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Rising risks

A widely felt effect of the terrorist attacks is steep insurance rate increases, especially for trophy properties.

By JEFF HARRINGTON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002

A widely felt effect of the terrorist attacks is steep insurance rate increases, especially for trophy properties.

TAMPA -- International Plaza opened its doors for the first time three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rocked the country. Nearly a year later the glitzy $200-million mall is still paying a price.

Not in sales, which rebounded after last fall's dismal start, but in insurance. Taubman Centers, the Tampa mall's developer and part owner, paid a double-digit increase in premiums for new property insurance when the policy covering its 20-location portfolio expired in April. Plus, it shelled out a "substantial" sum for a separate policy that would pay out as much as $100-million in case any of its malls fell victim to terrorism, Taubman director of risk management Nick Jannone said.

At least Taubman found coverage.

The city of St. Petersburg, which owns Tropicana Field, searched in vain for terrorism insurance for the home of the Devil Rays at renewal time in spring. Under its new policy, Tropicana's property insurance premiums jumped to $1-million, five times the price of the policy it was replacing, and the stadium lost its coverage for terrorist attacks.

Sept. 11 reshaped more than property insurance. Workers compensation insurance, disability coverage, liability, health insurance and life insurance were all affected by the biggest attack ever on American soil.

"Sept. 11 had an impact on virtually all (insurance) markets," Florida deputy insurance commissioner Kevin McCarty said. "It had what industry analysts describe as a constellation effect. . . . It has the industry rethinking how they write insurance in general."

Never before did high-rise insurers have to consider their prime properties as prime terrorist targets. Never before did a workers comp adjuster who prices premiums have to factor in the possibility that terrorism could cause massive injuries in an office building. Never before did insurance underwriters have to insist on heightened security at shopping malls and entertainment hubs.

Now, many credit cards are excluding terrorism from their travel accident insurance. And convention planners are finding their insurance will not cover terrorism incidents or will pay only a fraction of what it used to.

One barometer of Sept. 11's impact is Florida's Workers Compensation Joint Underwriting Association, a state-run program to insure businesses that cannot find workers compensation insurance on the open market. The number of new applications increased 39 percent between July 2001 and July 2002, while total premiums paid by newcomers to the fund soared 294 percent.

Laura Torrence, the association's executive director, says Sept. 11 is a "huge" factor based on the types of companies that are being dropped by their workers comp insurers and forced into the state fund.

"We're seeing a lot of small aviation companies starting to come in because people don't want to underwrite the pilots," Torrence said. "There's flight training (schools), the folks who spray the crops and mosquitoes . . . a fertilizer manufacturing company . . . a major airport security firm."

Still, no insurance sector has been rattled as much as the commercial property market. There has been a widespread reluctance to insure landmarks and other "trophy" properties against terrorist attacks since last fall.

The Golden Gate Bridge that connects San Francisco to points north is one of the clearest examples. The agency that operates the bridge is paying $1.1-million, about twice as much as its old premiums, for a fraction of the previous coverage, with no payout in the event of a terrorist attack.

Closer to home, Raymond James Stadium is in a bind trying to find coverage by October after being "nonrenewed" by its carrier this summer.

Likewise, Bank of America Plaza in downtown Tampa, which has been self-insured, is searching for insurance.

Managers of the plaza downplay terrorism concerns, even after last January's suicide flight by Charles Bishop. The 15-year-old crashed a single-engine Cessna into the 28th floor of the 42-story tower in a scene that seemed an eerie effort to reenact the World Trade Center attacks.

"The incident with Bishop was an isolated incident, and I personally do not feel it was related to 9/11 in any way," said Michael Hoffman of the plaza's property manager, Insignia/ESG Inc. "It was an unfortunate incident that happened to involve our building."

Yet Hoffman acknowledges that he expects steep premiums to insure the high rise.

The struggle to find coverage for high-profile landmarks across the country has given ammunition to the Coalition to Insure Against Terrorism, a business alliance pushing for passage of a terrorism insurance plan in Washington.

The House and Senate have passed different measures that would offer federal terrorism coverage as a backstop for the insurance industry. Congress returned last week with terrorism insurance high on its "to-do" list.

The business coalition insists the problem goes far beyond cases like the Golden Gate Bridge. Those responsible for ports, airports, office towers, tunnels, bridges, power plants, gas pipelines and sports and entertainment venues are struggling to find terrorism insurance, the group maintains.

As a result, property owners are being forced to self-insure, setting aside a disaster fund and committing money that could have been used for investing in business and creating jobs.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, part of the business coalition, says the lack of affordable and comprehensive terrorism insurance blocked an estimated $3.7-billion in commercial real estate deals and delayed or altered another $4.5-billion in deals in the first half of 2002.

In a survey in June, 44 percent of mortgage bankers contacted said the lack of terrorism insurance had greatly affected their ability to make commercial loans.

On the other side of the debate is the Consumer Federation of America, which contends the problems cited for some landmark properties are anomalies. Most property owners are having no trouble finding insurance that includes terrorism coverage, Bob Hunter, the federation's director of insurance, says.

Hunter contends Sept. 11's main effect on the insurance industry was to speed up rate increases.

"Rates were on the way up before Sept. 11, so it's hard to unscramble the egg," he said. The terrorist attacks "exacerbated the speed of the increase but not necessarily the magnitude."

Hunter said insurance companies have been crying wolf about an impending crisis since Sept. 11. He points out there was fear that the Olympics, the World Cup and the Mall of America would not be able to find insurance -- but they all did.

At the state level, most legislators are sympathetic to the insurance agencies. Forty-five states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, are allowing insurance companies to exclude terrorism coverage from policies. Florida is one of just five states that will not allow insurers to exclude terrorism.

More than 450 insurers in Florida filed for a terrorism exclusion after the September attacks, but 270 of them had withdrawn their applications as of August because of the policy set by state insurance commissioner Tom Gallagher.

Florida's rules, however, don't apply to larger commercial buildings. Insurance for "trophy" projects such as sports stadiums, skyscrapers and theme parks typically are not regulated by the state. It's up to those property owners to negotiate insurance deals on their own, for better or worse.

In times of peace and prosperity, owners of trophy properties enjoy the lack of state regulatory oversight as they negotiate for significant coverage at good prices.

Now, that lack of oversight is definitely for the worse. Between the poor economy, sagging investments and skyrocketing risk, insurers have abundant reasons to increase premiums or, in some cases, pull out of insuring certain types of developments altogether.

McCarty, the Florida deputy insurance commissioner, recalls how insurers used to push for approval to take on riskier policies. Not long ago, "They could afford to take on worse risk," he said. "Now it's just the opposite."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at or (813) 226-3407.

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