Northeast Reeling From Nor'easter

Four governors ask federal government for relief funds; damage estimates near $1 billion

JACK DAVIS can hardly believe the extent of damage from last weekend's nor'easter that smashed through his town of Little Ferry, N.J.

Total damages "are estimated at $95 million or more for a town of 9,500 residents"; public works crews were working around the clock for four days; "roughly 60 percent of the 2,300 homes in the town have sustained some damage"; and just about "everyone in town" has experienced difficulties, says Mr. Davis, town administrator for Little Ferry.

The story was similar in much of the Northeast this week, as towns assessed damage from heavy snowfall, flooding, high winds, and other effects of the hurricane-force storm that killed at least 18 people and affected 10 states from Virginia to Maine.

Already, four governors have requested federal disaster aid. They are William Weld (R) of Massachusetts, Lowell Weicker Jr. (Ind.) of Connecticut, Mario Cuomo (D) of New York, and James Florio (D) of New Jersey.

Estimates of total losses throughout the region - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts - are running in the billion-dollar range.

"There are no threshold levels for the amount of federal funds that could be provided," says Stan Losak, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The amounts will ultimately depend on what is requested in terms of federal assistance, as well as the nature of the emergency declared by President Bush. If existing federal disaster funds are not adequate, then Congress will be asked to "pony up more funds," Mr. Losak says. Not area's worst storm

In New England, this storm was not nearly as severe as the blizzard of 1978. Last year's October "no name" storm may have left more property damage than this storm, but flooding from both storms has been severe.

Before the nor'easter hit, the United States insurance industry was facing "its worst year ever in terms of insured losses," says Tim Dove, a regional consultant for the Insurance Information Institute. Insurance losses for Hurricane Andrew in August are estimated at around $10.7 billion; catastrophe losses for Hurricane Iniki, which hit Hawaii in the fall, run around $1.6 billion; losses for the Los Angeles riots in April are estimated at around $775 million; and the Chicago flooding of last summer cost

insurers another $300 million to $400 million. All told, insurance losses for 1992 will be in the range of $20 billion. The second worst year was 1989, when insurance losses ran to $7.6 billion, Mr. Dove says.

For now, local municipalities are cleaning up, while inspection teams representing cities, states, federal officials, and private insurers visit communities. FEMA is expected to set up local offices where storm victims can meet with disaster officials. In some cases, free housing might be provided for up to 18 months; loan and grant money might also be available, including loans from the Small Business Administration for damaged businesses.

Some private insurers could be badly hurt by last week's storms, although the larger "brand name" national companies are expected to easily weather losses. But in the case of Hurricane Andrew, at least six small insurance companies were forced into liquidation. Still, no insured person will lose a claim refund, Dove says, since insurers provide backup guarantee funds for contingencies such as the inability of a private carrier to meet losses.

In Massachusetts, Governor Weld on Tuesday wrote Mr. Bush requesting a presidential declaration of disaster in five counties. The governor said he expects a declaration for six other counties once damage-assessment teams are finished with their work. Weld expects to hear a decision by the end of the week. If the counties are declared disaster areas, the federal government will pay 75 percent of the cost of repairing damage, says Arlene Margolis, a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman. Bay State damage heavy

An estimate by the Insurance Information Institute puts the cost of damage in the Bay State at about $200 million. Damage to public property has been estimated at some $10 million.

In western Massachusetts, snow-removal crews are still clearing huge snow drifts left over by weekend plowing at a cost estimated by the state highway department at $100,000 a day. The city of Worcester was hit with snow accumulation of two feet or more, while Berkshire areas had drifts of six feet.

In Connecticut, Governor Weicker requested a disaster declaration in three counties and estimated damage at $60 million. The storm left 3,700 homes heavily damaged as 26 were destroyed, says Avice Meehan, Weicker's press secretary. The state shellfish industry suffered about a $2 million loss due to sewage overflow into Long Island Sound.

New Jersey Governor Florio said Tuesday that the storm caused at least $296 million in damage to coastal areas and destroyed barriers that protect communities from heavy surf. More than 166 buildings were destroyed, 1,353 sustained major damage, and 24,662 received minor damage, Florio said.

One factor that may have helped some state towns offset the high costs resulting from the storm: the use of outside contracts for public services such as garbage collection. Because of these contracts, towns such as Little Ferry were able to free up employees "for basic cleanup and maintenance work," Davis says.

In New York City, the effects of the storm were heavy last Friday, as the subway system was knocked out for most of the day, and the shore in Brooklyn and Queens boroughs was heavily eroded. Officials said they expected damage to tally in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Large numbers of the more than 12,000 homes damaged in the greater New York area do not carry federal flood insurance. In the meantime, private-insurance losses are expected to be substantial, Dove says.

Elsewhere in New England, a sea wall was damaged along New Hampshire's coastline. The Seabrook nuclear power plant was temporarily shut down due to seaweed which clogged the plant's filtering system. Damage was minimal in Vermont, and Maine was hit with some coastal flooding. Rhode Island experienced beach erosion and power outages.

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