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Sandy flood claims a drain on fed program

North Lindenhurst firefighters descend down South Bay Street

North Lindenhurst firefighters descend down South Bay Street in Lindenhurst, on way to rescue residents from a home during Superstorm Sandy. (Oct. 29, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

WASHINGTON -- Since superstorm Sandy hit three weeks ago, Long Beach insurance agent Dennis Miller has taken in about 3,000 federal flood insurance claims, each averaging about $60,000 to $70,000.

"That's three times what they were with Tropical Storm Irene," said Miller, explaining that more Sandy-related claims are for damage to possessions and for total losses of homes.

The large number of claims from Long Island and across the region hit by Sandy are expected to quickly drain the $3.7 billion available to the federal flood insurance program, forcing it to ask Congress for another loan, officials said.

The National Flood Insurance Program on Wednesday said it expects losses from Sandy to total between $6 billion and $12 billion, with as many as 143,000 claims. Some 81,000 homeowners and businesses on Long Island have federal flood insurance worth $22 billion.

But the program itself has just $840 million in cash and $2.9 billion borrowing capacity, an amount a program administrator said soon will be used.

"As we go into this, we are looking at Sandy and the numbers are staggering," Edward Connor, FEMA's deputy associate administrator for federal insurance, told a meeting of the Federal Advisory Committee on Insurance.

With the number of claims coming in, Connor said that "we expect that probably by the end of this month we are going to have to tap into our remaining $2.9 billion."

Congress will pass an appropriation to make sure every claim is honored, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). But Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma say they'll insist that offsetting spending cuts accompany new appropriations.

The FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program covers up to $250,000 for the home's structure and $100,000 for personal possessions; premiums average $500 a year. As of Aug. 31, it insured 5.5 million homeowners and businesses nationally for nearly $1.3 trillion, and had taken in $3.5 billion in premiums.

The federal flood insurance program has been on shaky ground since 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita nearly wiped out New Orleans, accounting for $15 billion of the program's $17.7 billion debt to the federal Treasury.

"If the program were a private company, it would have gone bankrupt back in 2005," said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

In July, Congress worked with Wharton and other groups to reauthorize the program and put it on sounder footing, with a 20 percent increase in premiums phased in over five years.

Congress also required updated flood-risk maps, higher premiums for riskier areas, reduced insurance subsidies for vacation homes and added measures to encourage private-sector competition.

But no one has resolved the question of what to do about development of coastal areas prone to storms and floods, especially with the increase in recent years of damaging storms.

Over the past three years, New York State has been hit by four major storms -- the March 2010 nor'easter, tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011 and Sandy -- prompting more people to buy flood insurance. An Insurance Industry Institute survey found the percentage of those with the insurance in the Northeast rose from 5 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2012.

In the hard-hit City of Long Beach, there are about 7,700 people with federal flood insurance. Miller estimated that 65 percent of Long Beach houses have flood insurance.

"I bet every bit of it gets used this time," he said. "Long Beach has been hit very, very bad."

With Timothy Healy

and Reuters

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