Insurance woes are plentiful on the Alabama coast

By Doug Walker – bio | email

ORANGE BEACH, AL (WLOX) - Welcome to Orange Beach, Alabama.  A stretch of the coast known for its sugar white beaches, crystal blue water, and some of the best views in the country.

But there are warning flags waving in the breeze.  Skyrocketing insurance costs could turn all of this beauty into something entirely different.  City officials fear this could bring an end to further development.

This is an area of the Alabama Gulf Coast still trying to rebuild, still trying to recover from Hurricane Ivan more than five years ago. And insurance problems are the same here as they are in Mississippi.

The scars of Ivan can still be seen in Orange Beach.  There is some construction going on, but not much.

Allen Johnson is a realtor, and has seen the change since Ivan roared ashore, leaving for sale signs everywhere.

"There's very little competition and very few choices," Johnson said. "The few choices that we did have at one time, many companies have chosen to pull out and cancel policies or have made the renewals and premiums so exorbitant that it's not cost effective to pursue them."

So just how high are the costs?  In 2002, Alabama residents paid 10 percent less for insurance than the national average.  By 2006, that number was up to 11 above the national average.

Vince Burchfield owns a home in Orange Beach.  While he tidied up his front yard with a rake, he shared his insurance frustrations.

"Two years later they informed me my rates went from $2400 a year to $6300 a year, and I just told them I wasn't going to renew," Burchfield said. "I went to a broker here in Orange Beach and we found a policy with Lloyd's of London for about $4000."

Larry Harless retired in Orange Beach.

"I'm on a set income and wasn't expecting this," Harless said. "When I first came here it was sort of high, but not compared to the way it is now. It's just gone out of sight."

Tony Kennon is the Mayor of Orange Beach.  He spends many hours on the phone talking with citizens about their insurance woes, but there is little he can do.  He places the blame at the state capitol.

"The difficulty is that in Montgomery," Kennon said. "We're dealing with politics and politics is making it difficult for something to happen that's, in my opinion, fair to those of us who live down here on the coast."

At the Orange Beach Senior Center, Emily Bell meets with about a hundred friends every week to play Bridge.  While the seniors shuffle cards, hoping for a winning hand, many also have to shuffle their finances to makes ends meet.

"I have to really cut back everything, in general, because I have to have that," Bell said of her insurance.

So how much is Bell having to pay every year?  The number may shock you.

"It's gone up from about $2000 a year to $7000 a year," Bell said.  "I'm a single widow living alone on the inside of an island."

The state insurance commissioner is frustrated, but feels he may have an answer.  There is strength in numbers, according to Jim Ridling.

"I don't think there's any one state, save maybe Georgia, that can afford to do a state sponsored insurance program on their own," Ridling said.  "If we're going to go down that route, we're going to need to have more than one state. We're going to need to have a consortium of states or some federal program that everyone understands the coastline is worth doing this, and it's going to cost a lot of money."

But where that money will come from is anyone's guess, according to Mayor Kennon.

"It's a very difficult situation. It creates difficulties for us economically, hardships for individuals especially fixed income residents," Kennon said.

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