Sandy: The Debate About "Hurricane Deductibles" Begins

Doppler radar image courtesy of Forensic Weather Consultants, LLC. Doppler radar image courtesy of Forensic Weather Consultants, LLC.

(Editor's Note: This story has been contributed by Howard Altschule, a forensic meteorologist who has appeared on The Today Show and Court TV, as well as The Weather Channel and The New York Times.)

According to NBC News, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated that New York homeowners will not have to pay “hurricane deductibles” on insurance claims stemming from Hurricane Sandy. Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky said the state told the insurance industry that deductibles weren’t triggered because Sandy did not sustain hurricane-force winds when it hit New York. As a veteran forensic meteorologist, I have worked on numerous hurricane-related lawsuits and insurance claims of this sort, whether the weather system was a “named storm” or not. 

In the past, terms like “hurricane-force,” “tropical storm,” and even “remnants of Hurricane X” have often been significant issues and arguable topics when it comes to litigations or determining insurance coverage from claims that arise. In the case of “Sandy,” it appears that this could be the case as well. 

 N.Y., N.J. and Conn.: No Hurricane Deductibles After Sandy

This will be a hotly debated topic by insurance company executives and also the attorneys that represent both the insurance companies and the homeowners. As a meteorologist, it is my job to study the detailed weather records and data in order to provide opinions in a true, scientifically based and unbiased manner. The fact is, “Sandy” did indeed have “hurricane-force” winds when it made landfall. The National Hurricane Center issued an advisory update at 8:00 p.m. EDT on Monday, October 29, 2012 stating “Surface…Radar…And Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter Aircraft Data Indicate That Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy Made Landfall Near Atlantic City New Jersey Around 8:00 PM EDT…0000 UTC…With Maximum Sustained Winds of 80 MPH…130 KM/H.”  

As those in the industry know, “hurricane-force” winds are defined as being 74 miles per hour or faster. Clearly, “Sandy” had winds that exceeded minimum hurricane-force when the storm made landfall. However, the storm was technically not a “tropical” system anymore, and was deemed “post-tropical” before it made landfall. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the National Hurricane Center was still issuing statements on this storm, and referring to it as “Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy.” 

The questions that could arise as a result of this could have significant impact on homeowners or the companies insuring them. 

According to the NBC news report, the deductibles typically range from one to five percent of the home’s insured value. This means, for example, with a five-percent deductible, if a home was insured for $400,000, then the homeowner would have to pay $20,000. In the wake of the enormous damage that was inflicted by Sandy, this would be very significant to many homeowners. 

Based on my experience in the other hurricane-related cases for which I have consulted, some of the questions that will be debated include: 

  1. Was “Sandy” a “named storm” at the time of landfall even though it was “Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy” at landfall?
  2. Will “named storm deductibles” or “hurricane deductibles” apply in this case because winds were still 80 miles per hour (hurricane force) at landfall?
  3. If “Sandy” had 80-mph “hurricane-force” winds near Atlantic City when it made landfall, does that mean that hurricane-force winds also occurred at a homeowners location 40 miles away, or were they much less? Additionally, would a “hurricane deductible” or “named storm deductible” apply at that specific address?

In one case I worked on as a forensic meteorologist, severe river flooding ensued as a result of the “remnants” of a tropical Storm. Because the rain storm was being referred to as the “remnants of Tropical Storm X” by the National Weather Service specifically for tracking purposes only, the insurance company argued that the reference to the actual name “remnants of Tropical Storm X” made it a “named” storm. However, the system was no longer a tropical depression, tropical storm, or hurricane. Therefore, technically it was not a “named storm" but was a very hotly debated topic. 

I suspect there might be similar debates in the years to come as insurers, attorneys and homeowners try to collect on their claims for property damages that were suffered by this powerful storm.     


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