Local News

Major hurricane could drown insurance industry

Posted September 23, 2008 4:19 p.m. EDT
Updated September 23, 2008 7:33 p.m. EDT

— Although North Carolina has fine-tuned its emergency response over the years to prepare for a hurricane, insurance industry officials warn the state could be swamped by claims of coastal damage if a major storm hits.

When Hurricane Ike roared ashore in Texas 10 days ago, that state's coastal insurance pool had more than $2 billion in reserve. Insurers estimate claims from Ike will more than double that, meaning companies and policyholders across Texas will likely make up the difference.

Joe Stewart, executive director of the Insurance Federation of North Carolina, said North Carolina could face a similar predicament unless changes are made to shore up the system.

"For those of us that don't live on the coast, we don't want to have to subsidize those rates on the coast," Stewart said.

The so-called "beach plan," which covers much of the coast, couldn't handle a wave of claims if an Ike-sized storm hit North Carolina, he said, noting property covered by the plan jumped in value from $18 billion to nearly $70 billion in five years.

"The numbers have gotten so big that, in the aftermath of a significant event, we could see companies going under. We could see people having trouble in non-coastal areas getting coverage," Stewart said.

The solution must include higher insurance rates, he said.

"The beach-plan pricing has not been driven by the real risk of what's being insured on the coast," he said.

Rose Vaughn Williams, counsel for the state Department of Insurance, acknowledged the coastal concern needs to be addressed, but she said she doesn't necessarily buy the industry's dire forecast.

"It's always difficult to compare North Carolina," Williams said. "It's a complex issue in trying to balance the need of consumers for affordable home insurance with the need, at the same time, to have a viable coast property insurance market."

A special legislative study commission has been formed to take a closer look at the coastal insurance system. The group's first meeting is next Tuesday, and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, industry experts and lawmakers are all expected to be at the table.