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The "Blizzard of '96" is unlikely to be seen as the storm of the century as far as insured losses are concerned.
That's not to say that the unusually severe snowfall that blanketed the East Coast last week from North Carolina to New England was a non-event. On Friday, rain and sleet began falling in some areas, causing potential for more losses.
During the blizzard, roads became impassable, government agencies and businesses closed, airports shut down and more than 100 people died. Retailers estimate losses in the billions of dollars as stores closed and shoppers were stranded at home.
Insurers and risk managers alike credit adequate warning and careful preparation as key factors in keeping the blizzard's damage from being worse.
There are no official estimates of insured damage yet, though the American Insurance Services Group's Rahway, N.J.-based Property Claim Services division has classified the Jan. 6-9 storm as a catastrophe, meaning it caused at least $5 million in insured property damage.
Sean Mooney, senior vp and economist for the Insurance Information Institute in New York, measured the storm's possible impact on insurers against that of the "Blizzard of 1993" (BI, March 22, 1993).
"We go back in history, and the Blizzard of '93 resulted in $1.75 billion in insured property damage," said Mr. Mooney. He noted that the state that sustained the largest losses three years ago was Florida. But much of Florida's $500 million in damage was agricultural, and "this storm didn't hit that far south, so we'd anticipate less damage to agricultural areas," he said.
That earlier storm didn't paralyze major Northeastern metropolitan areas for days at time, like last week's blizzard. But that is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the 1996 snow is drier and therefore lighter than that of three years earlier.
While there is fear of water damage as the snow melts-the extent of which won't be known until the next thaw-Mr. Mooney said, "balancing it all, we could guesstimate losses lower than '93."
Individual insurers reported relatively few claims by late last week.
State Farm Group in Bloomington, Ill., will classify the storm as a "catastrophe," meaning it will produce at least 1,000 claims and $1 million in losses, but it won't be nearly as bad as the 1993 blizzard, said a spokesman.
"In 1993, between the frozen pipes and related losses, we paid out well over $200 million. This storm won't even approach that," he said. "We expect it to produce a maximum loss of about $25 million." As of Friday, State Farm reported that 17,000 claims had been filed.
Meanwhile, at Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co., no claims figures were available late last week but claims activity was light, a spokeswoman said.
In the days immediately after the storm, it was "more of a news event than a claims event," said a spokeswoman for ITT Hartford Group Inc. But that was changing by the end of the week. By Friday, Hartford had received more than 600 claims, several of which were for more than $50,000. The spokeswoman anticipated that more claims will arise in the next several weeks, "if gutters clogged by ice melt and water seeps under roofing."
John Tiene, executive director with the New Jersey Insurance News Service, a public relations group representing 19 insurers, said the "major difference" between the recent blizzard and the one nearly three years ago is that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman declared a state of emergency early Sunday, which prohibited all non-essential vehicles from traveling on any roads.
On the commercial side, Mr. Tiene said the magnitude of the storm may have helped prevent losses. "People were cognizant well in advance of what was coming, so their reaction time to snow buildup was quicker. I think the severity of the storm may actually have helped mitigate losses."
William Baird, chief executive officer of Willis Corroon of Maryland in Hunt Valley, said the broker has seen "very little claims activity" so far due to the storm. However, it has received its "first unusual and potentially significant business interruption claim" from a bio-tech client whose heating and cooling system was blocked by high snow drifts, which subsequently affected some temperature-controlled cultures.
Many of the claims in a storm like this are water damage and business interruption claims that show up after the fact, Mr. Baird noted.
"There's nothing really exciting or sexy to report," said Stewart McDowell, CEO of Willis Corroon of North Carolina in Charlotte. He said the area received about 1 inch of ice coupled with 3 to 4 inches of snow over the weekend.
"We've had a few minor traffic accidents and some slip-and-fall claims, but the majority of our clients stayed closed, therefore minimizing damages," Mr. McDowell said. Once the weather warms up, there may be some claims from burst pipes, he added.
One of the chief reasons for the relatively light amount of property damage was risk managers' willingness to take preventive steps. In some cases, they received special advice from their insurers in advance of the storm.
