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A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY

Change Sought to Cover Losses

Mandatory national insurance for disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes is getting a serious look. Critics call it a bailout for carriers.

October 05, 2005|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed such major shortcomings in the nation's insurance system that regulators from several states are drawing up plans for a national catastrophe insurance program.

Its backers argue that without a major overhaul, the current system will once again perform miserably in a big California quake, a major terrorist attack or storms that echo this season's in size and intensity.

Details of the program are to be worked out at a summit in San Francisco next month led by California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and his counterparts from New York and Florida. One strong possibility is that the program will be mandatory for all U.S. homeowners in the same way liability insurance is required for car owners.

That would eliminate the biggest problem with current forms of disaster insurance: It's specialized and often expensive, so few buy it. That keeps the premiums high, which keeps it unpopular. When a disaster hits, only a small percentage of people are covered.

With a national program, premiums would vary according to risk areas, with Gulf Coast residents and Californians paying more than, say, Idahoans or Nevadans. The insurance companies would administer the program and, in all likelihood, the federal government would guarantee it.

The proposal, which would have to be approved by Congress, is drawing fire from consumer advocates, who fear it would be nothing more than a massive bailout of the insurance industry.

Supporters -- including California's Garamendi -- contend that the entire country is already paying for disasters like Katrina, but after the fact.

"You have a catastrophe, the president flies in, and the money falls out of the back of Air Force One," Garamendi said.

With Katrina and Rita, losses might total as much as $200 billion, at least half of which was uninsured. "It's a government bailout," the commissioner said. "It's inefficient, and extraordinarily expensive."

No one -- insurers, consumer advocates, regulators or local residents -- wants a replay of Katrina and Rita. The storms ruined hundreds of thousands of homes, but insurance may cover only a small fraction of the destruction.

Many policyholders in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi are being told that their damage is the product of flooding rather than the wind that made the flooding possible. Wind is covered in standard policies, but rising water isn't. Some people are hiring their own adjusters to argue their case with insurance company adjusters.

Only a minority of homeowners had government flood insurance. Even those who did are limited to $250,000 in coverage, which won't be nearly enough for some waterfront mansions.

Insurers have their own complaints. Industry officials say they can't develop computer models for cataclysms. They say it won't take many more storms like Katrina to drain their reserves.

The legal battles promise to be lengthy and messy. The Mississippi attorney general is suing insurers to force them to cover all storm damage, including flooding. A flurry of private lawsuits seeks the same thing. A Mississippi legislator is touting a proposal to allow people to buy flood insurance retroactively, a concept that overturns every tenet of the insurance business.

The Insurance Information Institute, an industry group, warns that if such efforts prevail, the companies will leave the market.

"Is there a lot of anger? Absolutely," said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley. "The insurance companies are being vilified."

The fury isn't always justified, he added. Sometimes people have themselves to blame. "Sixty percent of the people in America are underinsured. Maybe it's a little lower nationwide, maybe higher here," said Wooley, an advocate of a national plan.

The situation is likely to repeat itself soon, maybe on the Gulf Coast, maybe elsewhere, experts say. As large-scale catastrophes increase in frequency and severity, fewer of the people affected are equipped to survive the events financially.

Several converging trends are responsible.

More Americans are living in risky areas, whether along earthquake faults in California or in the hurricane zone that stretches from Texas to North Carolina. And terrorism is an unquantifiable but real threat in every large urban area.

Six of the eight most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history, as measured in 2005 dollars, struck in the last 14 months. To protect themselves, insurers are likely to continue a decade-long process of cutting back on the coverage they offer.

"The model we currently operate under is very effective with high-frequency, low-severity events -- automobile accidents, house fires, theft of property," said Michael Trevino, a spokesman for Allstate Corp., which insures 17 million households. "We can predict the likelihood of future losses pretty well. We can't do that with mega-catastrophes."

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