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Federal plan would cover windstorms

A House panel OK'd expanding an insurance program to cover wind damage -- which could bring comfort to Florida residents -- but the plan has Republican critics.

Miami Herald - 7/27/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Maria Recio

A bill beginning to move through the U.S. House could dramatically change the way windstorm insurance is sold in Florida and other hurricane-prone coastal states.

The House Financial Services Committee voted 38-29 on Thursday to expand the national flood insurance program to cover wind damage. Other proposals floating around Washington would create national catastrophe funds to cover many perils, but this one is focused squarely on hurricane risk.

To be sure, the bill faces stiff opposition ahead -- particularly from Republicans. It could get a floor vote when the House returns from recess in September and, if it passes, would have to prevail in the Senate and get past the White House.

Committee member U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said he supports the legislation and thinks it would help ease the state's windstorm woes but would not completely solve the insurance crisis.

''This could provide some relief for some people, but I still think we need to take additional steps to reduce insurance costs,'' Klein said.

Under the bill approved by the House committee, policyholders of the flood insurance program would be able to purchase wind policies as well. The policies wouldn't be available for those exclusively seeking wind coverage.

The multiple-peril residential policy limit would be set at $500,000 for the structure and $150,000 for contents. Maximum coverage for flood insurance policies would rise from $250,000 to $335,000 for residences.

Many state legislators have long supported the creation of a national insurance program that covers not only flood and wind but also earthquakes, fires and other catastrophes. Local lawmakers have said such a national program would have a better chance of winning approval from lawmakers representing states where hurricanes aren't an issue but other disasters are.

''The long-term solution to our insurance crisis is on the national level,'' said state Sen. Steven Geller, a Hallandale Beach Democrat.

Geller said his preference has been a wide-ranging national catastrophe insurance program. ``But if we get wind in, that's a plus. In Florida, that's what we're concerned about.''

Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty also has pushed a national catastrophe plan modeled on the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides lower-cost reinsurance to private insurers that would still write the wind or earthquake policies.

Klein and Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens, are championing legislation to create such a national fund. A similar effort in the Senate to study the idea is stalled, facing resistance from lawmakers from noncoastal states.

''We're backing a bill that deals with bringing down the cost of insurance and provides more choice in insurance carriers,'' Klein said.

Any kind of regional or national catastrophe program would ease the burden for Citizens Property Insurance, Florida's state-run insurer, which as the state's largest insurer of homes and condos covers much of the windstorm risk in South Florida.

If the bill approved in committee Thursday were finalized, such a national program could take on Citizens policies in which homeowners carry the required flood insurance.

The vote, largely along party lines, was spurred by a pledge that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made after Hurricane Katrina to the coastal communities of Mississippi and Louisiana. Pelosi will lead a bipartisan delegation to the region in August before the second anniversary of the hurricane.

The vote was a personal victory for Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his home in Katrina. Taylor has made it a personal crusade to persuade colleagues that the current system creates a shortfall, with private insurance companies covering wind damage and the federal government covering water damage, resulting in a bias by insurers who administer the flood program to label all damage as ``water.''

''This really helps people in all coastal areas,'' said Taylor, noting that residents of North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Maine and New York, as well as in his home state of Mississippi, could benefit.

Klein agreed that the bill addresses a ''very big problem in Mississippi and Louisiana in terms of insurers failing to take responsibility for storm damage,'' but he said Floridians' problems with both obtaining and affording insurance would remain.

''I don't think, realistically, it's going to solve Florida's problem, which is that the costs are so high it's driving people out of the state,'' he said.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the expanded program would pay for itself through actuarially determined premiums.

The legislation encountered stiff resistance from Republicans, who said it exposed the federal government to steep liability at a time when the flood insurance fund was essentially bankrupt. Insurers and consumer groups are also opposed to the expansion, warning that losses will dramatically increase as claims increase.

''I am not ready to support shifting the burden of wind damage to a plan that is nearly $18 billion in the red,'' said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the committee's ranking Republican. The flood insurance program had to borrow $17.5 billion more than it took in because of Katrina and Hurricane Rita claims.

The legislation makes changes in the program, increases premiums, phases out subsidized rates paid by vacation-home owners and raises the borrowing authority.

Republican members offered several amendments stripping or delaying the wind provision from the bill, but they were defeated. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who opposed the addition of wind coverage until Congress studies the issue further, said that the controversy could sink the legislation.

''This is really adding a poison pill to the flood insurance reform bill,'' she said.

Frank acknowledged that the bill was controversial but said it would be ready for a floor vote in September. Taylor predicted that the bill would pass on the House floor and said he hoped that he would get support in the Senate from Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., who also lost his home to Katrina.