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The Boston Globe

Business

Insurers ready for a flood of storm claims

Losses from Sandy could reach up to $50 billion

Local insurance companies are bracing for a flood of calls this week after Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in losses across the East Coast, including knocking out power for millions of customers and ravaging countless cars, homes, and businesses.

Liberty Mutual, the largest property insurer based in Boston, has already moved some insurance adjusters from other parts of the country to the East Coast to help handle claims and has trained employees who normally handle other duties to field storm-related calls.

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“We anticipate a significant call volume over the next few days,” said Liberty Mutual spokesman Glenn Greenberg. “This is a thousand-mile storm.”

IHS Global Insight, an economic research group in Lexington, estimated the storm could cause $30 billion to $50 billion in economic losses — more than Hurricane Irene last year — and could dent the nation’s slow recovery.

“The effect on growth for the fourth quarter will not be catastrophic, but might still be noticeable,” IHS wrote in a report Tuesday.

Most of the worst damage occurred in New York and the mid-Atlantic states, largely sparing New England.

“I would expect the claim volume from this storm is not going to be as severe as it was last year with Hurricane Irene,” said Tracy Hurley, vice president for Arbella Insurance Group, which has roughly half a million customers in New England.

Even nationally, analysts don’t expect the damage from Sandy to approach the levels of Hurricane Katrina or other storms. Though Sandy was unusually large in girth and hit a highly populated portion of the United States, it was also a Category 1 storm — the lowest ranking of hurricane force.

“We’re likely to see a large number of claims, but it is unlikely those claims will be particularly severe,” said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group. “It’s the type of storm that we plan for.”

But insurers said it was still too early to say how the storm will affect their bottom lines.

“It’s really hard to gauge because there are so many different variables,” said Mark Welzenbach, chief claims officer of Hanover Insurance Group in Worcester.

Meanwhile, the storm could also disrupt manufacturing and force retailers to come up with creative ways to replenish store shelves, said Mickey North Rizza, vice president of Strategic Services at BravoSolution, a Chicago company that offers supply management software and services.

Rizza, based in Amesbury, said it will be especially important for retailers to supply bottled water, batteries, and other supplies in cities and towns without power. “Time is of the essence,” she said. “It has to be when we’re talking about the basic needs for survival.”

Some economists, including IHS, predicted the storm could temporarily disrupt oil supplies and drive up oil prices. But gas prices actually fell slightly Tuesday after it appeared the storm didn’t do much immediate damage and may even lead to lower consumption in the Northeast, where many offices and roads were temporarily shut down — spurring many workers to stay home.

“The demand is a bigger deal than the supply,” said Phil Flynn, an energy market analyst with Price Futures Group in Chicago

Flynn said only a small percentage of the nation’s refineries are located on the East Coast and some of those refineries are already back online.

“The Northeast is not a big refining hub,” Flynn said. “This is different than a storm in the Gulf of Mexico hitting refining row.”

Jenn Abelson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.
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