Katrina Networking

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Commercial Rebuilding Gone

Dave Moynan's voice grew into a deeper, depressed state as he rattled off some of the obstacles to rebuilding his arts business on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Foot traffic from shoppers in Old Towne Bay St. Louis, a historic district, is a fraction of what it was before Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

Loans are due, Moynan said. And an unthinkable insurance rate hike has loomed over the art dealer and his neighbors for almost a year.

They've heard the political promises to shrink the average 268 percent commercial rate hike from the state-created insurer of high-risk properties, the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association. But approval to use federal or state money has not come.

Moynan's coverage for wind damage will rise from $5,350 to $14,860 by the end of the year without a government subsidy. His yearly insurance costs will rise from $14,000 to $23,000.

"We keep getting told, 'Wait. It will get better,' " said Moynan, who owns Maggie May's, an art gallery.

"How long?"

Gov. Haley Barbour asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to lower rates by using $30 million of the more than $5 billion pumped into the state after Katrina. A required public comment period ends March 5.

Meanwhile, state representatives passed House Bill 243 throwing $30 million into the windstorm association, known as the wind pool. The proposal sits in the Senate as leaders haggle over whether to use federal money alone or a total of $60 million to lower rates.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said he will look at House Bill 243, but coastal lawmakers may not like the way he's leaning.

"I'd rather have the federal money than use the state money," Gordon said. "Then, we'd have the money for education."

House Speaker Pro Tem J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, would prefer to see the wind pool get $60 million. When he drives home from Jackson each weekend, affordable insurance is the hottest topic in town.

"It's stopping building," said Compretta, who authored House Bill 243. "Everything's stopped in its tracks because of this insurance issue."

Small businesses are the backbone of the economy, he said, but owners are either waiting to rebuild or leaving town. "We should have already had (the bill) on the governor's desk," Compretta said.

Most insurance companies have stopped covering wind since the hurricane, driving more customers into the wind pool. The wind pool covers wind damage for structures in the six southernmost counties.

As the pool grows, so does the need for reinsurance, the primary driver of rates, which is coverage from other firms for protection against losses caused by catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina.

Reinsurance costs for 2005 were $8.8 million. The cost for 2006 is still in negotiations but could top $70 million, wind pool attorney Greg Copeland said.

To lower rates significantly, any assistance is welcome, he said. "If they pass (the House bill), we will hold rates down lower and longer," Copeland said of combining funds.

Barbour, a Republican, has said he wants to try the route to federal funds first.

A similar $50 million request was approved by HUD last year to bring residential rate hikes in the wind pool to 90 percent from the almost 400 percent proposed.

The Mississippi Development Authority has not received public comments on the commercial rate plan, disaster recovery director Donna Sanford said. Once the comment period ends, she said MDA will push for the money to be released by the end of the month.

The funds could bring the rate increase to 142 percent, according to MDA documents. However, the eventual rate is unknown because insurance formulas vary daily.

"You're really almost pulling rates out of the air," Insurance Commissioner George Dale said. "You would like a way to reduce cost of commercial rates now. It's not going to be an overnight thing you infuse."

Copeland said once the money is released, it could be another four to six weeks before new rates are set.

Some business owners said they never would have rebuilt if they had known the wait would be this long.

Renee and Drew Boxx lost their house in Katrina and bought a new one in Bay St. Louis. They and their four children hoped to live there and reopen their two businesses, a boutique and a cabinet-making shop. Insurance quotes for the older house hit $22,000 when including the stores.

"We don't have that kind of money," she said. "Old Towne hasn't come back yet."

So they moved her Funky Rose and his BoxxWorks Cabinets to a strip mall on U.S. 90. They hope to open in mid-March. Removing the businesses dropped their insurance on the house to $6,000. Their plan is to stick it out a year.

"What we were asked to do is come back and rebuild," Renee Boxx said. "We truly never thought it would be this much money to insure this building. We feel trapped."

High insurance rates not only stifle stores and restaurants, the expense also restricts apartment development, said Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport.

"It may take both pots of money," Hewes said. "Commercial development on the Coast has ground to a halt."

BY THE NUMBERS

Customers have flocked to the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association, which insures property other companies refuse on the Gulf Coast. Rapid growth has driven insurance rates higher.

Before Hurricane Katrina:

15,252 policyholders

$1.87 billion total insured value

After Katrina:

32,847 policyholders

$5.6 billion total insured value

That includes 2,267 commercial policies with a total insured value of $1.5 billion.
Source: Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association

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