It took years for many insurance claims to be paid following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This time, technology is helping speed along the claims process for residents hardest hit by Hurricane Charley. "I really think the industry can handle this without a lot of problems," Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said during a tour Thursday of Charlotte County. "The industry now knows what a major storm can be and they're prepared for it. So is the state." Charley killed 22 people in Florida and state officials said more than 335,000 customers were without power Thursday. Charlotte County residents were not expected to have their electricity fully restored for another 10 days. Charley has caused an estimated $7.4 billion in damage to homes, businesses and personal possessions, more than any other hurricane in Florida since Andrew. Gallagher recalled in the aftermath of Andrew, it took "six to eight months before we got a handle on it." Still, most owners of property damaged by Charley will have to pay more out of their pockets than Andrew's victims did. Instead of set dollar deductibles, which were the standard before Andrew, policies now have deductibles based on a percentage of the insured property, which generally require the insured to pay a larger portion of the damage. Nevertheless, technology is playing to homeowners' advantage, speeding up the pace in which insurance companies can begin addressing claims. That translates into residents getting insurance checks much faster. "The faster the process gets started, the sooner they'll get back on their feet," said Bill Mellander, who was flown in by Allstate from Illinois as part of their disaster-response team. Satellite-equipped units were quickly set up by Allstate and other companies after Charley hit Friday able to provide all the resources of a regular office, informs ABCNEWS. According to Sun-Sentinel, hurricane Charley could cost insurance companies at least $7.4 billion to pay for damaged homes and businesses, according to estimates released Wednesday by the Insurance Information Institute. That makes Hurricane Charley the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which cut through Miami-Dade County causing more than $22.9 billion in insured damages, adjusted for current dollars. The institute, based in New York, used confidential information provided by its member organizations to come up with the estimate, said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit insurance industry research group. The estimate will change as more claims are filed and information becomes available, Hartwig said. The estimate is less that what some other industry groups have suggested, the difference being that those estimates were based on computer mapping tools, and this estimate is based on insurers' reports, Hartwig said. Insurers should have enough money to cover their losses, and most companies should be able to dip into the state's Hurricane Catastrophe Fund if more money is needed to pay out claims, Hartwig said. Charley's aftermath isn't going to trigger an insurance nightmare similar to what happened in the wake of Andrew, because of industry reforms instituted after the earlier storm. Those changes include the creation of the catastrophe fund. As Florida attempts to recover from an estimated $15 billion in damages left by Hurricane Charley, tax-exempt debt issuance from the state is likely to increase so Florida can replenish its Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, a municipal bond portfolio manager said. The fund, established in 1993 and backed by charges to insurers, will need to be built up after the state pays claims from property and casualty insurers, said Stephen Winterstein, a managing director at PNC Advisors Municipal Investment Group in Philadelphia. The municipal market has speculated that property and casualty insurers will need to liquidate their tax-exempt holdings en masse as homeowners submit their claims, but the state's catastrophe fund should help temper the outflows and any downward pressure on munis, he said. After property and casualty insurers reach a deductible of $4.5 billion in payments to claimants, they can tap the state for reimbursement of up to $15 billion per hurricane season. The fund's balance is currently about $6 billion, but it has capacity to issue up to $9 billion of bonds if needed. "We could see a step-up in issuance later this year or early next year because they may issue tax-exempt muni bonds to replenish the fund," said Winterstein, who manages about $1.6 billion in tax-exempt bonds for high-net-worth individual investors and corporate institutional clients. The effect would be to cheapen bonds in the Florida tax-exempt market similar to what occurred in California, when the state issued billions of dollars in economic recovery bonds to help balance its budget, according to Winterstein. Ultimately, however, prices could rise once all the supply is absorbed, Winterstein said. The state's general fund, which is supported by sales tax revenue instead of by income taxes, should be bolstered due to all the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts that will be needed, imparts Reuters.
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