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America's flood insurance chief has a message for all Floridians: You're at risk

If you’re a homeowner in Florida relying on flood zone maps to decide whether to buy insurance, you may want to check your drivers license instead.

"If it says Florida, you need flood insurance," said Roy Wright, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, which covers more policies in Florida than any other state. "It may be more helpful than trying to find the right map."

Hurricane Irma is only the latest case in point, said Wright, who was in Miami Beach on Monday for an insurance conference.

When the massive storm churned toward Florida, hurricane-force winds extended 140 miles, nearly the breadth of the state. As the storm rolled across the Lower Keys, it pushed a storm surge across the islands and continued swamping the coastline as it moved north along Southwest Florida. Homes in Everglades City and Chokoloskee filled with mud up to five feet deep. On Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami, water washed over seawalls and out of the Miami River, swamping the business district.

In Jacksonville, far from the storm’s eye, a confluence of storm surge and high tide swelled the St. John’s River and caused the worst flooding in a century.

The national flood insurance program is now $20 billion in debt, largely because of Irma and other catastrophic storms like Harvey. Wright, during a break in the insurance conference, sat down with the Miami Herald to outline a plan to stabilize a troubled federal program vital to Florida’s real estate industry. It includes ambitious goals to double enrollment over the next five years amid a major makeover that will include more aggressive purchases of re-insurance and catastrophe bonds.

By law, only homes with federally-backed mortgages in high-risk zones are required to have insurance.