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STORMS RIP THROUGH STATES

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In the aftermath of tornadoes that twisted small businesses into piles of rubble and floods that inundated whole towns, the first comprehensive estimates of insured damage from the weather events in the opening days of March may be available this week.

The commercial damage numbers, however, aren't likely to be staggering, because most of the losses were away from major metropolitan areas.

As of late last week, major commercial insurers-including American International Group Inc., Kemper Insurance Cos., Liberty Mutual Group and Royal Insurance Group-received very few if any claims from the storms that ravaged the midsection of the country from Texas to West Virginia March 1-7, causing at least 56 deaths.

State Farm Insurance Group anticipates it eventually will get $14 million in claims, the overwhelming majority involving homeowners insurance, from the Arkansas tornadoes. The Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer had received 1,156 tornado-related claims as of Friday morning.

A preliminary estimate from Nationwide Insurance Group projects that the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer will receive 2,400 claims from the affected area totaling $11.6 million. The Arkansas tornadoes are expected to account for $2 million of that total, most of the rest of which will come from Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Allstate Insurance Group received more than 2,500 storm-related claims by late last week, though the Northbrook, Ill.-based insurer does not release damage estimates.

The Property Claim Services division of the American Insurance Services Group expects to issue a preliminary insured property loss estimate this week. Much of the flood damage, if insured at all, will be covered by the National Flood Insurance Program rather than commercial insurance.

Residents and businesses now are left to pick up the pieces from the violent storms, which slashed across the country from northeast Texas through parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana.

In Arkansas, as many as 20 tornadoes cut a 260-mile swath of destruction beginning in the southwest part of the state and ending in the northeast. In all, 24 people were killed, more than 200 were injured, and 21 counties were damaged and waiting for disaster assistance.

Hardest hit by the twisters was Arkadelphia, Ark., a town of some 10,000 people about 60 miles southwest of Little Rock. The deadly tornado there was reportedly three-quarters of a mile wide and is estimated to have stayed on the ground as long as 18 minutes, destroying the commercial downtown area, killing six people and injuring more than 80.

The Arkansas Insurance Department "conservatively" estimates total insured damage in the state to be $100 million, said Ronald Sheffield, deputy director of the department. Most of the damage hit rural and residential areas, but in Arkadelphia, damage was equal between commercial and personal property, he said.

President Clinton declared Ark-ansas a disaster area on March 2, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has since designated 13 counties as qualifying for federal assistance. On March 4, President Clinton declared Ohio and Kentucky disaster areas, and FEMA designated 24 counties in Kentucky and 16 counties in Ohio as qualifying for assistance. No other states had been declared disaster areas as of the end of last week.

Dozens of locally owned businesses in Arkadelphia, including a flower shop, a bank, a restaurant and an accounting firm, were destroyed, added Robert Sikes, the state's risk manager. Employers in other parts of the state fared better.

Mr. Sikes estimates state property suffered between $360,000 and $690,000 in insured damages. "The state escaped, it really did.

"The tornado just missed a $100 million campus," he said, referring to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. A $123,000 educational television tower in the town, however, was destroyed, as were three small office buildings the state was leasing.

The Piggly Wiggly supermarket in downtown Arkadelphia also was spared major damage. The store suffered about $25,000 in damages, owner Andy Riethmaier said.

The majority of the damage-about $15,000-was product loss, he estimates. "When you lose power, you can't save meats and produce."

In addition to the devastation in Arkansas, tornadoes and flash flooding struck parts of northeast Mississippi, killing one and injuring 18 others. Pontotoc and Union counties were the hardest hit by the storm, which destroyed and damaged about 85 homes.

The Mississippi Insurance Department estimates that insured personal property damage in the state totaled $1 million.

Six tornadoes touched down in western Tennessee, hitting McNairy and Carroll counties the hardest. The same storm system produced torrential rains and flooding in the western and central parts of the state.

Five deaths are blamed on the storm, which produced damage in as many as 35 counties, said Cecil Whaley, director of natural hazards for the Tennessee Emergency Management Center in Nashville. He estimates the storm will cost insurers between $20 million and $25 million, the majority of it in personal lines. Most of the commercial damage-estimated at between $2 million and $4 million-is attributable to small "mom and pop" stores, he said.

Flash floods in the western part of West Virginia killed one person, while hundreds of others were evacuated. In all, 9,000 homes and 1,000 businesses were damaged. Initial damage estimates exceeded $200 million.

In Kentucky, Louisville suffered some damage from the city's worst flood in three decades, said its risk manager, Kevin O'Donnell. The largest loss for the city was 45 city-owned vehicles, he said.

Mr. O'Donnell estimates the city will exceed its $100,000 deductible for the lost vehicles. Also, he estimates the damage to computers at $50,000, well in excess of the $10,000 deductible.

Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. insures the vehicles and computers.

Flooding damaged hundreds of new cars parked outside a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Louisville. Andy Welmers, the company's manager of corporate insurance, said it was too soon to assess the dollar amount of the damage. The flooding forced the plant to close for one shift.

The company has property and business interruption coverage placed by Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. with multiple insurers. Mr. Welmers did not know whether the loss would exceed the company's high deductible, which he would not disclose.

The Kentucky Emergency Operations Center reports that total damage in the state was $232 million but will increase with further investigation after the flooding. As of last week, 14 people had died from the flooding in Kentucky.

Across the Ohio River in southern Indiana, a Hudson Foods Inc. poultry processing plant suffered damage from flooding. The plant, located in Corydon, was flooded with about an inch of water, said Bill Faulkner, corporate claims manager. Some construction at the plant was damaged, causing the largest loss, he said. The company has a $250,000 deductible for both property damage and business interruption, with Genesis Insurance Co., a unit of General Reinsurance Group in Stamford, Conn., but Mr. Faulkner doubts that will be reached.

The state of Indiana does not compile official dollar damage estimates from catastrophes.

In Ohio, flood waters from the Ohio River lapped up against Cincinnati's Cinergy Field, formerly Riverfront Stadium. Damage was limited to the parking lot as pumps and storm gates prevented the water from infiltrating inside the stadium. The main concern of stadium officials is the newly installed $2 million artificial turf, but unless the pumps fail, the turf will be spared, said Suzanne Burck, stadium coordinator for Hamilton County, the stadium's owner.

The largest costs will be for cleanup after the waters recede and for replacing equipment from the parking garage. All the costs will be borne by the county, which has no flood insurance for the stadium, according to Ms. Burck.

The Ohio Emergency Operations Center reports that total damages in Ohio are expected to exceed $100 million. Damages cannot be completely assessed until the flood waters recede, so that figure likely will increase.