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Insured losses from winter storms that have ravaged several Western states since late December are nearing $300 million, though uninsured losses exceed that amount.

The latest insured loss estimates don't include widespread flood damage, which is excluded under standard personal and commercial property insurance.

Commercial crop damage is expected to be minimal, despite growers' exposure to flooding, because the inclement weather occurred during the winter dormant season for most crops.

Yet some food processors are concerned that failed refrigeration units and roof collapses on storage facilities will generate future losses.

Nineteen counties in Washington, five in Oregon, 13 in Idaho, 37 in California and four in Nevada had been declared federal disaster areas as of last week.

The Property Claims Services division of American Insurance Services Group of Rahway, N.J., last week estimated that insured losses from the storms totaled $280 million, which surpasses its initial estimate of losses in the range of $125 million to $250 million (BI, Jan. 6).

Most of the insured property damage was caused by strong winds, snow and ice and heavy rains.

Subsequently, the combination of mild temperatures and heavy rain sped up the snow melt, causing numerous rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest to overflow.

And "while the proportion of total damage covered by the private market is not large," when compared with other natural disasters, "the volume of claims to be handled by insurers is significant," said Gary Kerney, assistant vp of PCS.

He estimates that more than 180,000 property insurance claims will be filed from the storms.

Most of the commercial losses in central Washington have been caused by the heavy weight of ice and snow on uildings, according to Jeff Gullickson, managing executive of Sedgwick James of Washington Inc.'s Yakima office.

"We've had some definite damage in the central part of the state from building collapses," he said.

So far, Sedgwick's Yakima office has received 30 claims and anticipates receiving 50 more. Most of the claims are expected to be filed by fruit and hop storage facilities, and commercial property insurance would cover much of these losses.

Not including business interruption losses, Mr. Gullickson estimates claims from those facilities alone will exceed $50 million.

Overall, insured damage from the storm is estimated at $135 million, about half of the total winter storm losses now expected in the five-state area.

Audio equipment manufacturer Carver Corp. last week reported that a roof section at its manufacturing and corporate headquarters in Lynnwood, Wash., north of Seattle, collapsed. The collapse is hindering its ability to accept and ship orders during one of the busiest times of the year, which is expected to have a negative impact on revenues, the company said.

"Fortunately, no one was injured when a section of our roof collapsed and virtually none of our finished goods inventory was damaged," said Stephen M. Williams, president and chief executive officer. "The company is fully insured for losses caused by an interruption to its business and damage to its property."

So far, 29 claims totaling $34 million have been filed by apple processing plant operators in Washington's Columbia River Valley with agribusiness insurer Mutual Service Insurance Co. of St. Paul, Minn.

Approximately 70% of the losses will likely be related to property damage, while the remainder will include lost inventory and business interruption losses, a spokeswoman for the insurer said.

To mitigate the losses, Mutual Service has sent an apple marketing expert to Yakima to meet with policyholders.

"We've got an apple expert talking to them about what to do from a marketing perspective, whether to flood the market with apples now or to move them and store them elsewhere," the spokeswoman said.

"I've got a feeling that juice prices will go way down, but apple prices will go way up" later in the year, she said.

While the floods in Northern California came during the dormant season between harvests, there are some crops at risk, according to a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.

For example, as much as 10% of the winter wheat crop could be lost due to flooding, he said.

In addition, some dairy farmers have lost livestock in the flood waters, and the stress of moving surviving cows to higher ground could lower their milk production, according to the spokesman. Losses related to the herd or yield reductions would be covered only under flood coverage.

Many farmers also have suffered severe property damage from the flood waters. Floods have damaged barns, fences, tractors and other expensive farm equipment. Wells, pumps and irrigation equipment also have been damaged.

And flood damage could limit the operation of California farms for months as farmers cope with damage to their farms, homes, land and equipment, the spokesman pointed out.

"Long-term effects may depend on how long the land remains flooded," he said.

Few California farmers purchase flood insurance, he said, so the losses are likely to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher milk and produce prices.

Since the growing season hasn't yet started in flood-soaked Northern California, growers for San Francisco-based Del Monte Corp. suffered no crop damage.

"If the rains were in March or April we'd be in much, much tougher positions," said Ed Frackiewicz, director of risk management in San Francisco.

However, the food packaging and canning company did have a small loss in Washington, where a warehouse developed a small leak in the roof because of the snow and ice buildup.

Fortunately, everything in the building was in cans, and those cans were not dented or damaged. But they might have to be re-labeled, which will cost between $25,000 and $30,000, Mr. Frackiewicz estimated.

That cost will fall within the company's $250,000 self-insured retention. Del Monte's property insurer is Allianz Insurance Co. of Burbank, Calif.

Meanwhile, Del Monte is talking with the building contractor to investigate the cause of the leak, because the structure is only one year old.

Del Monte has two plants in Washington state and six or seven in California.

Dole Food Co. also had no insured losses from either the flooding in California or the snow in Washington, because it's between harvests, according to Ruth Chapman, corporate risk manager in Westlake Village, Calif.

Dole purchases insurance on crops only after they've been purchased from growers, she said.

But Dole is concerned with the weight of the snow on the roofs of the company's new, state-of-the-art apple storage buildings in Washington, she added.

Company workers have been clearing snow off the roofs, and contractors have been summoned to examine the buildings' structural integrity, according to Ms. Chapman.

Because California walnut trees are in their winter dormant stages right now, they are not expected to be damaged by the flooding, said Sam Keiper, vp of member services for Diamond Walnut Co. of Stockton, Calif.

"Now the trees can tolerate a lot of flooding that won't hurt them in the short term," he said.

Walnut trees can be damaged by floods in two ways, he explained: Either by soil erosion from the inflow of water into the fields, or, "probably more devastating is a soil-borne organism brought in by the flood waters."

This root rot organism that causes disease and destroys the trees over the course of three to five years occurred after the floods of 1983 and 1986, according to Mr. Keiper.

"Probably the biggest loss won't show up right away," he said.

Walnut growers purchase their own insurance during the growing season, but Diamond covers the crops after purchase.

Mr. Keiper said he was planning to meet with growers late last week to gauge damages.

Although the majority of flood losses will be uninsured, flood insurance purchases have increased 16% since the January 1995 floods that hit several parts of the country, according to a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program.

"There's a renewed interest in flood insurance each time there's a big flood that catches their attention," he said. "Gradually, more and more people are coming to realize that their comprehensive homeowners policies don't cover floods."

In addition, FEMA launched a public education program in the fall of 1995 to acquaint businesses and individual property owners of the need and availability of flood insurance.

Businesses can purchase up to $500,000 in primary flood insurance for structures and $500,000 in content coverage from the Federal Insurance Administration.

Premiums vary by risk and by the size of deductible.

Premiums set by FEMA fund flood insurance claims and program operating expenses. Coverage is available from any licensed insurance agent or broker.

If losses exceed the program's resources, FEMA has the authority to borrow funds from the U.S. Treasury. But it must pay back the loan with interest out of future premiums.