INSURED FLOOD LOSSES MAY HIT $1 BILLIONPosted On: Aug. 3, 1997 12:00 AM CST
Antigonus: "Thou art perfect then, our ship hath touch'd upon the deserts of Bohemia?"
Mariner: "Ay, my lord, and fear we have landed in ill time: the skies look grimly and threaten present blusters. In my conscience, the heavens with that we have in hand are angry, and frown upon 's."
-Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," Act III, scene III.
Residents of modern-day Bohemia have maintained a sense of humor in the midst of tragedy as they remind each other that Shakespeare wrote about their "coastal" region 500 years ago.
As flooding continues in Central Europe, estimates of insured losses are as high as $1 billion. Total economic losses will be much higher, perhaps topping $10 billion.
The good news for reinsurers is that "flooding in Poland, the Czech Republic and eastern Germany has not hit a major city, no insured industry is damaged and it's the kind of broad-based business primary insurers don't normally give to reinsurers," observed a Munich Reinsurance Co. spokesman.
Total losses may reach 13 billion deutsche marks ($7.05 billion), according to estimates by Munich Re. It sets its own losses at about 10 million deutsche marks ($5.4 million).
French reinsurer SCOR S.A. estimated insured losses in the region at up to $1 billion. Total economic losses, according to SCOR,
may reach $10 billion. Last week, SCOR estimates its own losses at $10 million to $12 million.
Munich Re estimates that economic losses in the Czech Republic and Poland could range between 3 billion and 5 billion deutsche marks ($1.63 billion to $2.71 billion) in each country. Munich Re estimates economic losses of 1 billion to 3 billion marks ($542.3 million and $1.63 billion) in the flooded areas of eastern Germany.
Cologne-based reinsurer Gerling-Konzern Globale Ruckversicherungs A.G. is estimating its reinsurance losses at 1 million marks ($542,300), according to a spokesman. He said it was too early to estimate losses of the company's direct insurance affiliate, Gerling-Konzern Allgemeine Versicherungs A.G.
Dikes on the German side of the river Oder were first breached on July 23, and waters threatened the Oderbruch, a rich agricultural area.
All of the larger German insurers have exposures in the flooded areas of eastern Germany, but Munich-based Allianz Versicherungs A.G. is the dominant insurer. Allianz holds between 60% and 70% of the former East German insurance market due to its 1990 purchase of the former state-owned monopoly insurer, Staatlische Versicherung der DDR. The company was renamed Deutsche Versicherungs A.G. after its purchase by Allianz. Deutsche Versicherungs inherited 4 million communist-era personal lines policies that cover flood damage. Insurance policies during the communist period automatically covered flood and catastrophe risks.
Due to those exposures, Allianz has estimated that its flood losses in eastern Germany alone may exceed 100 million deutsche marks ($54.2 million).
An Allianz spokesman confirmed the insurer will absorb most of these losses itself. "What reinsurance we have is mostly with Allianz A.G. It will remain in the family."
Under modern German practice, flood insurance can be-but rarely is-bought as a separate endorsement to property policies.
"After a flood, there is usually a wave of customers asking for flood cover, but it abates as quickly as the flood," the Munich Re spokesman said.
The German government has mobilized 9,000 troops and 5,000 other volunteers to strengthen dikes along the river Oder. The exercise is Germany's largest peacetime military mobilization since a similar rescue effort after the 1962 floods in Hamburg. A number of Tornado fighter aircraft belonging to the German air force, the Luftwaffe, have been deployed in the effort by fitting them with special cameras to help identify any dangerous locations on the dikes.
Thirty-four helicopters have delivered sandbags to threatened areas. So far, 5 million sandbags have been used, depleting Germany's entire stock. Government spokesmen said they were searching for 800,000 more sandbags from Holland. Water pressures on the dikes have been estimated by local experts as equivalent to almost 10 tons of water per square yard.
Nevertheless, by the middle of last week, there was renewed fear that the dike walls would not hold because of poor maintenance in the past.
"If you have dikes, you have to maintain them all of the time. Large water rats will burrow through them," says Herbert Tiedemann, former engineering consultant to the Swiss Reinsurance Co. in Zurich.
Elsewhere in Central Europe, loss estimates are rising.
In Poland and the Czech Republic, at least 105 people have died.
Poland's Interior Minister Leszek Miller initially estimated economic losses to be about $1 billion but has revised that figure to "a few billion dollars."
The Polish telecommunications utility, Telekominkacja Polska, has estimated it will cost 1.3 billion zlotys ($374.5 million) to repair damaged lines.
Initial estimates by the Culture Ministry to repair damaged works of art in Poland were 20 million zlotys ($5.76 million), but this does not include repairs to the structure of ancient buildings, many of which are still flooded.
In the Czech Republic, Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky said at a press conference that infrastructure repairs are proceeding smoothly on railway tracks and gas and electricity lines. Damaged telephone lines remain a significant problem. About 16,000 people in the Czech Republic are still in temporary accommodations.
As expected, the floods continue to threaten areas of the Oderbruch region, the area of reclaimed land to the north of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. A 100-foot length of dike on the western bank of the Oder was breached in the middle of last week. Last week, about 4,500 of the 19,000 inhabitants in the area were evacuated.
Concern in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic now has shifted to possible ecological and health effects of the flooding. Sewage systems, fuel tanks and pipelines were destroyed by the flood waters and their contents have seeped into the standing waters. German health authorities have begun a voluntary vaccination program against typhoid and hepatitis A in the flooded area.
Environmental groups have suggested that deforestation and river channel straightening in the upper reaches of the Oder river in Poland and the Czech Republic may have contributed to the flooding problems. Forests along the Czech-German-Polish border areas in Sudetenland have died from pollution due to the burning of brown coal for electricity generation.
"The trees look like matchsticks," said a spokesman for the Bonn-based Bund fur Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland.
He said the existence of a natural park and preserved natural flood plains in the lower reaches of the Oder river, known as the Unteres Odertal, will ease the flooding problem for cities in the region. "There are natural floods on that sector (of the river) every year. The (Polish) town of Szczecin has no problem today with flooding, and it is at the very end of the river."
Had such heavy rain fallen on the Rhine, Neckar and Mosel river valleys in western Germany, where flood plains are highly developed, the catastrophe would be have been even greater, he added.
The threatened Oderbruch area is known locally as the market garden for Berlin. Agriculture is the German industry most threatened by the floods, though the Allianz spokes-man could not estimate potential insured losses.
Don Lewis Kirk contributed to this report.