updated 8/15/2006 7:25:35 PM ET 2006-08-15T23:25:35

Florida homeowners flocked to a new state program Tuesday that offers free hurricane-preparedness inspections and grants to help cover the cost of improvements.

More than 3,500 people applied online within hours after the state began accepting applications. The $250 million My Safe Florida Home program, passed by the Legislature in May, was supported by insurers as a way to help control skyrocketing costs in Florida’s insurance market.

“Retrofitting homes must be a part of our culture of preparedness,” said state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, whose agency is running the program.

With eight hurricanes in two years and insurance company losses hitting nearly $40 billion, insurance premiums have spiraled, and some residents have said they can’t find private coverage at any price.

The program provides free home inspections outlining ways in which homeowners can protect their property from storm damage.

Inspectors will look for things such as whether the roof-to-wall connections should be reinforced, whether stronger garage doors are needed and whether shutters should be installed.

“It’s not hundreds of things that need to be done,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “It’s a handful of things.”

Homeowners can apply for matching funds from the state to make recommended improvements, and some low-income homeowners can get grants of up to $5,000 with no matching requirement.

Goal: 12,000 inspections by November
Gallagher said the goal is for 12,000 inspections to happen before November and possibly as many as 50,000 could be evaluated in the next year. After that, it would be up to legislators to continue the program. Bush, who leaves office in January, said the program should be made permanent.

Officials in Gallagher’s office said the first inspections will be done in South Florida, primarily in Miami-Dade, Broward and Lee counties, where more than 100 inspectors have already been hired and trained.

After that, inspections will move to several other coastal counties.

The program is open to permanent Florida residents living in single-family homes with an insured value of $500,000 or less.

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