Nancy Sikes-Kline holds her old address sign at the site of her former home, a total loss after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Octavian Cantilli

By Susannah Nesmith

Six months after Hurricane Matthew skirted the Florida coast last fall, Nancy Sikes-Kline was finally able to move out of her temporary apartment and into a house—but it wasn’t her house.

“It’s taking much, much longer than any of us ever imagined” to put her life back together, said Sikes-Kline, 60, a land use consultant and St. Augustine city commissioner.

“For older people, it’s particularly difficult because we don’t have time in our lives financially to recover. First we got hit with the Recession. And then this.”

Twenty-five years after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, Floridians have learned a lot about the disruptive power of nature.

Subsequent storms like Matthew, as well as wildfires, have only reinforced the message: Disasters can be devastating, and it’s best to be prepared. Florida residents need to consider everything from their insurance coverage to how and when they will evacuate.

Sikes-Kline was better prepared for Matthew than many people because she had increased her flood insurance coverage a few years before the storm, worried about the requirement that substantially damaged homes in flood zones be lifted above their previous height.

Insurance won’t cover all of the costs to rebuild her home, but she would have been worse off if she hadn’t increased her coverage.

She did receive some help with living expenses from FEMA “which we were very grateful for,” she said. “It helped stabilize us financially in those early days.”

Donna DeVaney Stockham, a Tampa attorney specializing in insurance, has seen a variety of ways people end up with insufficient coverage. She recently represented the residents of a storm-damaged condominium building, many of whom were in their 80s.

“Most of them didn’t have insurance on their own units,” she said. “It took a year to resolve. Many of them were forced to sell at very low prices because they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage and live somewhere else. Had they had alternative living expenses coverage, they would have had more options.”

She’s seen people who didn’t update their policies as replacement costs increased, leaving them with far too little coverage.

“It’s so important to know what your coverage is,” Stockham said. “I can’t tell you how many people are underinsured or uninsured for certain risks.”

To-Do list before the disaster
Updating insurance policies is important long before a disaster threatens, because there are other crucial safety precautions to take in the final few days. These include:

  • Getting medications. Florida law requires insurers to waive “refill too soon” rules when a disaster has been declared so people can get a one-month supply.
  • Having enough food and water for three days. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least one gallon of water per person and pet per day.
  • Having an evacuation plan for yourself and your pets.

Many areas have pet-friendly shelters. Most communities also maintain registries of people who will need help evacuating. But Curtis Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade County director of emergency management, said it’s important to register early. Emergency personnel have a plan to help people who are on the registry, but that sometimes hundreds of people call for help on the day before a storm.

“We only have so many resources and sometimes we can’t get to everybody,” he said.

While Floridians get a lot of warning for hurricanes, wildfire evacuations come with very short notice. Palm Coast Fire Chief Michael Beadle urges residents to tape to their dashboards an index card with directions out of their neighborhood. He was a firefighter in 1998 when wildfires forced the evacuation of all of Flagler County.

“When you get into a panic, and there’s smoke, you can get disoriented,” Beadle said. During the 1998 fires, police found one woman driving through a back yard. They got her out, but the fire was so close it damaged their cars. “When we say you have five minutes, we really mean five minutes.”

Sikes-Kline didn’t wait around to evacuate her home before Hurricane Matthew hit.

“I was gone before they issued the evacuation notice,” she said. “There are all kinds of combinations in which hurricanes can be bad. We saw that with Andrew. It’s not worth sticking around.”

Susannah Nesmith is a writer living in Miami.

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