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Insurance rate hikes could leave homeowner's in bind

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla -- Hurricane season is drawing to a close and, fortunately for all, it has been relatively calm on the Gulf Coast compared to the devastation seen by the past few year's brutal beatings.

However, the aftershocks of such elemental forces as hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina are still battering the bank accounts of residents up and down the Gulf Coast.

With the damage reaching easily into the billions of dollars from the latest wave of hurricanes to ravage Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida over the past decade, dramatically increasing homeowner's insurance premiums may be the financial straw to break residents' back pockets.

Policies are being canceled by companies no longer willing to insure homes in Florida's most hurricane-prone areas, while first-time homebuyers are facing unforeseen challenges in finding insurance.

Millions of Gulf Coast inhabitants will be looking at severe increases as insurance companies that continue to insure homes in Florida say sharp premium increases are needed to offset their losses, estimated at $38.9 billion from the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

These rate hikes can eventually lead to rental price increases as well, as landlords begin to charge more to offset the higher insurance fees.

As the cost of living rises, military members who live off base may feel the pinch if the basic allowance for housing fails to augment the economic deficiency.

One such Airman is Technical Sgt. Cristina Rodriguez, 16th Security Forces Squadron, who said she would have to sell her house here if her homeowner's insurance increased severely, since she is already dealing with a property tax increase.

"I'm already draining my savings," Sergeant Rodriguez said.

Three main components are included in computing the allowance: median current market rent, average cost for utilities and average renter's insurance, according to Department of Defense officials.

Each year, BAH rates are adjusted with input from military housing offices in the area. If it is determined the rate needs to be increased, all servicemembers living in that area will receive the increase.

"BAH is set by what it would cost to rent a house, not by how much homeowner's insurance is," said 1st Lt. Thomas Cook, 16th Comptroller Squadron Financial Services Office Flight commander. "Finance has no say over BAH rates."

Technical Sgt. Paul Gambrell, 16th SFS, who rents a house off base, said he would have to move to a more affordable apartment if his rent suddenly increased drastically.

Florida State lawmakers and others are calling for reforms, saying inland homeowners are practically subsidizing those who choose to live and build along the water.
A special committee is tasked with developing recommended changes to the state's insurance system.

State Rep. Don Brown, R-Defuniak Springs, hopes to be a part of a solution. He is one of 15 people appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Florida Property and Casualty Insurance Reform Committee, which will develop a plan to ease the state's insurance burden before the Legislature convenes next year.

(Editor's note: Jeff Ayres, Northwest Florida Daily News reporter, contributed to this article.)