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Rebuilding wisely after the storms

Florida learned some important lessons from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, including the need to strengthen construction standards and create a fund as a backstop for insurers struggling to cover catastrophic property losses. This year's active hurricane season, still 10 weeks from being over, has underscored the need to do even more, including creation of a national catastrophe fund and stricter rules on allowing development in high-risk coastal areas.

Hurricanes Ivan, Frances and Charley brought pain and death across the breadth of Florida, but the storms also exposed the vulnerability of the South and the East to violent tropical systems. Ivan killed at least 52 in the United States last week, leaving billions of dollars in damage to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. While Florida's $25-billion catastrophe fund is expected to cover the losses in our state, it is numbing to imagine what could have happened had Ivan or the previous hurricanes come ashore with even greater force and hit a major urban center.

Florida's catastrophe fund could have been wiped out in the first half of hurricane season, and the losses could have been heavier in states that lack the backup altogether. A federal plan that provides catastrophic coverage could help Gulf and Atlantic states keep insurers in the market while speeding the delivery of cash for temporary housing and home repairs. Even states not typically battered by hurricanes were lashed by Ivan's pounding rains, causing huge and widespread flooding problems. The goal of the federal fund should be to spread the risk pool throughout a vulnerable region. Congress should find a fair way to finance the program, set reasonable limits on what the fund would cover and ensure that it augments _ not replaces _ existing insurance coverage.

Any new protection for the property market should also include a debate on the wisdom of allowing development along the high-risk coast. Much of the destruction we have seen this year has come on the beachfront and the barrier islands, where vacation retreats and million-dollar homes litter the low-lying, wind-prone landscape. Providing infrastructure, and emergency assistance, to these areas is vastly expensive, well beyond the regular cost of beach renourishment and other maintenance projects.

Any new shield to cover catastrophic losses should be guided by a simple public purpose _ to protect a person's primary home. The goal should be to foster a healthy insurance market and to guarantee that average homeowners can rebuild comparably to what they lost. Any new state or federal legislation should recognize the concern among scientists that the hurricane patterns will become more active in the tropics in the coming years. The focus needs to be twofold: creating a backstop to a catastrophe, and making the financial and land management decisions to make any recovery easier.