Perfect Storms


While George W. Bush signed emergency orders for rescue supplies to hurricane victims this morning, preparing for a possible visit to the ravaged areas, right-wingers were having a ball with Teresa Heinz Kerry. Already ecstatic about Rathergate, this morning they got John Kerry’s wife touring Brooklyn’s Caribbean neighborhoods.

“Clothing is wonderful, but let them go naked for a while, at least the kids,” she told the crowd of people packing relief packages for hurricane victims; she spoke French with them. “Water is necessary, and then generators, and then food, and then clothes.” Drudge had it up in no time.

In truth, Ivan, Charlie, and perhaps now Jeanne further threaten Bush’s rosy economic “recovery.” Huge losses due to these storms, of course, will further strain the federal budget, and more to the point, can lead to serious long-term economic problems.

Ivan could cost insurers $4 billion to $10 billion, according to some estimates. Charley, which hit Florida last month, cost insurers $6.8 billion, and Frances, according to published reports, cost $6 billion.

The big insurance companies that stand behind the homes and business along the U.S. coastline have long dreaded a direct hurricane hit on New Orleans or New York, where, intensified by global warming, storms could do more than just wreak their usual havoc. Last night, New Orleans just missed a direct hit when Ivan veered into Mobile Bay. New Orleans had already been evacuated, and officials said the city, built below sea level, faced drowning by upwards of 20 feet of water caused by the storm surge.

The big insurers are in turn backed up by even bigger combines of re-insurers abroad, and those combines have been hit by staggering losses in recent years. In 1980, insurance payouts from storms totaled $17 billion. In the ’90s, Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Cyclone Iniki in Hawaii drove companies out of business. Losses from Andrew ran to some $35.6 billion.

Re-insurance rates during the 1990s rose by 400 percent in the U.S., 600 percent in Great Britain, and 1,000 percent in Japan. As rates rose, large re-insurers began to back out of the business altogether, citing global warming as the reason.

There are other ramifications: FEMA, the chief federal agency charged with rescue efforts in these storms, already has been given other tasks in the “war on terror.” Conservatives long have feared that this agency—of growing importance in the Bush administration—was but the tip of the iceberg in an impending federal takeover of states and localities. In his 1997 book The Heat Is On, Ross Gelbspan speculates that these big storms, made even bigger by global warming, might lead to “the militarization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will be called on to respond to these kinds of crises.”

Research Assistance: Laurie Anne Agnese