By Ben Berkowitz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene caused between $200 million and $400 million in insured losses in the Carolinas, catastrophe modeling company EQECAT said on Sunday, suggesting the storm may have been far less severe than the insurance industry feared.
The bigger question, though, is how much coverage people have for the severe flooding that struck New York and New Jersey, and whether the federal government's flood program can handle all of the claims.
EQECAT said the bulk of the losses it has seen so far come particularly from storm surge and flooding.
Combined with its estimate of $300 million to $600 million in insured losses from a direct hit on parts of the Caribbean, EQECAT now puts Irene's total damage so far in a range of $500 million to $1 billion.
That is far less than its competitor, AIR Worldwide, which estimated Irene's damages in the Caribbean at $1.1 billion.
It is not unusual for catastrophe modeling companies, whose software is used by insurers to model their exposure to natural disasters, to differ widely in their initial loss estimates.
The figures tend to be revised as the days go by and the companies send more teams to the disaster sites to survey losses first-hand.
Still, the early figures compare with some projections by meteorologists and statisticians that Irene could be a $10 billion or more event. Much will depend on how much damage the storm did in the greater New York area.
Loss estimates on the rest of the U.S. East Coast are expected on Monday.
Nationwide Mutual, one of the country's largest property insurers, said it received 6,000 claims calls on Sunday, which is twice what it would usually expect on the Sunday after a major storm.
A spokeswoman for the company said that presents a mystery that could take days to clarify.
They can not tell yet whether they are getting an unusually high volume of claims, which would imply a lot of storm damage, or whether more people are calling than usual because they have already gotten home after the storm, which would imply it was somewhat mild.
"Generally what we're seeing as you move east is a lot of trees on houses, widespread power outages and as you get closer and closer to the coast, we've got coastal flooding, the power outages are even more widespread," said Brian Maness, a claims manager for the company in North Carolina.
In New Jersey, the state is expecting damage in "the billions of dollars, if not in the tens of billions of dollars," Gov. Chris Christie told NBC's "Meet the Press."
By all accounts, in cities like Jersey City, Montclair, Nutley and Hoboken, that damage will come in large part from flooding that put in some cases multiple feet of water into homes.
New Jersey is the fourth-most insured state by the National Flood Insurance Program, which writes almost all of the flood insurance in the United States.
The state has $51.88 billion of insurance in force from the NFIP, and Jersey City and Hoboken are two of the most insured cities in the state. On the other hand, for example, Montclair and Nutley are two of the least.
Congress is working on a reform package for the NFIP, which has been surviving on a series of one-year extensions amid a debate about the cost of the program and its role in keeping the private sector largely out of the flood insurance business.
(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Eric Beech and Braden Reddall)