Best hurricane insurance? High ground

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Hurricane Ike is bearing down on the Texas Coast. Forecasters are saying it looks like landfall will be Saturday. Across on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys reopened today. Residents have been allowed back in. Visitors will be welcome once again tomorrow. The Keys had some minor flooding but were mostly spared. Commentator Robert Reich says now would be a good time to look at how we insure homeowners in disaster-prone places.


ROBERT REICH: Even if you don't believe in global warming, a lot of insurance companies do. Ever since eight costly hurricanes struck Florida and the Gulf Coast in 2004 and 2005, large national insurers have been dropping customers whose homes are located on or near coastlines and refusing to offer new policies in these areas.

It's not only flooding that has insurers worried. It's also wind damage, mud slides, and coastal erosion. We're talking billions of dollars of potential damage. Right now there's only a patchwork of state insurance funds that may not be up to the task, coupled with federal flood insurance that already went $17 billion into the hole after Katrina.

And if you do believe in global warming -- and just about every expert does -- hurricanes are gonna get even more violent and the oceans will rise even faster over the next decade or two, even if we figure out some way to control climate change over the longer term.

To make matters worse, developers are planning even more homes and commercial properties in vulnerable areas. Seventy-seven million baby boomers will be retiring over the next 15 to 20 years, and many want to go to coastal areas where the weather is milder and the beaches beautiful -- Florida, the Carolinas, coastal Virginia, Cape Cod.

So who's gonna insure against all the likely damage? There's mounting pressure on Washington to come to the rescue with federally-subsidized insurance. Which means that, once again, the rest of us taxpayers will be left holding the bag when disaster strikes.

Here's a better idea. Get private insurers back into the business of insuring homeowners against flooding, wind damage and erosion. Do this by having the federal government offer these companies reinsurance against catastrophic loss -- essentially, backing them up in much the same way it does for possible losses associated with terrorism.

But there's no reason to extend this back-up to future development in vulnerable coastal areas. We now know too much about global warming to encourage this. Sorry boomers, you'll have to retire to safer ground.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called "Supercapitalism."

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