Fla. Senators Propose National Hurricane Relief ‘Six-Pack’ of Bills

By Phil Davis | March 22, 2007

U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson introduced a “six-pack” of congressional proposals this week calling for $4.3 billion in hurricane research, streamlined regulations to help curb soaring insurance rates and renewed debate on creating a national catastrophe fund for all natural disasters.

The Florida senators want the bills to set the agenda for a proposed national commission to tackle the complicated issues of how the nation responds to – and pays for – natural disasters. Congress is still considering the $10 million request to create the commission.

“These bills are a foundation for the future – a stronger, better, brighter future for those who suffer hurricanes,” said Martinez, R-Fla. “Unfortunately, hurricanes are a way of life for more than 17 million Floridians. These prevention-oriented bills will work to make people safer in their homes, allow them to shelter-in-place, lessen their risk of loss, and reduce the monetary burden associated with hurricanes.”

Nelson, D-Fla., renewed his call for a “national backstop” for state natural catastrophe funds. The “Homeowner’s Protection Act” includes winter storms, tornadoes and floods in the definition of catastrophe – a nod to landlocked lawmakers who have been reluctant to share the risk with coastal states hit hard by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was among 16 members of the Southern Governors’ Association who recently signed a resolution calling for a national disaster fund.

“Homeowners throughout Florida and our nation need a safety net in case of emergencies such as blizzards in the Northeast, earthquakes in California, droughts in Texas and hurricanes that can threaten our nations coastline,” Crist said. “… this action is the necessary next step to ensure a stable and affordable insurance market for homeowners.”

The total cost of the proposed laws is still being calculated.

The $4.3 billion proposal to fund a decade of hurricane research comes days after Bill Proenza, the National Hurricane Center’s new director, told The Associated Press that more aggressive research is essential to protect the nation from hurricanes and tropical storms.

The money would be doled out to researchers in annual increments of $435 million for research ranging from improving hurricane prediction to finding and assessing vulnerable buildings in coastal areas.

“Part of that is scientific research based on how we protect structures,” Martinez said. “It’s looking at wind, looking at water and thinking about what buildings will withstand and what buildings won’t withstand … it’s about doing that science.”

Other proposals call for tax breaks for people who make improvements to protect their property from hurricane and tornado damage or put aside money in special “catastrophe” savings account. A similar measure to provide a tax credit of up to 25 percent of storm mitigation costs is being considered in the House.

Insurers too would get a break under some of the proposals.

One bill calls for streamlining of barriers in regulation of how insurers spread out risk for major disasters, including allowing foreign companies into the mix. A companion bill has been introduced in the House. Another provides tax breaks to insurance companies that set aside money solely to pay for major natural disasters.

Robert Hartwig, president and chief economist of the industry-funded Insurance Information Institute, said the changes aren’t new ideas and are generally supported by insurers.

“It’s good that these issues are being discussed,” Hartwig said. “There has to be honest discourse about the risk. In the end, that risk has to be paid for one way or another.”

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