In 2014, historic rainfall flooded the first floor of Doug and Wendy Underhill’s home on a barrier island near Pensacola, Fla. It would be the fifth time since 1995 that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) would pay out tens of thousands of dollars for flood damage to the house — a total that far exceeds the value of the house. The previous owner made the first four claims, before the Underhill's bought the home in 2011.
So the Underhills asked the flood insurance program to issue the maximum payout under their policy, $250,000, which would help them demolish the house and build a new one elevated on concrete pilings to substantially reduce the risk of future flooding.
The NFIP said no and paid the Underhills $72,000 for the damage to their house and personal property losses. Crushed, the couple made the repairs and braced for the next flood.
It took six years, but that flood came on Sept. 16, when Hurricane Sally pushed a five-foot surge toward their home on Perdido Key in Escambia County, at the far-western edge of the Florida panhandle.
Ordinarily, their house sits on the banks of the Old River, which separates two barrier islands. But that day, the river had swallowed their house. After the storm, the family waded up their driveway through waist-high water. They climbed the front steps and entered the house on the second floor. It was as they’d left it before the storm.
But when Mrs. Underhill went down to the first floor, she was shocked.
“Oh, my God,” she gasped, before breaking into sobs.
The river’s choppy water was slapping the walls of their family room. Two windows and French doors that led to the backyard were gone, allowing white-capped waves to surge into the house. Drywall less than waist-high had been ripped away. A refrigerator and mattress bobbed on the water’s surface like flotsam. The contents of their two boys’ bedrooms had been sucked into the river.
Now, like a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day,” the Underhills find themselves back where they were in 2014. At that time, Mrs. Underhill had sent a plaintive email to the head of the NFIP asking to be allowed to rebuild at a higher elevation rather than simply make repairs.
Instead, the NFIP paid to repair the house again, bringing the total payouts for all five floods to $229,000 — far more than the structure’s current appraised value of $149,000. It would also leave the house vulnerable to future flooding.
“I am dumbfounded that I am being told by NFIP that we will only receive the amount of the repair… even though NFIP’s policy requires that we bring our whole house into code compliance,” she wrote in an email to Roy Wright, then director of the flood insurance program.
Wright left the flood insurance program in 2018 to become the head of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.
The institute offers building standards for fortifying businesses and homes against threats like wind, hail, wildfire and heavy rain. It offers a certificate akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for resilient construction.
Flood Trends tried to reach Wright to ask his thoughts about whether the flood insurance program, which is backed by taxpayers, might be better served by helping families like the Underhills rebuild resiliently. He declined to talk with Flood Trends, although he said through a company spokeswoman that the email address Mrs. Underhill used in trying to reach him didn’t appear to be valid.
Robert Hunter, who was once the chief actuary of the NFIP and today handles insurance issues for the Consumer Federation of America, told Flood Trends the Underhills should be given a full payout to help rebuild.
“It makes no sense to keep putting this home back into a status quo ante situation over and over,” he wrote in an email. “The rules do allow some flexibility in determining the size of the loss. I believe they can do that in a case like this. And they should.”
Escambia County has chalked up twice the amount of repetitive, severe loss payouts under the NFIP as Miami-Dade County, which has almost ten times Escambia’s population.
The NFIP, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is partially underwritten by taxpayers through a $30 billion line of credit. But pressure is mounting to bring down the program’s cost by encouraging homeowners to rebuild resiliently rather than keep submitting repair claims, flood after flood.
“We want to rebuild a more resilient community with every flood,” said Mr. Underhill, a Navy intelligence officer, and county commissioner. If the house had been rebuilt and elevated in 2014, he added, it would have been safely above Sally’s storm surge. It would have been designed to withstand 160 mph winds.
Instead, Sally’s 105 mph winds did a number on the Underhill’s 47-year-old home.
“The entire top half of the house is racked and twisted so that the peak of the roof is actually separated by an inch,” Mr. Underhill said. “If you set a marble loose on the second floor, it will roll south.”
The house is now the subject of a sixth claim through the NFIP. Once again, the couple is hoping for a full payout so they can demolish it and finance the construction of a new house fortified against hurricanes and flooding.
If so, the program will have paid out almost a half-million dollars in insurance claims on a structure appraised at $149,000.
For the family, though, the cost, disruption and trauma of flooding would stop. And the hemorrhaging repair costs borne in part by taxpayers would come to a halt.
But the couple worries that the NFIP will deny them again.
“We’re at their mercy,” Mrs. Underhill said.