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A costly series of storms and flooding are causing hundreds of millions of dollars in insured losses and wreaking havoc in several Western states.
Governors in five Western states declared 70 counties disaster areas following the storms, which downed power lines, closed retail stores, collapsed roofs and even forced casinos to close.
Damage from the storms-not including flood waters that overwhelmed Northern California last week-could cost insurers in California, Oregon and Washington between $125 million and $250 million, according to a spokesman for the Property Claims Services division of American Insurance Services Group in Rahway, N.J. However, he cautioned that those amounts were estimates and that claims reports were still coming in.
PCS did not estimate damage for Reno, where the Truckee River roared through downtown, causing the area's worst flooding in 40 years. The brunt of flood losses are borne by the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program, not commercial insurers.
Some of Reno's 24-hour casinos closed for the first time ever last week, mostly because of impassable roads and a loss of electricity, said Alex Kanwetz, senior vp of Sedgwick James of Nevada.
A spokeswoman for Harrah's Casino in Reno said the casino evacuated and stayed closed for 24 hours because of a loss of power.
The baggage claim area at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport suffered damage and several planes were grounded as water rushed over their landing gear.
Mr. Kanwetz said he expects commercial insurance claims to be minimal as there was limited damage and many accounts forego flood coverage because it is often written with deductibles equivalent to 2% of the insured property value.
By late last week the downpour in the Pacific Northwest had slowed following a series of winter storms that began just after Christmas day. But the cleanup was still underway.
"As far as we are concerned the storm is not over, we still have customers that are without power," a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Power & Light Co. in Bellevue, Wash., said Thursday afternoon. About 13,000 customers were without electricity.
The previous Friday, Dec. 27, about 225,000 of the utility's customers lost power, the spokeswoman said. Sleet and ice weighed down power lines and also caused trees to crash down on them. Crews later restored power to some of those customers only to have another storm cause more outages the next day.
The destructive combination of snow, warm temperatures and rain delivered by the storms caused roofs to collapse throughout western Washington.
"It was a fairly unusual snowfall," explained Tom Pruitt, risk manager for Tacoma Boatbuilding Co. in Tacoma, Wash. "We had a foot of snow which is real unusual. We don't see that very often, and then a heavy rain followed it and just saturated that snow with water. That gets to be real heavy stuff. The snow normally is not much of a problem here."
Tacoma Boatbuilding Co. did not suffer damage or business interruption losses, he added.
However, in Bremerton, Wash., a spokes-woman for the city's Chamber of Commerce said about 30 business in the area, including several large retailers, suffered damage from collapsed roofs.
Grocery store chain Albertson's Inc. evacuated one of its stores in Bremerton before a portion of the roof caved in.
"When that happened we sent out a team of architects and engineers, both in-house and out of house, to ensure the safety of our other stores in the Washington area and make sure they were safe to have open," said an Albertson's spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho.
Albertson's did not have a damage estimate from the collapsed roof late last week, but the spokeswoman said the company is self-insured for the loss.
A spokesman for Washington Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn said insurers were reporting immediately after the storms that they were receiving more telephone calls concerning potential claims than after a previous benchmark storm in 1993.
"It lightens up for a while and then we get hit with another deluge," the spokesman said.
Storm damage in the Portland, Ore., area was not as substantial as in Washington, said Ross Dwinell, risk manager for United Grocers Inc. in Portland. The area suffered worse damage from a storm last February, he said.
"Most of the damage down here in Portland is flooding. There were some power outages we had the day after Christmas and some people have been without power. Most of the problems we are going to have now will be with flooding," he said.
The day after Christmas an icy storm swept across northern Oregon knocking out electricity to much of Portland's downtown area and the city's airport. Many retail establishments closed their doors on the normally busy shopping day.
In Northern California, tens of thousands of residents evacuated the towns of Yuba City and Marysville due to the threat of flooding last week. In addition, crop damage in the region was evident. For example, the Napa Valley County Agriculture Commissioner reported more than $4 million in damage to wine grapes and other crops.
Much of the flooding in California came just as the governor's Office of Emergency Services reported only $119 million in property claims losses related to natural disasters in 1996. It was the first time in six years the figure was under $1 billion dollars.