Special Report: Hurricane season approaches, get prepared now

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Eleven years, that's the last time the Florida Panhandle was hit by a major hurricane. Hurricane Dennis made landfall on Santa Rosa Island as a Category 3 storm with maximum winds of 111 miles per hour.

Just a year earlier, in 2004, the Panhandle was ravaged by Hurricane Ivan.

Ivan reached a peak intensity as a Category 5 storm but made landfall as a Category 3, with maximum winds of 120 miles per hour. It caused more than $23 billion in damage and was the costliest hurricane in the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season.

"I don't want to go through that, but I want to be prepared in case we are in that situation," Michelle Gill said. Gill just moved to Panama City last year and has never experienced a hurricane.

Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through November 30. Meteorologists at Colorado State University are forecasting an average hurricane season, predicting 12 named storms, five turning into hurricanes, with two reaching Category 3 status or higher.

"We expect a pretty mild season, we're hoping. We always plan for the worst and expect the best," Deputy Chief of Bay County Emergency Services Brad Monroe said.

The time to get prepared is before the storm hits, not after an emergency has been declared. Start by checking your home owner's insurance policy. Many insurance companies pulled out of coastal states after hurricane seasons in 1994, 2004 and 2005. Recently, many companies have started insuring homes again, but with modified policies.

According to Joe Brown of Allstate Insurance, these modified policies are particular to the state of Florida.

"Companies have specifically designed their policies to fit our risk," Brown said.

In our area, most homeowner's insurance policies include hurricane damage. Wind is typically covered. However, most policies do not cover flood damage.

That usually comes from the National Flood Insurance Program. The insurance program determines the elevation risk of your land and assigns a zone for your property.

"You can click on the area where you live, and it will tell you what the surge zones [are] in the areas that you live in, and the evacuation times," Monroe said. "It helps you plan for the times that you need to get out ahead of the storms and what you can expect if we have the different categories of storms that might effect us."

Insurance companies advise homeowners to seriously consider this option.

"If you're high enough above the flood plain, far enough from the rising water risks, your flood insurance policy is not that expensive," Brown said.

However, those who are more at risk will have to pay more.

"Once you get next to the water, or in a low lying area, your flood insurance premium will reflect that," Brown said.

Because it's been so long since our area has experienced a hurricane, insurance companies worry about people not preparing properly. Not updating your homeowner's insurance to include flood damage is just one common mistake.

"Typically people think, 'I'm not in a flood zone, so I don't need that coverage.' Every zone is a flood zone, one's just least likely," Brown said.

Other mistakes include not attaching your hurricane shutters. Most homes in the area have these, and insurance companies want homeowners to use them.

"If your carrier finds you've been given credit for hurricane shutters and you didn't use them, and there's damage, that gives them the cause to deny the claim," Brown explained.

For more information on what you can do before the storm, follow the links included.