Dale says coverage suggested

Published 8:09 pm Thursday, August 17, 2006

A federal judge’s ruling that damage from wind-driven water isn’t covered on standard homeowner policies should motivate more Mississippians to purchase flood insurance, says state Insurance Commissioner George Dale.

The purchase of policies through the National Flood Insurance Program is already on the rise in Mississippi.

As of May, there were 37,149 policies on the Gulf Coast compared to 22,021 in August 2005 when the storm roared ashore, devastating the region. And Mississippi is among the top five states in the nation fueling growth in NFIP policy purchases, said a spokeswoman in Dale’s office, citing national figures.

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Dale said Wednesday that this week’s ruling by U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter “should help raise awareness” about the need to purchase flood insurance in addition to a standard homeowner’s policy.

Senter ruled that a Mississippi Gulf Coast couple cannot collect damages from storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina because Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s policies do not cover wind-driven water damage.

His ruling could set a precedent for hundreds of other court challenges to the insurance industry for denying billions of dollars in claims after the Aug. 29. Dale said there were lawsuits filed over insurance coverage after Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast in 1969.

“The major issue was if the wind came before the water, you had coverage. If the water came before the wind, there was no coverage,” Dale said Wednesday. “Here 36 years later, we’re having the same argument. We have encouraged people for years to have flood insurance.”

He said in some cases people on the Gulf Coast were not covered when Katrina struck because they were told they didn’t need flood insurance, a recommendation based on outdated federal flood maps. In other situations, people who survived Camille without any damage from water just figured they could do the same with Katrina, he said.

Now, Dale is urging homeowners to give a close read to new fliers and notices from insurance companies telling them that flood damage and earthquake damage are not covered under standard homeowner policies.

A new Mississippi law requires that insurance companies attach letters explaining coverage limits to policies and mail them to policyholders by Sept. 1.

“Hopefully it will cut down on the confusion some,” said Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.

Kirby authored an unsuccessful bill in the 2006 session to require clearer language on insurance policies. Kirby said he still believes there’s a need for policies to be written “in laymen’s terms.”

Mike Fernandez, a spokesman for Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance Co., said the industry also encourages homeowners to purchase separate flood insurance.

State Farm represents 30 percent of the Gulf Coast market and was part of a coalition of insurance providers that sponsored a hurricane readiness survey in July. The sponsors said the survey found that insured homeowners on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts had taken only half the steps needed to put them in a position to recover from a major storm.

He said agents follow a specific protocol when selling policies to ensure customers understand their coverage.

“The industry has tried to tell folks, ’We’re entering hurricane season, think about flood insurance,”’ Fernandez said this week. “Every time something like this happens, you just keep questioning yourself, ’Should be we be doing more?”’