Irma’s Shift Westward Caught Some by Surprise

By , and Bailey Lipschultz | September 10, 2017

Hurricane Irma’s westward shift will probably inflict heightened damage on people and businesses unable to adjust to its new path in time, while the storm fuels floods that many insurance policies don’t cover.

Along Florida’s west coast — now in the direct path of the storm — many residents thought they would avoid the worst of it, and then found themselves with too little time to fully prepare, according to Duncan Ellis, the U.S. property practice leader at Marsh & McLennan Cos.’ main brokerage unit.

Such was the scene near the waterfront in Tampa as the winds began to pick up. On Harbour Island late Saturday, condo resident Monty Gawel said he was only able to fill three sandbags, using dirt from a planter. While the 50-year-old intended to stay, a number of his neighbors were fleeing.

Nearby, some shops lining Garrison Channel were protected only by a single line of sandbags, just one sack high. Their glass windows and doors remained uncovered.

“Most people expected it to impact the east coast rather than the west coast,” said Ellis. “It took a turn to the left, and that’s caused a bit of a scramble in getting properties ready for the storm and evacuations.”

Damage Estimate

Total damage from Irma could reach about $49 billion, with $19 billion picked up by private insurers, according to Enki Research risk modeler Chuck Watson. That’s dramatically lower than earlier predictions after the storm’s harshest winds began to slow.

But within such broad figures, insurers are starting to sketch out damage trends with big implications for individual customers. Those will continue to unfold as Irma progresses.

Even after the westward shift, larger, commercial clients are typically well prepared, and even able to help those who aren’t, Ellis said. “If you’re a big-box store selling 2x4s, flashlights, plywood and all of that, you stay open as long as you can,” he said.

Aside from catching some people underprepared, the new trajectory is threatening to hit areas like Tampa with storm surge, which is particularly costly. Many residential policies cover rain, but not flooding from open water. That means affected policyholders may find themselves waiting for longer for checks as claims are evaluated, or ultimately paying out of pocket to make repairs.

Low-Lying State

“Tampa Bay is an area that insurance underwriters have been concerned about for a very long time,” said Rick Miller, the head of the U.S. property practice at Aon Plc. “There’s a lot in harm’s way, and it’s heavily exposed given it’s low-lying state.”

Irma is adding to pressure on insurers after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last month.

Florida’s residential property insurance market is unique. Many of the large, national carriers began scaling back from the state after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and retreated further after a costly spate of storms in 2004 and 2005. Today, the top underwriters are a group of smaller, lesser-known companies — including Universal Insurance Holdings Inc. and Federated National Holding Co. — as well as a state-run entity called Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

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