Oct. 05--Hurricane Matthew could be the first major test of claims-handling capabilities by numerous young insurance companies created since the 2004-05 run of hurricanes that ended with Wilma.
And with Matthew's path still uncertain but looking likely to impact the state, insurers are urging policyholders to protect themselves and their properties while assuring they stand ready to rapidly respond to claims.
"We are in full catastrophe mode," said Richard A. Widdicombe, president of Heritage Property & Casualty, the tricounty region's third-largest insurer of personal residential property with 88,336 policies as of June 30, according to state data.
"We have 250 adjustors mobilized," Widdicombe said, referring to the workers insurance companies send out to estimate damage values. "Staging areas will be dictated by location. We have facilities in South Florida. Our call center is fully staffed, trained and operational. We are placing ads in local papers to direct policyholders to our claims department to expedite the claims process. We are sending email blasts to local agents and policyholders to our claims department to expedite the claims process."
All regulated homeowner insurance companies in the state should be able to pay all claims no matter how severe the storm becomes, how long it lasts, where it goes in Florida, or how much damage it causes, said Paul Handerhan, senior vice president of public policy at the Florida Association for Insurance Reform, a statewide industry watchdog group based in Fort Lauderdale.
The state Office of Insurance Regulation last fall analyzed the ability of 112 insurance companies to pay claims of its policyholders in a storm with a 1-in-100-year likelihood of occurring, plus subjected 67 companies to simulated "catastrophic stress tests" of their abilities to pay out claims following three hypothetical storm-season scenarios. All of the companies passed the test, the state reported.
To put a 1-in-100-year storm into perspective, Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed 25,000 homes when it struck southern Miami-Dade County in 1992, was a 1-in-30-year storm, Handerhan said.
Lynne McChristian, Florida spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, said: "The insurance industry as a whole is well-capitalized because it's had a decade without storms to build up surplus."
Still, an extremely expensive storm could increase insurance rates in the future if it compels global investors to pull capital out of the reinsurance market, which could trigger private reinsurance companies to raise future rates they charge retail insurance companies, Handerhan said.
"I don't think one event, even a Category 4 storm, would be that disruptive to the reinsurance market," Handerhan said. "Now if there were two events, that might be a concern."
Christopher A. Grimes, primary analyst for the global credit rating firm Fitch Ratings, said Matthew looks like a storm that could test the strength of the industry -- and especially younger, smaller companies.
How the companies respond after the storm moves through will say a lot about the success of efforts to rebuild the homeowner insurance market over the past decade, Grimes said in an interview Tuesday. "At this point, we haven't seen them tested yet so we don't know how they'll do," he said.
Shortly before the June 1 start of the 2016 hurricane season, Fitch released a report, "Florida Homeowners Insurance Market Update: No Time for Complacency Following Hurricane-Free Decade," that questioned the ability of younger, smaller companies to handle a significant increase in claims volume.
After Hurricane Andrew, large national companies began shifting out of Florida, leaving a combination of what Fitch called "Florida specialists" and state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. In the past five years, Citizens has encouraged transfer of its policies to newly created private-market insurers, and the 32 specialists now hold about 60 percent of the Florida market, the report found.
Fitch plans to monitor the aftermath of the storm in Florida to analyze how insurers respond, Grimes said.
Handerhan said a "logistics nightmare" could result if the storm makes landfall in Palm Beach County and travels up the coast to Jacksonville. "I don't think there are enough adjusters in the state" to quickly respond to such a scenario. He said that's what happened after Hurricane Wilma crossed the southern part of the state in 2005. The storm caused $22.3 billion in damage, forced 75,000 homeowners to cover damaged roofs with blue tarps, and left 3.2 million customers without power for days and even weeks.
Adjustors were in such demand that they began auctioning themselves out to the insurance companies willing to pay the highest prices, he said.
With lessons learned from past hurricanes, insurance companies are approaching Matthew "definitely more prepared," Handerhan said.
Citizens, for example, "has been spending years bulking up its network of adjustors," he said. "They're getting confirmation from all those people in their database, getting them committed, and they'll stage them as needed."
Universal Property & Casualty, the state's largest insurer with 564,439 personal residential policies statewide and 198,369 in the tricounty area on June 30, "will be activating its mobile claims division in any areas affected by the storm," spokesman Travis Miller said by email Tuesday. If the state Department of Financial Services establishes a mobile customers service center in an affected area, Universal will dispatch claims officials to that location as well, Miller said.
Florida Peninsula, with 39,728 personal residential policies in South Florida on June 30, has readied more than 100 adjustors and shifted its data center to an out-of-state backup facility "to ensure we will be able to accommodate customers' calls for service whenever they come in," according to a statement.
State Farm, which had 267,410 homeowner policies at the end of March (the company does not release regional totals), has "thousands [of adjustors] ready and capable of responding as necessary," spokeswoman Michal Brower said.
Citizens said it plans to release its plan on Wednesday morning, following the latest weather advisories.
Companies are also contacting policyholders and telling them to get ready.
"Prepare now!" State Farm's Brower urged. "State Farm encourages all Florida residents in the projected path of the storm to plan now and protect themselves and their property should the storm threaten their area."
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