Agencies and insurers figure out how to split Sandy's bill

Costs will run into the tens of billions of dollars but it is still not clear who will pay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 5:03am

Hurricane Sandy's costs could run into the tens of billions of dollars, leaving state and local governments, federal agencies and insurance companies to figure out how to split the bill.

Some responsibilities are clear. The US Army Corps of Engineers sent in a team of experts who cut their teeth pumping water out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to develop a plan to get the water out of New York's flooded subways.

Insurance companies will determine how much they can help hundreds of thousands of people whose homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

But other responsibilities are not so clear.

How, for instance, will New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority pay for major damage to ageing track, stations and equipment in the flooded tunnels? What will happen to homeowners who did not have flood insurance? Will the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) have enough funding to assist Sandy's victims?

"Infrastructure is something that I think we take for granted sometimes," said Beth McGinn, a spokeswoman for a trade group that represents highway contractors and other transport-related companies. "It's just part of our daily lives. And then when something like this happens, it becomes clear how important it is."

While limited subway service resumed yesterday, the city must wait until water is pumped out of the tunnels to return to normality. To that end, the Engineers sent 400 people to the region on Wednesday at Fema's request, including a team to develop a plan to pump water out of several subway and road tunnels.

Other challenges appear to be equally monumental.

New York's transport authority faces the potentially enormous cost of replacing damaged or destroyed track, signals and stations in a 108-year-old subway system that serves five million people daily. Even before this week's calamity, the agency had already projected deficits for three of the next four years.

"These are agencies that were not exactly flush with cash," said Joshua Schank, of Washington research organisation Eno Centre for Transportation. "They don't have the money to make these repairs, much less [for] the improvements that need to be made."

For homeowners and businesses hoping to rebuild, their insurance policies probably offer little salvation. Private insurance covers damage from wind and rain, but generally not flooding.

"Flood damage is typically excluded under standard homeowners' policies," said Chris Hackett, a personal insurance policy expert at the Property Casualty Insurers Association.

Victims will have to turn to the National Flood Insurance Programme, administered by Fema, which provides up to US$250,000 (HK$1.94 million) for a residence and US$500,000 for a business. But it is too late for this storm.

The programme itself is in trouble, with a US$17 billion deficit. But it also has more than US$900 million in cash and US$3 billion in borrowing authority.