Breakout

Hurricane Irene Could Be Among Costliest U.S. Storms

Breakout

Whether you lost power, got flooded, both or neither, it's safe to say millions of Americans are suffering from hurricane fatigue today. The media coverage was as massive and widespread as the storm, but nonetheless, it's always best to be safe than sorry.

Hurricane Irene may have been overhyped, but the fact remains that 26 lives were lost, and the Eastern seaboard is in major cleanup mode. The storm churned through ten states, traveling over 1,000 miles up the U.S. coastline. While Irene was downgraded to Category 1 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, its slow moving speed, high winds, and heavy rainfall caused power outages, flooded homes and businesses, and created a travel nightmare for Monday's business commute. It was by no means as strong and damaging as expected, but Irene could still make a historic mark in terms of dollar signs.

According to Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute (or I.I.I.), Hurricane Irene could be one of the costliest storms to hit the U.S. "We're hearing estimates of anywhere between $3 to $8 billion, but until the adjusters can really get into the damaged areas and see what the losses are, these are just estimates." As a comparison, I.I.I. calculations show that our nation's two costliest storms were Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which racked up over $45 billion, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 with over $22 billion in total insured losses. Our 10th most costly storm is Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 totaling over $4 billion in estimated insured losses.

Hurricane Irene seems likely to crack the top ten list. Estimates are expected to rise and add to one disastrous year in terms of weather-related damage throughout the country. Salvatore admits "it's been a bad year, a bad year for the industry, a bad year for people who've had to deal with disasters." She points out that preparation is key and insurance exists to protect against unexpected as well as expected occurrences. "One thing people need to keep in mind is this is the business of insurance, to pay for losses when there are these types of disasters. And a hurricane is something that is expected. We plan for hurricanes, we have capital put aside for hurricanes," she says.

90% of disasters include some type of flooding, according to I.I.I. And property owners are generally aware of this reality. "Most people knew, had common sense to get important items off the floor and out of the basement, knowing that it was going to be flood waters that would cause the most damage," says Robert Ranaldo, VP at Mucci Agency, Inc. in Manhasset, NY — a suburb in Long Island, among the hardest hit coastal areas damaged by Hurricane Irene. Ranaldo says he's been fielding calls from concerned homeowners since before the storm (when it was too late to add new coverage) and expects the demand to continue as "people are more concerned with flood insurance this week than trying to save some bucks."

Overall, the weaker than expected Hurricane Irene means lower payouts on loss and damage claims, and is already boding well for the insurance industry. Today the SPDR KBW Insurance ETF (KIE) is up 5%. Among the individual stocks to watch include Hartford Financial Services Group (HIG), Allstate (ALL), Travelers (TRV), and Chubb (CB).

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