Hurricane Inspection Program Irks Public
JULIE BUSCH / The Tampa Tribune
Home inspector Terry Donahue looks for the roof to wall fastners in Patricia O’Sullivan’s home as part of the My Safe Florida Home program.
By JOHN W. ALLMAN, The Tampa Tribune
Published: September 12, 2007
TAMPA - It’s been 15 months since the state launched its My Safe Florida Home inspection program.
During that time, there have been tens of thousands of residents statewide who tried to take advantage of a free wind inspection and a possible matching grant up to $5,000 to better fortify their homes against hurricanes.
But now, as it enters its second full year, the program is becoming better known for complaints than success stories.
The residents who speak out don’t just carp about long wait times. They use words like “scam” and “fiasco.”
For instance, people say they have been surprised at:
•Being flooded with solicitation calls from contractors who got their personal information from the state.
•Finding out after they have applied about loopholes or changes to the program that left them ineligible to participate.
•Hearing derogatory comments about the program from the home inspectors hired by the state.
All in all, it has left many people feeling frustrated and angry.
“I said to hell with it. If I need to do something, I’ll do it on my own. To hell with the state,” said Allan Schwartz of New Port Richey, who waited nearly a year for an inspection he said is worthless. 'It’s just one massive disappointment. The program is not intelligently planned."
Officials with the state Department of Financial Services, which oversees the program, say they have heard the complaints and they understand.
“We’ve answered a lot of frustrated calls,” said Tami Torres, special programs administrator for Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
They argue that the program is relatively new and that it overcame a fitful pilot period en route to inspecting more than 90,000 homes since April.
“That’s pretty incredible, by anyone’s standards,” Torres said.
Residents, however, say the problems haven’t been fixed. They point to issues at every step of the process.
Julie Stafford of Tampa thought she was done with the program four months ago. She had received her free inspection and later learned she wasn’t eligible for a matching grant.
She does not live within the state’s windborne debris region, which typically extends inland about a mile from the coast. Much of Hillsborough County is outside the region’s boundary.
Then, a few weeks ago, Stafford got a phone call. She was told she had to have a reinspection.
“The inspector lady said you wouldn’t believe what a mess this program is,” Stafford said Tuesday. “The lady said the program is so screwed up that they don’t know from day to day what they’re doing.”
Stafford said she was floored.
“I couldn’t believe why they would waste my time if I’m not even eligible,” she said. “Why wouldn’t they reinspect people who perhaps live in the wind area?”
Torres said the state is required to ensure the quality of the inspections being provided. To do that, they must reinspect 5 percent of all inspections performed. The homes are picked randomly.
“It gives us an opportunity to find ways to do further training of our inspector workforce,” she said.
Torres acknowledges that there have been other problems such as homeowners “who are concerned because they were contacted by a contractor.”
The problem, she said, is that all information received through applications is considered public record because of state statutes. Torres said they have asked contractors working for the state not to call residents, but they can’t stop them.
“We recognize the homeowners’ frustration in this regard,” she said.
There is also the frustration of not being alerted to modifications in the program - there have been several significant changes - that limited who could participate.
Colista Hancock, 76, who lives in Riverview, wanted to apply for a matching grant. She signed up in August 2006, received her free inspection and waited.
She finally got a letter saying that homes like hers built after 2002 are no longer eligible for grant funds.
She promptly called the state: "I said, ‘I didn’t read that when I signed up.’ They said, ‘Oh, no, we changed the rules.’ "
Torres said the change was intended to provide more opportunity for homeowners whose houses were built prior to the state building code being strengthened in 2002.
Hancock sees it another way: “Where I was born and raised, you don’t change the rules like that.”
Reporter John W. Allman can be reached at (813) 259-7915 or email@example.com.