May 3, 2006

As Hurricanes Loom, Many in Florida Keys Flee

By Laura Myers

KEY WEST, Florida -- Spiraling living costs, lingering trauma from past evacuations and fear that one day million-dollar homes could be reduced to rubble or again flooded are driving people out of the vulnerable Florida Keys as another hurricane season looms.

While most of Florida experiences one of the country's fastest population growths, the number of people living in the low-lying 110-mile (180-km) island chain at the southern tip of the peninsula is slowly dwindling.

In the last two years, residents have been ordered to evacuate six times up a narrow, mangrove-fringed 126-mile (200-km) road, the Overseas Highway, linking the Florida Keys to the mainland.

When Hurricane Wilma swept by on October 24, it flooded about 3,700 of 15,000 homes in Key West with a foot or more of water and destroyed 1,000 cars. Most residents were stunned.

"We're seeing adjustment disorders, post-traumatic stress," said Betsy Langan, assistant director of Womankind Inc., a health services provider. "Because of the hurricanes, people are exhibiting sleeplessness, difficulties in concentration and are feeling hopeless and overwhelmed."

On top of that, property values have soared beyond the reach of most working families. Home insurance rates are sky-rocketing. And salaries can't keep pace.

"You pay $400,000 for a trailer that's going to be junk soon. It's incredible," said Jose Cuevas, a moving company manager who commutes to work in Sugarloaf Key from Miami each day -- a 300-mile (490-km) round trip.

The moving-out business is booming. "Clients are worried about insurance. One said, 'They only want rich folks,"' Cuevas said. "They don't want to go, but they have to."

A palm-fringed paradise that boasts the only living coral reef in the continental United States, the Florida Keys is the sort of island paradise that many dream about. But much of it is hemmed in by turquoise waters and the island at the end of the chain, Key West, is densely populated and usually crowded with tourists.

Home prices in the entire Florida Keys average $846,000, and in Key West, the main city, $935,000, according to Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate.

The head-turning price of real estate, and limited land for development, also is putting a squeeze on renters as apartments and mom-and-pop motels are converted into condominiums and sold off as second and third homes to wealthy retirees.

"We're gun-shy about going through another hurricane. We gave up on buying a home here in Key West," said Dorothy McCoy, a daycare provider who with her painter husband Denis recently left the Keys.

Keys homeowners are also socked with Florida's highest insurance premiums. Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort, proposed a base windstorm rate of $20.91 per $1,000 of insured home value for this year.

Furious Keys officials threatened to sue the state, and a grass-roots organization, Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe, or FIRM, met with Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of U.S. President George

W. Bush, in April to seek support.

Florida insurance regulators rejected the rate filing on Monday and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty froze Keys' windstorm rates at the 2005 level of $20.58 per $1,000, still the state's highest and two to three times as high as the rates in other hurricane-hit counties.

Key West resident David Lane and his wife Pam recently listed their historic 2,000-square-foot (186-sq-m) home at $1.5 million and plan to head to Asheville, North Carolina. Their windstorm insurance premium: $12,700.

"If a really bad storm hit here, a big part of the value of our house is the land. What would the land be worth?" David Lane said.

"I don't want to feel like I'm turning into an old weenie. We really love Key West, but evacuating is hard. It just gets tedious."

Many residents feel the same way, and the result is a slow exodus from paradise.

The population of Monroe County -- the entire Florida Keys -- dropped 2.16 percent to 76,329 in the year to July 2005. In the last five years, the county's population has shrunk 4.1 percent at a time when most areas in Florida are growing rapidly, according to a U.S. Census report in March.

"These are people who've lived here 20 to 25 years," said John Strong, owner of Pak Mail, a packing and crating franchise. "They're going to Arizona, North Carolina and Central America, seeking no hurricanes."

The problem is acute for teachers, nurses and police officers. An increasing number of Monroe County sheriff's employees commute from Miami. Sheriff Rick Roth is adding 18 bunks at a detention center which could be used by the commuters in an emergency.

A recent Monroe County School District poll found that 7 percent of families with school-aged children planned to leave when the school year ends in May.

"We can't get nurses, we can't get doctors," said John Dolan-Heitlinger, an advocate for affordable housing for working professionals.

On Big Pine Key, resident Pam Henry said she is struggling to pay $16,000 a year in property taxes and home insurance, and is moving to central Florida.

"The hurricanes put the icing on the cake," Henry said.