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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: According to one estimate, one in every six Americans will experience winds at tropical storm strength this weekend. And that means roof damage, broken windows and huge insurance bills. Insurance companies are scrambling to get adjusters in place, and they're predicting damages in the billions up and down the East Coast. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: This is music to the ears of insurance company officials. Tony Russo Jr. is finishing the boarding up of the windows of his family's restaurant, Tony's Pizza, on the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland.

TONY RUSSO JR.: Been working 24 hours, got 75 sheets of plywood, 10 different properties, all boarded up, done. You know, had a pretty tough summer, and this is just kind of like hitting us right where it hurts.

SCHAPER: Insurers like to see policyholders doing whatever they can to minimize property damage from Irene because there undoubtedly will be a lot.

BOB HARTWIG: We're looking at a multibillion-dollar event. That's almost certain.

SCHAPER: Bob Hartwig is president of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade association.

HARTWIG: We're not looking at a hurricane that is as strong as a Katrina or a Hurricane Ike, but we are looking at a storm that will move over an area that has much greater population than an area like New Orleans or South Texas.

SCHAPER: Hartwig said that means damage to individual structures may not be as great, but there could be significant damage to millions more homes and businesses than in previous hurricanes. In addition, Hartwig and others note that Irene is slamming into an area where residents are not used to hurricanes, so may not be as well-prepared as those in Southern coastal areas. So what has the approaching Irene made the last few days like for insurance agents?

SPENCER HOULDIN: Extremely hectic. I mean, the phone has not stopped ringing.

SCHAPER: Spencer Houldin is president of Erickson Insurance, an independent agency in Washington, Connecticut.

HOULDIN: Which is a heavily wooded area in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, with a lot of trees. And so our main fear is that 50, 60, 70, 80-mile-an-hour winds will topple trees and damage what is a fairly affluent community with large houses.

SCHAPER: The other fear, Houldin says, is that the hurricane's heavy rains falling on the already saturated ground will fill basements and homes with water, even in places not normally prone to flooding. And unless you live in a floodplain and were required to purchase federal flood insurance, Houldin probably has bad news.

HOULDIN: The homeowners' policy does not cover surface water or ground water entering the dwelling. And so I'm expecting a lot of phone calls from clients that have wet basements, either damaged personal property or damaged finished basements - that the news about coverage will not be favorable.

SCHAPER: Insurance companies have been gearing up to start processing hurricane damage claims for almost a week now. Mark McGillivray is senior vice president of claims for Allstate.

MARK MCGILLIVRAY: We've actually, over the last couple days, deployed over a thousand people, starting with the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. And then as the storm goes up the East Coast, we are basically ahead of the storm.

SCHAPER: McGillivray says Allstate also has more than 16 mobile claims centers - big, refurbished RVs - that will roll into the most heavily damaged areas. Other insurance companies do, too, as well as call centers and even smartphone apps to file claims.

So far this year, natural disasters have caused more than $17 billion in insured damages nationwide, and Irene will surely add billions more. Industry officials claim insurance companies have the capital to pay the claims, but insurance rates are going up.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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