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Ensuring proper coverage can keep a firm afloat in a disaster

September 01, 2008|Joyce M. Rosenberg | The Associated Press

Small-business owners dealing with damage caused by Hurricane Gustav or Tropical Storm Fay -- or this summer's Midwest flooding or California wildfires -- probably are feeling some regret because they didn't have adequate insurance coverage. And so the cost of salvaging a building or the business itself is falling squarely on them.

Many small businesses are underinsured, either in dollar terms or in the kinds of policies they've taken out. Sometimes the culprit is ignorance -- an owner may not realize that a policy doesn't cover certain hazards. But in this difficult economic climate, the problem may be that an owner decides to forgo the cost of insurance because of cash flow problems.

Insurance is always a gamble, whether it's for a business or a home. An owner needs to weigh the chances of a disaster striking against the cost of coverage or the cost of having to rebuild.

Some communities flooded this summer when the Mississippi River spilled over its banks were considered far enough from the river to be safe, noted Mike Barry, senior vice president for media relations at the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based industry group.

The odds are that some business owners never took out flood insurance -- which must be purchased separately from standard property coverage -- because they never imagined they'd be washed out.

Too often, Barry said, owners regard insuring against a disaster "as money going out with a very indefinite return on investment. It's seen as an unnecessary expense by some."

A big mistake business owners can make is to take out a policy that covers property damage from forces such as wind, rain, hail and fire, and assume that's all they need.

They'd be better off with a business owner's policy, which includes property coverage and, perhaps even more important in the event of a disaster, business interruption insurance.

A business owner's policy costs more than a standard property policy, but that business interruption insurance can save a company from going under.

Business interruption insurance can cover a company's operating expenses and lost profit if the business is shut down for an extended period. That can include salaries and employee benefits, rent and line-of-credit payments. And it doesn't have to be a natural disaster that shuts down the business; even losses stemming from a power outage can be covered.

Owners also need to be sure they're insured against specific kinds of disasters. Flood insurance has gotten a lot of notice since Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but many businesses still don't buy the extra protection.

Flood insurance is something many people never expect to need. But the fact is, if a small stream near your business swells up after an unusually long period of rain and water pours in through the windows or door, you won't be covered without it.

Flood insurance is available through the government's National Flood Insurance Program. An agent can sell you a policy, but you can get information beforehand at the program's website, Floodsmart.gov.

Similarly, earthquake damage is unlikely to be covered in a standard policy. In California, businesses can buy insurance through the state-run California Earthquake Authority at Earthquakeauthority.com.

Barry noted that since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, insurance carriers generally require businesses to purchase separate policies to cover terrorism-related losses. He said a business doesn't need to be in a high-profile place such as New York to consider such insurance. "If you're close to a federal courthouse," then a business might want to obtain this coverage, he said.

Some small companies should carry special insurance because of the kind of business they're in. For example, a heavily damaged bed and breakfast that would need to restore its quaint ambience by purchasing antiques would probably need additional guaranteed replacement coverage, Barry said.

"It restores it to its preexisting state," he said.

Business owners looking for a grounding in business insurance can find it at the insurance institute's website, Iii.org.

Insurance agents also have plenty of information, and business owners can also consult with an insurance-savvy counselor at SCORE, formerly known as Service Corps of Retired Executives, which offers small businesses free advice. You can find a SCORE counselor at Score.org.

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