Arkwright Mutual Insurance Co.'s policyholders located within the storm's path began receiving messages through the Waltham, Mass.-based insurer's Nat Cat system, said Wolfgang Friedel, senior vp. The proprietary computer system integrates weather data, a computerized mapping system and its policyholder list to determine which customers are in a storm's path. "Once we identify the geographic area, it automatically gives us the total locations and fax numbers," said Mr. Friedel.
Faxes go out to a client's risk manager and each individual facility in the path of a storm, he said. The faxes are "intended to trigger as a reminder to do things that you can do within the last 48 hours prior to an occurrence, because that's all the time you have," he said.
The faxes sent before the blizzard contained such loss prevention messages as a reminder to clear roofs of snow. Last Thursday, Arkwright shot out another message to plants in the path of a second storm that struck late last week, warning of the perils presented by snow/rain mixtures. These included reminders that any snow-covered roof acts as a sponge when hit by rain and accumulates weight. Also, because of the snow already on roofs, drains and gutters can freeze.
Mike Burke, vp and chief engineer at Allendale Mutual Insurance Co., said the Johnston, R.I.-based insurer had received no claims by Wednesday and attributed that to a new emphasis on roof collapses since 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
Risk managers are generally in control of 75% to 85% of losses, said Mr. Burke.
After winter storms ravaged Georgia and Pennsylvania earlier in the decade, Allendale had engineers from Factory Mutual Engineering-which both Allendale and Arkwright support-visit policyholders to see whether relatively inexpensive roof bracing should be installed to protect against collapse. The insurer also stressed that its customers construct new facilities in a collapse-resistant manner, he said.
There was little resistance. "For customers committed to a highly protected (risk) philosophy, making something that's adequate better sells easily," he said.
Arkwright also used FME engineers to contact customers before the recent storm. The engineers gave out advice on such things as how to put together a team of people to clean roofs of snow, he said, noting that some customers have enlisted high school football teams to do the work.
If risk managers have specific problems at a facility and have advance warning of storm, they can take several actions to minimize losses, said Craig Holmes, vp and manager of business continuation at Johnson & Higgins in New York.
For example, "you can prioritize moving snow off construction which you know to be weak to eliminate the potential for collapse," he said.
Risk managers appeared to have heeded such advice.
Few companies with operations in the New York area suffered major insured losses as a result of the storm.
The New York Power Authority suffered only minor damage that fell within its self-insured retention, said Risk Manager Dennis Sacco.
American Airlines Inc. will likely lose revenues due to 1,300 flights canceled as a result of the storm, but that commercial loss is not insurable, said Michael Stoeckert, manager of corporate insurance in Dallas.
"There would be no business interruption coverage because in order to have a claim a policyholder has to have property damage," he said.
The complex of major petrochemical companies in the Delaware Valley also continued to function without significant damage throughout the storm.
Wilmington, Del.-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. had to shut down its corporate offices for a day because Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carver declared a state of emergency, but otherwise DuPont suffered no major blizzard loss, a company spokeswoman said. All DuPont plants in the storm's path-including Wilmington, Martinsville, Va., and Carneys Point, N.J.-remained in operation and followed emergency plans and facilities.
A spokesman for Houston-based Coastal Corp. said the energy company's Eagle Point plant in Thorofare, N.J., kept running through the night of the heaviest snowfall.
The story was the same throughout the blizzard's path.
No power outages were reported in Washington and the Maryland suburbs, said a spokeswoman at Potomac Electric Power Co., which supplies electricity to about 2 million people.
However, the electric company did have extra line crews and customer service representatives on hand during the storm in case power outages did occur, she said.
CSX Transportation Inc.'s rail network, which runs throughout the East Coast, suffered little structural damage from the 28 inches of snow that dumped on some areas of the system.
During the height of the storm, about one-third of Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX's rail network-or 300 trains and 10 terminal locations-were either delayed or rerouted. Only one section of the rail line, in eastern Tennessee, was shut down temporarily.
"Our biggest challenge is a human resource issue," a CSX spokeswoman said. States of emergency were declared in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which prohibited vehicles, other than emergency and snow removal equipment, from traveling on the roads. It created "a challenge for employees to get to work."
Mark Hofmann, Sally Roberts, Michael Schachner and Gavin Souter contributed to this report, which was written by Mr. Hofmann.