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News stories highlighting what happens in the days, weeks and months following hurricanes in Central Florida.

One year after Hurricane Ian, Central Florida homeowners are still rebuilding out of pocket

Vernita Tillman shows the patched spot on her ceiling that started out as a water spot after Hurricane Ian damaged her roof.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Vernita Tillman shows the patched spot in the ceiling that started out as a water spot after Hurricane Ian damaged the roof of her west Orlando home.

It has taken a village to help Vernita Tillman regain normalcy.

Up until last year, the 62-year-old lived in her west Orlando home for 22 years with little trouble, but Hurricane Ian changed that.

The heavy rains caused severe damage to her home’s roof and drywall. Tillman said she filed a claim with her insurance company of over 20 years, but to no avail.

“I showed them this water spot (in the ceiling) and my concern of, you know, ‘Is this going to come through?’ And they said it just wasn’t enough,” she said.

According to Tillman, the adjuster advised her the damages were not enough to merit the use of insurance. That was the first and only claim she would ever file with that company — they not only denied her claim but also dropped her as a policyholder.

After that visit, the water spot Tillman referenced had to be patched. That part of the roof did indeed “come through,” as she had suggested. She said she was grateful the bed was not directly underneath the hole when it happened.

Tillman, who lives on disability income, said she couldn’t afford the repairs. When she later became the legal guardian of her three grandchildren, however, her urgency grew. In order to keep the children from ending up in foster care, she needed to provide suitable housing.

“I struggle with being strong for all of them. There are so many of us out here trying to keep our families together, and more families would be (together) if they would have support,” she said.

She said she managed to put enough money together for the materials to fix the drywall, and while her neighbors kindly took care of the labor, it was going to take more than that. For Tillman, fixing her home meant keeping her family together.

The need is great

This week marked a year since the passing of Hurricane Ian, a storm that wreaked havoc in Florida, taking nearly 150 lives and leaving over $112 billion in damages. A report from the National Hurricane Center showed Ian holds the record as the costliest storm in Florida history, third-costliest in the U.S.

In Central Florida, it was flooding which caused the most damage. Now, a year later, and already deep into a new storm season, many locals are still trying to recover. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners like Tillman have had to foot their own repairs.

In June, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation reported Hurricane Ian resulted in more than 700,000 insurance claims statewide. While some claims remain open, over 86% of them have been closed, and nearly 200,000 of them were closed without payment.

Rebuilding Together, a Tampa-based nonprofit aimed at making homes safe and habitable again after disasters, stepped up to help Floridians rebuild. According to the organization, they have helped 606 homeowners across the state affected by Ian and have another 74 projects currently in the works.

Molly Hill, program manager for Rebuilding Together in Central Florida, said Tillman’s case is not uncommon.

“If you drive around, and you look at the number of homes that still have tarps on their roofs, I think that alone tells you that we’re not 100% recovered from Ian. It’s going to take a lot of time. That, to me, represents the number of families in need,” Hill said.

Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation reports nearly 200,000 insurance claims from Hurricane Ian were closed without payment.
Office of Insurance Regulation
Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation reports nearly 200,000 Hurricane Ian insurance claims were closed without payment.

According to Hill, money is the biggest roadblock preventing a full rehabilitation from Ian. In many cases, she said, unattended small problems can get expensive. When Tillman’s water spot was ignored, the roof caved in, allowing water to come in and damage the floor.

“When homeowners can’t fix those smaller problems, and if the insurance denies it, and then a homeowner doesn’t have the funds to fix it, then it can snowball out of control and lead to something bigger. And that’s when we’re able to step in,” Hill said.

Even with the help of community, Hill said, Tillman was exhausting her resources. The drywall was fixed but not finished, and with three grandchildren multiplying the love in the home, the money was going toward food, clothes, and school supplies — not house repairs.

“Ms. Tillman represents a group of underserved people who go above and beyond for their family, who just need a little help to make ends come together, make ends meet,” Hill said. “It’s not cosmetic or about being aesthetically pleasing. It’s about being safe.”

Once Tillman was connected with Rebuilding Together and qualified for assistance, the organization sprung into action. Hill said they've been able to fix the roof and replace her floor. Their next mission is to fix the ceiling, finish the walls, and replace the doors.

Lots of moving parts

Rebuilding Together is able to do this work through grants and donor contributions. Since 2015, Bank United, based in Miami Lakes, has been a partner.

According to Claire Raley, the community development officer at the institution, Bank United provides grants, as well as resources like time, connections, and volunteers. She said the work done by Rebuilding Together is critical to maintaining existing housing.

“We talk about the housing crisis, looking to add more units, but we could be losing units as we add them. So, making sure families can get back in their homes after disaster recovery, and ensuring these homes are safe, is also important to the (housing) ecosystem,” Raley said.

This extensive network of support has become necessary. Florida homeowners are paying the highest property insurance premiums in the nation, yet many have had their claims denied, rates raised, or policies dropped.

Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications at Florida’s Insurance Information Institute, weighed in. He said that while the insurance market has been unstable, there are also a lot of misconceptions among homeowners — starting with what is and isn’t covered.

For example, he said, many people don’t know flood protection is purchased through FEMA, separate from private home insurance. Also, it is common to see people who don’t purchase flood insurance because their property is not in a flood zone.

“Property insurance does not pay for flood damage. It is one of the biggest misconceptions in the country, and that appears to be certainly the majority of the problem claims that we’re hearing about,” he said.

Even with flood insurance, Friedlander said, there is the matter of meeting deductibles, which are much higher for hurricane-related claims.

“Say, their hurricane deductible is $25,000, the damage is $20,000 — there’s no payout. That happened to homeowners (after Ian) as well,” he said. “Many homeowners had high deductibles because hurricane deductibles are separate from your standard property policy deductible.”

Friedlander said he can’t speak for every case, such as Tillman’s, and that there are times when policyholders are right. However, he said, there’s a difference between not understanding the policy and an insurer not fulfilling their obligation.

“There’s just a lot of education here, and we always suggest: talk to your insurance agent, so you clearly understand what your coverages, what your deductibles are, what you’re responsible for in a loss,” Friedlander said.

Vernita Tillman explains the repairs left to do in her west Orlando home to fully rebuild from Hurricane Ian.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Vernita Tillman explains the repairs left to do in her west Orlando home to fully rebuild from Hurricane Ian.

Building more than homes

Back at Tillman’s house, the work is coming along. Tillman said she loved the new floor and how it gives the place “a new look” that got her excited about the progress.

Hill said seeing progress in the home is great, but seeing it in people is her favorite part.

“It feels amazing to see someone who just needs some help, who’s just feeling down on their luck, and to see that progression — that person, go from feeling defeated to feeling empowered, to feeling excited, happy and safe in their home… That’s the progression we really like to see,” she said.

Tillman is resilient. She said she’s grateful for the help she has received from her community and has faith it will all work out.

When she’s in a better spot, she said, she plans to pay it forward.

“When you do things for other people from your heart and not look for something in return, that's when you get your blessings,” she said. “I want to give back.”

Her vision is to park a food trailer at school events, she said, so that busy moms lacking means, getting off work and rushing to show up for their children, can get relief and grab a bite to eat. In honor of her Polk County roots, she said the trailer will be called Country Gal.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America Corps Member. 

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for Central Florida Public Media, as a Report for America corps member.
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