Weathering a storm

June 06, 2005

JUNE IS the official start of hurricane season in the United States, and while the year's first tropical storm is nowhere in sight, the news is already bad.

Computer models suggest that a warming Atlantic Ocean and a possible El Nino in the Pacific this summer could cause the season to be worse than usual - with perhaps 15 named storms, including eight hurricanes, instead of the customary 10 storms and six hurricanes. There are no guarantees that any of this will come to pass, of course, but the forecasters have a pretty good record. Last year was expected to be bad - and it was.

But despite this warning, there is ample evidence that many people are unprepared for a severe storm or its aftermath. A recent poll of coastal residents from Maine to Texas found that two out of five think flood damage would be covered by their homeowner's insurance policy. It wouldn't.

If Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 taught Marylanders anything, it's the danger of being misinformed about insurance.

Certainly, it's not unusual for property owners to be poorly informed on such matters. "It's just difficult to get people engaged on the subject," notes Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., who has launched an effort to educate consumers.

The brunt of hurricane season is still weeks away, so there's plenty of time for people to evaluate their property insurance. It requires a careful assessment: Risks and costs must be scrutinized - preferably with the help of a trusted and knowledgeable adviser. Flood insurance, for instance, should be considered whether or not a home or business is on the water. Buyers need be mindful that this involves a specific kind of policy that's administered by the federal government but sold through private local agents.

Another useful piece of advice: People ought to videotape their home's contents without delay and put the tape in a safe place. It could prove an invaluable resource in the event of a disaster of any kind.

The weather is outside human control, but property insurance isn't. Reviewing the fine print of insurance policies is about as much fun as a tax audit, but the alternative could be a whole lot more painful.

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