Between a Rock and a Seawall
With the hurricane season upon us I wanted to tackle a question that might be on the back of many minds here in the South Florida region: Will I have insurance coverage for my property sustaining seawall damage after a storm event?
Like most articles—authored by an attorney—I can provide little certainty to the above question without being armed with the specific facts and circumstances of the case and the applicable insurance policy. That said, I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say that you, and many other Floridian’s will likely need to come out of pocket for the repair of a damaged seawall due to a meteorological event such as a hurricane and the corresponding conditions (e.g. storm surge). But more importantly let me tell you why as you might then have a chance to do something about it.
Seawalls are important. That is not an understatement, with nearly 300 miles of canals running through the Greater Fort Lauderdale area alone I’d say vital. Seawalls act as a retaining wall for the landmass behind them preventing erosion of your property, which happens to be pretty important for the value of your home. Seawalls also prevent the water in the canal from entering your property, your neighbor’s property, or the neighborhood itself.
If you been a property owner for some time now you’ve likely already endured the wonderful experience of dealing with one’s own property insurance company (add heavy sarcasm here). Isn’t it a lovely product, you give hundreds, possibly thousands a month, for an insurance policy, often without little more explanation than a two-page declaration paper meant to give you the “gist” of it all. And that is it really, you go on with life thinking “I’m covered because I’m paying.”
And then the storm hits. You learn upon returning to town that your residence sustained damages to various parts of the property. Scrambling around the home you seem to remember this thing call a “premium” sent to you annually by “ ……. Insurance Company”. Upon finding it you hold it to the heavens as if finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and shout “alas, my troubles be no more.” Okay, a little dramatic but you get the point.
You immediately call your insurance carrier(s) and tell them that you have damages all around the property and will need someone to take a look. It turns out that you have both hurricane coverage and flood insurance coverage through National Flood Insurance Program because you’re in a high-risk, flood zone prone, area. Pushing aside the other damages and the ensuing fight you’ll likely need to go through to get the full value of your claim we will just focus on the seawall.
When the insurance company appraiser came to the home for inspection you pointed him in the direction of a crooked seawall. The young man tells you I don’t know too much about seawalls, but I’ll take pictures and document the damage. You decide to call out an engineer who tells you that the structural integrity of the entire 80 foot seawall has been compromised. The engineer surmises the damage is due to the rather large tidal outflow experienced during the storm which pulled sediment from under the bottom of the wall until there was nothing left for the concrete wall to brace itself and thus succumbed to its own weight. The engineer estimates the replacement of the seawall to cost about $85,000.00, which includes raising the wall to comply with the new municipal ordinance.
“Wow, boy am I glad I have insurance up the wazoo” you exclaim to the engineer. One month later you get a letter in the mail stating that your seawall is not covered under your hurricane policy as the damage to the seawall was sustained due to storm surge more often covered in a flood insurance policy. Knowing you have a flood policy you exhale in relief and wait for word from FEMA. A week later you get a letter stating that seawalls, along with a whole host of other items, are excluded under the National Flood Insurance Program.
This is that moment where you wipe the palms of your hands over your eyes hoping that by the time your fingers hit your cheeks you’ll wake up and this was just a bad dream. But its not a dream. It’s a situation that happens to countless of Americans who pay money each month for a product they don’t fully understand. You have no disposal income to fix the seawall; you’ve lost $85,000.00 in property value overnight of which you could end up owing the mortgage company; your next door neighbor, bob, has been giving you the stink eye about the high tide that now enters his property; and to add insult to injury you got a letter in the mail from the city statingthat you need to fix your seawall or risk being fined or a lien being placed on the property.
So where did it all go wrong? There is blame to go around here from the individual, to the municipality, state and federal levels. Being a lowly attorney and not much into politics I’ll keep my commentary to what you, the reader, can do now. I will say that legislative action at some level would be a more effective and uniform solution so feel free to write your representatives on this issue.
First and foremost, have your Insurance Policy, the full version. Next, understand the policy by having an attorney review it and explain where you are covered and where you are deficient. Some attorneys will do this for free and some will charge a fee. No matter what attorney you choose make sure they are listening to you and what you want from your insurance. Also, make sure the insurance company understands the property you live on. If your attorney never knows that you have a 150 foot of seawall then insurance coverage for that may never be brought up. Once you understand the insurance policy, decide whether you can afford more coverage or need a different type of coverage. Although the federal flood insurance program, the most common flood insurance program, does not provide for seawalls other insurance carriers may. That said, you may not like the premium. As such, I’d suggest shopping around like you would any other product.
If all else fails you know that you have an uninsured seawall and therefore can take precautions, such as an inspection or use interval maintenance of that seawall to ensure it longevity.
Last, If you came across this article after the damage already happen please don’t let this article deter you from seeking the assistance of legal counsel. The law may have changed, insurance policies may have changed, and/or the facts or your case may dictate a different result.