National

U.S. needs national catastrophe insurance, experts warn

MCT

WASHINGTON — A coalition of experts in hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters warned on Tuesday that the U.S. would experience another major disaster and called on the incoming Congress to quickly approve national catastrophe insurance.

James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration, and retired Adm. James Loy, a former deputy secretary of homeland security, said that a House of Representatives-passed bill in the current session of Congress should serve as a quick start for a bill in the new session that begins in January.

"We are facing events more frequent and much more devastating than in the past," Witt said.

Hurricane Ike, which devastated Texas this year, was only a Category 2 storm but is expected to end up being the third costliest storm in U.S. history. "What if it had been the big one?" Loy asked.

The Homeowners Defense Act, championed by Florida lawmakers and backed by President-elect Barack Obama when he was in the Senate, would create state catastrophe funds that would then support a federal reinsurance program.

The goal, Loy said, is to make insurance "available and affordable." Florida, with a state-funded insurance company, is a prime contender for the plan, which is designed to spread the risk among states that participate in the program. Loy estimated that 15 to 20 states would join.

The entire Florida delegation supported the bill and next year, Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., will again lead the legislative effort in the House. The bill passed the House 258-155 but stalled in the Senate.

"Congressman Klein has indicated that passing a national catastrophe insurance fund will be one of his top priorities for the upcoming Congress," said Melissa Silverman, Klein's spokeswoman.

However, Mississippi Coast residents, still recovering from 2005's Hurricane Katrina, are not likely to benefit from the approach, said a staffer for Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

"I don't see how this helps us at all," said Brian Martin, Taylor's policy director. "It doesn't address our problem."

Mississippi's problem is that many insurers didn't approve claims for wind damage, which they covered, but approved payments for water damage from the federally funded National Flood Insurance Program. Many insurers have stopped writing new policies along the Gulf Coast, forcing Mississippi to create a wind pool program for its six coastline counties.

Taylor authored a provision to the flood insurance reauthorization that would add wind coverage to the federal program. It was approved by the House but defeated in the Senate. He will pursue it again in the upcoming Congress, said Martin.

Witt and Loy, co-chairmen of ProtectingAmerica.org, a coalition of 300 organizations, say the problem of catastrophe insurance requires a national program instead of piecemeal state-by-state approach.

"This is an idea for America whose time has come," said Loy, a former Coast Guard commandant.

The Homeowners Defense Act provides a way for state-sponsored insurance funds to bundle catastrophe risk, and then transfer that risk to private markets through the use of catastrophe bonds and reinsurance contracts.

The legislation also would enable the federal government to extend loans to state insurance funds after a major natural disaster.

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