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Posted On: Aug. 30, 1998 12:00 AM CST

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Property owners who escaped Hurricane Bonnie's winds now are waiting to see how high the water will rise.

The hurricane blew ashore last Wednesday, knocking down power lines, blowing over signs and drenching North Carolina's southern coast with rain. Early assessments indicated damage mostly stemmed from downed trees and winds that tore roofing from some homes and businesses.

Not long after the storm made landfall, packing winds of more than 100 mph, Bonnie blew away the roof of the Brunswick Community Hospital. The Holiday Inn in Atlantic Beach, N.C., suffered some flooding and extensive roof damage from high winds, a spokeswoman for the chain confirmed.

Thousands of people were housed in shelters throughout the coastal region and Carolina Power & Light Co. reported that as many as 245,000 customers -- including some shelters -- lost electricity.

North Carolina's Department of Emergency Management reported one death related to the storm, a 12-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home in Currituck County in the northeastern part of the state. A South Carolina man suffered a fatal shock while trying to connect a generator during a power outage. No serious injuries were reported from the hurricane as of late last week.

Bonnie was downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday afternoon, then gathered strength and reclaimed its hurricane status as it continued north. It raked southern coastal areas of Virginia that evening and high winds and rain were predicted for New York's Long Island late Friday as the storm tracked off the East Coast.

As Bonnie moved offshore, risk managers and insurers began turning their attention to Hurricane Danielle. That storm was churning through the South Atlantic late last week, and some experts predicted Danielle would reach the U.S. coast early this week.

Early assessments indicate that damage from Bonnie may not be as bad as anticipated. According to a preliminary estimate late last week from the New York-based Insurance Information Institute, the insurance industry losses from Bonnie will total $375 million. The III based its estimate on computer models. That figure is far less than the $1.6 billion in insured damage that Hurricane Fran caused in 1996 when it struck the same area (BI, Sept. 16, 1996).

North Carolina's Emergency Management Division was gathering the first damage numbers early Friday, and a spokesman said New Hanover County reported $3.8 million in total damage to homes and businesses. Columbus County saw at least $3.7 million in property damage. In Brunswick County, where the community hospital was damaged, the storm was responsible for at least $463,000 in damage.

Those numbers are expected to rise, the spokesman said.

Damage appeared to be "quite less than we all predicted," Wilmington, N.C., Mayor Hamilton Hicks said in a television interview. "We believe we dodged a major storm."

The mayor pointed out that rising water was a concern to property owners as the hurricane lingered over the coastal area and was expected to leave as much as 20 inches of rain in some areas. Flooding of streets and basements were reported in the Wilmington area late last week.

Early indications were that commercial property damage was light in North Carolina.

"Regarding commercial properties, the damage is minimal," said Gerald Ritter, a principal of The Ritter Group, a Chicago-based public adjuster. Claims reported late last week mostly were related to broken glass or a few missing roof tiles, he added.

Mr. Ritter said, "The general crux of what we're getting is commercial property that is not island or shore properties, and most of them have been spared severe damage."

A spokesman for Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Group, who went to Wilmington, said: "The damage has been relatively minor. Our teams have been out looking around and we see very little damage. We don't see anywhere near the damages we saw with Hurricane Fran."

One of the reasons for the relatively light damage was preparedness. North Carolina's experience with past hurricanes and the lead time given by slow-moving Bonnie meant many property owners were well-prepared for the storm.

Risk managers with properties in the storm's path made preparations and crossed their fingers as the storm approached and then moved slowly up the East Coast.

Carolina Power & Light shut down its Brunswick Nuclear Plant in Southport, N.C., as required by Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines.

Rose's Stores Inc., based in Henderson, N.C., took steps to protect several properties in the area expected to be affected by Bonnie. "Anytime a hurricane is likely, there are several stages we go through" to safeguard people and property, explained Aubrey Cooper, risk manager of the retail chain.

Store roofs were checked for loose debris, shopping carts were brought inside and glass display cases were secured inside the stores. Doors and windows were boarded up and Rose's geared up its emergency response team, Mr. Cooper said.

The last phase, he said, "is to go in and assess damage" after the hurricane moves out of the area.

Similar preparations were undertaken at Belk Stores Services Inc. as the Charlotte, N.C.-based retailer tracked the storm's progress.

"We're like everyone else," said Eston Walling, senior vp at Belk. "We're total addicts to the Weather Channel. We start tracking them off the African coast and wonder which store they'll hit."

Belk made sure that its most vulnerable stores, those on the Barrier Islands, were well secured.

"We button down and abandon" those stores, said Mr. Walling. "When the civil authorities say go, we go. We may leave one person with the store, but that's an individual store choice. Beyond that, we prepare inland."

Mr. Walling said past hurricanes have taught him that inland stores don't necessarily escape a storm's fury. When Hurricane Fran struck the area, Belk's heaviest damage was to a store in Raleigh -- 200 miles inland.

Other businesses were not aware of losses last week but took steps to prepare for the storm.

Tricon Global Restaurants doesn't have company-owned outlets of its KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut restaurants on the North Carolina coast, but it does have "quite a few in the Norfolk area," said Joyce Walker, property claims specialist with Tricon in Louisville, Ky.

She worried that rain and storm surges could damage the Norfolk properties. "There is a concern there with flooding," Ms. Walker said.

As of late last week, Tricon did not know whether its franchise operations on the North Carolina coast had been affected by the storm.

Motel 6 properties appeared late last week to have escaped damage from the storm. "We don't know of any substantial damage at this point," said Tom Lusk, vp-risk management at the Dallas-based motel chain.

He said Motel 6 facilities generally are located away from the shore and don't take the full brunt of hurricanes. "We've made it through hurricanes in the past very well, with very minimal damage."

Motel 6 managers were given a heads up with safety and security procedures sent to them ahead of the storm, Mr. Lusk said. "I had them faxed to a number of properties in the hurricane area."

The Holiday Inn spokeswoman said the damaged hotel at Atlantic Beach is franchised, as are all Holiday Inns, and insurance coverage is the responsibility of the franchisee.

Insurers began handling hurricane-related claims even before the storm had finished pounding the coast.

State Farm Group of Bloomington, Ill., estimated it will have 15,000 homeowners claims, which do not include flood damage. The claims are estimated at $50 million. State Farm also expects auto claims but had no estimate last week.

Nationwide Group had received around 1,000 claims, according to a statement the insurer released late last week. The Columbus, Ohio-based insurer said it was too early to put a monetary value on the claims.

Allstate had received around 900 claims from North Carolina policyholders and 688 from clients in South Carolina, the spokesman said last week.

Allstate has 100 representatives in the Wilmington and Raleigh, N.C., areas to assist in claims processing. Fifty more representatives are in Norfolk, Va., to handle claims in that area.

Liberty Mutual Insurance Cos. of Boston had received only 23 claims from the storm-affected area as of late Thursday but expected the number to swell once residents and business owners return to evacuated areas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers flood claims through the National Flood Insurance Program, won't have claim numbers for some time, a spokesman said.

He said 2,572 flood policies, representing $379 million in coverage, are in place in Wilmington. In New Hanover County, where Wilmington is located, there are 8,754 policies in place, with flood coverage totaling nearly $1.2 billion.