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The Uneven Twists Of A Killer Hurricane


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THE UNEVEN TWISTS OF A KILLER HURRICANE

Hurricane Andrew seemed to have it in for Louisiana's sugarcane growers. Still reeling from two years of bad weather, farmers were poised for a bumper crop this year. But after Andrew's fierce winds raked through the state's cane fields, at least a quarter of the crop was destroyed. Says Charles Richard, research director for the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux, La.: "The storm could not have taken a more perfect path."

Thousands felt Andrew's wrath as it ripped through South Florida and along the Louisiana coast last month. Only now, more than a week since the hurricane first hit U.S. shores, is the magnitude of the storm's devastation becoming clear. Andrew caused at least $20 billion in damages. And businesses are still trying to tot up their losses from the storm. Many companies, particularly those in South Florida, lost everything. Others, including natural-gas drillers and hoteliers, may even see their businesses pick up.

In Dade County, Fla., the second-largest agricultural county in the state, virtually every crop, from avocados to limes, was wiped out, eliminating about 15% of Florida's $6 billion in annual farm sales. In south Dade, farmer Bruce Dunn estimates that Andrew will cost him $25,000 in lost squash production. "I won't get that back," he sighs. Despite President Bush's visits to the state and his Sept. 1 national television address on the disaster, Dunn worries about the time it will take to get a loan, and whether it will cover his losses.

TIGHT REIN. Dickering with insurance companies will take its toll, too. Insurers shelled out $4.2 billion after Hurricane Hugo battered Charleston, S. C., in 1989. Now, in Florida, underwriters are looking at claims of $7.3 billion, and an additional $500 million in claims in Louisiana. That makes Andrew the costliest disaster in U.S. insurance history.

Not surprisingly, insurers are keeping a tight rein on costs. "They want people to just do the necessities, a little patching here and there," complains Skip Reed, owner of construction company E. W. Reed Inc. in Miami. And many insurers will entrust rebuilding work to general contractors based in their own home areas.

On top of that, cash-strapped homeowners can't afford to pull money out of their pockets for more extensive work. The combination is sure to put a damper on hopes for a construction boom in Florida, where the building industry has been in a deep slump for two years. Says John Segal, president of Broward Builders Exchange Inc. in Fort Lauderdale: "The construction business has been on its knees for a long time. The hurricane will put people back to work, but it will not bring in big money."

Natural-gas drillers might get more of a lift from the storm. Energy-sector damage from Andrew appears to be a relatively slight $100 million, according to the Minerals Management Service in Washington, which regulates energy production in federal waters. Only 13 of 3,800 drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were toppled, while 100 more were damaged. And disruption of transmission pipelines could further tighten gas supplies. That would be welcome news for an industry hurt by falling prices since 1984. Analyst John Olson of Goldman, Sachs & Co. estimates gas prices could average more than $2 per thousand cubic feet, up from a near-record low of $1 recorded last February.

Perhaps the brightest spot on the mostly dismal landscape is tourism. Major tourist attractions and hotels in both Florida and Louisiana escaped severe damage. Florida's tourism bureau is already mounting a public-relations blitz to assure travelers that beaches and hotels are open. No one canceled conventions at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, says a spokeswoman. But the National Business Alliance has canceled a party scheduled for the last night of its convention and instead is making a donation to relief efforts. "They felt uncomfortable eating lavish foods here while a few miles away there are people who have nothing," she says.

New Orleans, meanwhile, is living up to its reputation for insouciance. At Pat O'Brien's, a French Quarter piano bar, customers are once again waiting in line at the door after a two-day shutdown caused by the storm, which skirted the city but still pounded it with heavy winds and rains. The specialty drink at Pat O'Brien's? The Hurricane.STORM DAMAGE

Andrew's toll on business

AGRICULTURE Florida's avocado, lime, and other tropical-fruit crops are a

total loss. Louisiana lost a quarter of its sugarcane crop

CONSTRUCTION The hoped-for boost may fizzle. Many insurers will pay for only

bare-minimum repairs, using out-of-state contractors

TOURISM Florida's largest industry is busy assuring travelers that beaches and

hotels are open. New Orleans bounced back quickly

NATURAL GAS Damage to drills and transmission equipment is likely to lead to

shortages and higher prices in much of the country

DATA: BW

Stephanie Anderson Forest in Dallas, with Megan Northland in Miami, Deborah Fowler in Houston, and bureau reports


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