October 30, 2012

Sandy’s damage worse than Irene, far from Katrina

“All of society is going to be affected by this (financially),” said Cynthia McHale, an insurance expert.

By KEVIN G. HALL / McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Residents along most of the East Coast on Tuesday began cleaning up the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Sandy, and it was immediately clear that all Americans will get slapped with the astronomical bill for the late-season storm.

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Robert Connolly, left, embraces his wife Laura as they survey the remains of the home owned by her parents that burned to the ground in the Breezy Point section of New York, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. More than 50 homes were destroyed in the fire which swept through the oceanfront community during superstorm Sandy. At right is their son, Kyle. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Mantoloking, N.J. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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“One of the big lessons here is there is going to be a very large gap between the insured losses and the total direct losses, and the overall economic losses due to Hurricane Sandy,” said Cynthia McHale, director of insurance services for the business advisory firm Ceres.

The insured losses from Sandy are initially estimated by Ceres and others to come between $5 billion and $10 billion. That’s a fraction of the total losses, however, since damage from flooding and Sandy’s storm surge would be covered not by the private sector but rather by the National Flood Insurance Program. Only a small percentage of homeowners — 5.6 million policies nationwide last year — are thought to actually have the federally provided insurance coverage.

That means taxpayers may be on the hook for a lot of the disaster assistance as well as the low-interest rebuilding loans given to residents and businesses in affected states along or near the East Coast.

“All of society is going to be affected by this,” said McHale.

Americans also will feel Sandy’s effect on gas prices, which are likely to spike for a short period as a result of the storm forcing refinery shutdowns and disrupting gasoline deliveries along the East Coast.

Sandy shut down the New York Stock Exchange on Monday and Tuesday, the first time weather has closed the symbol of American financial might for two consecutive days since 1888. Leaders of the exchange announced Tuesday afternoon that trading will resume Wednesday morning at normal hours, although with the subway system and schools closed in New York it wasn’t clear who would come to work and how they’d get there.

Initial estimates of broader economic losses range from $20 billion to $50 billion, although these numbers could go sharply higher in days ahead as more is known about the submerged New Jersey resort town of Atlantic City, parts of which Tuesday resembled the mythical submerged city of Atlantis.

One reason for the difficulty in estimating damage is that the slow-moving Sandy continued to drench inland portions of the nation Tuesday, said Annes Haseemkunju, a meteorologist with the risk-assessment firm EQECAT in Oakland, Calif.

“This is going to be (seen as) an unusual event,” he said, noting that gale-force winds were felt in a diameter of 1,000 miles from Sandy’s center. EQECAT initially estimated $5 billion in insured losses but expected that number to rise sharply.

Another big unknown is the extent of damage in and around the densely populated New York City area. Water levels in the Battery Park area on the edge of the financial district surpassed records set in 1960. The flooded New York subway system is expected to be closed for days, and for millions of New Yorkers, in a city proud of its toughness, it’s sure to be a week demanding patience.

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“Early estimates of potential infrastructure damages currently stand around $10 billion of insured damages and about twice as much, or $20 billion, in terms of total damages,” wrote Nigel Gault and Gregory Daco, economists at forecaster IHS Global Insight, in a research note Tuesday. “This would put Sandy on par with (Hurricane) Irene (in 2011) in terms of total infrastructure damage estimated around $15 billion. However, with Sandy being a much larger storm, it is likely to end up causing more flooding damage than its 2011 peer, which would increase total damage estimates.”

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