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EDITORIAL: Recent storms highlight need for Northeast hurricane mitigation plan

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Hurricane Irene pounded the Northeast last year, causing 56 deaths and $4.3 billion in U.S. insured losses. Meteorologists classified it a Category 1 hurricane at landfall.

Only a year later, Sandy, a tropical storm when it came ashore last Monday in Atlantic City, N.J., again ravaged the Northeast. The U.S. death toll late last week stood at more than 100, with 40 of those fatalities in New York City alone. Catastrophe modelers have issued estimates of insured losses that vary be between $5 billion and $20 billion.

A hurricane and monster tropical storm striking the Northeast in back-to-back Atlantic hurricane seasons? What's going on here? It doesn't take a meteorology degree to understand that something has changed dramatically in weather patterns, altering the frequency and severity of destructive storms in states outside of Hurricane Alley in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Maybe two major storms a year apart doesn't qualify as a trend, and neither Irene nor Sandy were so-called one-in-100-year storms: A storm that creates the same scale of losses as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 or Katrina in 2005, hasn't made an appearance in the Northeast yet.

Scientists, however, are predicting that it's not a matter of if, but only when, that could occur. We'll leave the storm predictions to the weather experts, and we won't draw any conclusions regarding the ongoing debate about the possible effects of global warming on these changing weather patterns.

Here's the bottom line, though: A senior executive with AIR Worldwide, one of the nation's leading catastrophe modeling firms, last week during a panel discussion at the 2012 conference of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America called Sandy “more significant'' than Irene but a “moderate event'' in terms of the tab for total damages that private insurers face. The Big One in the Northeast, the insurance industry fears, could result in $200 billion of insured losses, the AIR exec said.

It's high time the insurance industry makes a bold move — to bring together business leaders, the smartest weather scientists and local, state and federal regulators to start working toward a comprehensive infrastructure assessment and a unified hurricane mitigation plan for the Northeast.