Storm damage cost estimate: $75 million and rising

Photo by Stephanie Shoop

Photo by Stephanie Shoop

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said Monday that the weather-related damages of last week's storms and tornadoes resulted in at least $75 million in losses.

State officials predict that figure will rise in coming weeks as the scope of the damage becomes clear and homeowners and businesses file claims.

"These are very preliminary numbers," Hudgens said.

Hudgens said his office arrived at the figure after surveying the top 10 insurance companies in Georgia, which represent about 75 percent of the state insurance market. But residents and claims adjusters are only now starting to assess the damage in the more devastated areas of northwest Georgia, where authorities spent the first few days searching for victims and clearing debris.

Ringgold, a town of about 3,000 located 17 miles south of Chattanooga, was hit hardest: eight people died, at least 75 homes were destroyed and scores of businesses and other structures were blown away.

Overall, the storms killed more than 300 people across six states in the South -- one of the worst natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina.

Gov. Nathan Deal has declared state of emergency in 16 Georgia counties, and President Obama has approved a federal disaster declaration for those counties.

Hudgens said he signed a directive on Monday requesting that insurers be lenient on late payments from policyholders in the affected areas.

"It's kind of hard to find your checkbook when your house has been destroyed," he said.

The agency has also dispatched staffers to Ringgold and Trenton to help residents file insurance claims.

Bill Davis, southeastern representative for the Insurance Information Institute, said he does not expect premiums to rise for residents in those areas.

Insurance companies "have got enough in surplus and reserve to handle this," Davis said. "We're in business for this."

Despite the storm's fury, Georgia has been struck by much costlier storms and tornadoes, at least in terms of property damage.

In 2007, a tornado that hit Americus and other parts of South Georgia caused estimated insurance losses of $210 million, which state officials called a record. That storm killed nine people and affected nine counties.

A year later, a twister swept through downtown Atlanta and caused an estimated $250 million in damages, hobbling the Georgia World Congress Center and leaving a trail of shattered glass, torn roofs and debris in the streets.