opportunity to bring structures into compliance as not all owners apply for the proper permits.”

The letter specifically points to the county’s status in the insurance program and that inspectors were on the ground to make sure it was in compliance. “The purpose of this visit was to understand the effectiveness of Lee County’s post-disaster floodplain management activities, including its substantial damage process and to gauge its progress.”

Then, in a Dec. 6 letter, FEMA says two inspectors visited the area between Oct. 30 and Nov. 4 and “identified recent and on-going rebuilding activity for which we do not have permit documentation.”

The agency writes in that letter that “Failure to provide this information will lead to enforcement action.” And it states “that the basic requirement for CRS participation is that ‘The community must be in full compliance with the minimum requirements of the NFIP.’”

Despite these warnings, the county’s public relations office sent a 1,391-word press release late Friday with a four-line headline reading, in part, “FEMA delivers late, devastating blow to Lee County residents already impacted by Hurricane Ian.”

“FEMA has provided no written notification or documentation outlining any specific details that would lead to this sudden rating change, which would take effect Oct. 1,” the email reads, adding two paragraphs later that “extensive efforts — particularly after Hurricane Ian — have been made to demonstrate to the federal government that the county and its city partners go above and beyond what’s required to meet and exceed FEMA and NFIP standards.”

The letter includes quotes from five locals officials bemoaning the downgrade and blaming FEMA.

“For the federal government to have made this decision without any prior discussions seems punitive,” Lee County Commission Chairman Mike Greenwell is quoted as saying. “Ian was the third costliest hurricane to hit the United States, and many of our residents are still reeling financially from its impacts.”

That was Friday.

On Monday, after the holiday weekend, several area news agencies, including the Business Observer, contacted FEMA for comment and for clarification on why the downgrade was made.

FEMA responded to the Business Observer at 3:39 p.m. Monday via email, including copies of the three letters and providing an explanation of how the process worked.

In that email, FEMA spokesperson Lea Crager states that "we are committed to helping these communities take appropriate remediation actions to participate in the Community Rating System again and work towards future policy discounts.”

Just 26 minutes after FEMA sent its response, Lee’s public information office sent a second news release saying the “county and its municipal partners are committed to full transparency as it relates to the FEMA determination.”

That statement goes on to say that the county “would like the public to understand that local governments receive informational requests from FEMA frequently, especially since Hurricane Ian made landfall in 2022.”

The release goes on to say to it responded to each request FEMA made by the deadlines set by the agency. But, the county says, the county “did not receive communications back from FEMA to indicate the documentation would result” in a downgrade.

“The county is continuing its fact-finding related to FEMA’s move on Thursday to verbally inform the county the rating would be” downgraded.

The issue is set to be discussed at the Lee County Commissioners meeting this morning. It is not clear if anyone from FEMA will be present.



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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