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Storm-weary insurers wait for Jeanne

Roofers and raw materials are scarce. Owners of storm-ravaged homes and businesses are grumbling about delays. And the combined number of insurance claims from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan is expected to overtake the granddaddy of all storms, Hurricane Andrew.

Time for another hurricane threat.

Leaders in Florida's insurance industry on Thursday were left practically speechless at the prospect that Hurricane Jeanne, once thought to be a problem for the Carolinas if anywhere, is now on a 72-hour path to the state's east coast that retraces some of the brutal steps of Frances.

"What can I tell you?" said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council, a trade group representing insurers statewide. "We are doing the best job we possibly can. We've never been faced with anything like this before."

At least there's no need to worry about mobilizing the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee again; the EOC has never been deactivated from Ivan . . . or Frances before that. "I'm going back out to the EOC; I practically live there now," Miller said.

The one promise Miller made: that Florida's insurers are still financially sound and able to handle the infliction of another major hurricane. That confidence is borne in part because property owners are picking up a greater percentage of repair costs than ever before due to hurricane deductibles of 2 percent to 5 percent.

The impact on the state's hurricane catastrophe fund also has been limited so far. The CAT Fund, which has the capacity to pay up to $15-billion, expects to pay out $1.4-billion for Charley and about $100-million for Frances to help insurers cover claims.

Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run agency that insures property owners who cannot find coverage in the open market, is expected to pay out $925-million in Charley losses and up to $375-million in Frances losses. If losses from Ivan or another storm are excessive, it may have to assess property owners statewide to help pay for it.

Beyond the stretch on financial resources from yet another storm, the physical stretch is unprecedented.

At last count, 31,800 insurance adjusters have descended on Florida to handle claims from Pensacola to Palm Beach to Punta Gorda.

About half of those adjusters work directly for an insurance company. Jeanne's uncertain path and strength meant it was too soon Thursday to say how many of them would be redeployed and where.

Typically when a major hurricane threatens, large insurers establish "staging areas" that are out of harm's way yet close enough to send in an emergency team to assess losses as soon as possible. Not this time _ at least for State Farm.

Tom Hagerty, a State Farm spokesman, said adjusters would be pulled out of some coastal areas hit hard by Hurricane Frances as Jeanne nears. But there was no plan to stage an emergency response unit somewhere in central Florida.

Rather, State Farm would likely wait and relocate some of its current adjusters throughout the state after Jeanne makes landfall.

"Between Charley and Frances, we've brought in about 3,000 (adjusters) and after Ivan brought in about 500 more," Hagerty said. "We've redeployed some of those working on Charley or Frances to go help with Ivan. Now we'll just have to wait and see what Jeanne does."

Allstate, meanwhile, already has the "unfortunate luxury" of a hurricane command center set up outside Orlando to coordinate response to the first three storms, spokesman Bill Mellander said. The center will be used if necessary as a staging area for adjusters responding to Jeanne.

In the initial days after Hurricane Charley, several insurance companies were quick to cut emergency checks for victims. But in the weeks since, more complaints have surfaced from victims awaiting aid or repairs.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, whose department oversees insurance, has received more than 28,000 calls _ both complaints and questions _ to the state's consumer toll-free hotline, 1-800-227-8676.

Both Miller and state regulators urged patience.

"I do believe many of these homeowners know they're not going to get their houses rebuilt in a matter of weeks," said Tami Torres, a spokeswoman in Gallagher's office. "There is going to be more time involved."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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