Magazine article Newsweek

The Insurance Climate Change; Coastal Homeowners in the East Are Losing Their Policies or Watching Premiums Skyrocket. Carriers Say That Global Warming Is to Blame

Magazine article Newsweek

The Insurance Climate Change; Coastal Homeowners in the East Are Losing Their Policies or Watching Premiums Skyrocket. Carriers Say That Global Warming Is to Blame

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen Breslau (With Jessica Bennett in New York and Catharine Skipp in Tallahassee)

During the nine years she's lived in her historic sea captain's house on Cape Cod, Mass., Paula Aschettino never filed a claim against her homeowner's insurance policy. But last year she received a letter from her insurer, Hingham Mutual Group, canceling coverage on her nine-room, $600,000 oceanfront home, which has withstood its share of hurricanes since 1840. She and her husband, Michael, scrambled to find other insurance but were repeatedly denied. "They just said we are in a high-risk area," she says. A spokesman for Hingham, which canceled 9,000 Cape Cod policies, says that the company's own coverage--known as "reinsurance"--had doubled in the past year, making it necessary to withdraw from the coastal market.

The Aschettinos finally found other insurance, but only for nearly double their old premium of $1,800, and with a sky-high deductible of $12,000 against wind damage. Incensed, Aschettino circulated a petition among her neighbors demanding price reform from industry regulators. "People feel they are being totally ripped off," she says. "People are afraid to even make claims, because they are afraid they're going to be dropped."

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, hundreds of thousands of policyholders like the Aschettinos are being dropped by their insurers; many more have had to swallow double-, even triple-digit increases in premiums and deductibles. While discontinued policies and rate hikes are nothing new in hurricane-battered Florida and the Gulf Coast, insurers are now dinging homeowners in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Allstate Insurance recently announced it wouldn't take new homeowner policies in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware--or the five boroughs of New York City. The company also won't renew 30,000 of more than 600,000 policies it carries in and around New York City. A host of other firms are refusing to insure properties along the Atlantic coast from Maine to the Carolinas.

Why the sudden rash of cancellations? An increase in "extreme weather events" that many scientists--and now insurers--believe are linked to climate change. It's not just Category 4 hurricanes that have insurers worried. Around the country, companies have been racking up record property losses from freakish weather, such as the ice storms last week that paralyzed much of the Great Plains and froze California's citrus crops. In recent years, wildfires in the Northwest, drought and hail in the Midwest, windstorms, lightning strikes on power grids, soil subsidence and other calamities of nature have led to cumulative property losses that exceed those caused by hurricanes. "There's a shift going on to more frequent, extreme weather events," says Evan Mills, an environmental scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "It's as much an issue in the heartland as on the coast."

Global warming is the culprit, claim many--including several insurers who are canceling policies. While scientists cannot determine whether a single weather event is caused by a natural cycle, or is evidence of more permanent, malignant climate change, the pattern of mounting losses is clear. According to Mills, weather-related catastrophe losses have increased from about $1 billion a year in the 1970s to an average of $17 billion a year over the past decade. In 2005, the year of Katrina, that figure reached $71 billion.

Even before Hurricane Katrina--an event that has yet to be conclusively linked to climate change--catastrophe modelers had begun to look at the probability of a Category 3 or higher storm hitting the Eastern Seaboard. What they found was terrifying: because of increasing temperatures in the Atlantic, along with changes in air and sea currents, a major storm in the densely populated and highly priced Northeast would dwarf the $45 billion in insured losses wrought by Katrina. …

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