Despite a year of one disaster after another, last year was only the second most expensive year on record for the global insurance industry. It could have been much worse, however, according to Swiss Re. If more insurance coverage had existed in Japan, the year would have topped 2005—the year of Hurricane Katrina. Nonetheless, the global economy lost a record $370 billion to natural disasters that ranged from earthquakes to flooding.
Reuters reported that Swiss Re's study of disasters, both natural and manmade, in 2011 showed insured catastrophe losses that reached $116 billion, compared with $123 billion in 2005. In December the company estimated the year would come in at $108 billion. Munich Re in January had estimated the cost of natural disasters for 2011 at $105 billion.
The insurance industry is obligated to pay for approximately 80% of the economic loss that resulted from the New Zealand earthquake—the third most expensive disaster of its kind at $12 billion. The most expensive earthquake ever was the March quake in Japan, which by itself was responsible for more than half of the year's economic loss.
Insurers are only on the hook for 17% of the losses, a total of $35 billion, from the Japan earthquake. Not so fortunate were the Japanese people, many of whom had little or no insurance. "Had Japan been insured as well, 2011 would certainly have been the most expensive year ever also in terms of insured losses," Lucia Bevere, Swiss Re senior catastrophe data analyst and coauthor of the study, was quoted saying.
The Thailand floods, which affected an area the size of Switzerland when the Chao Phraya River breached its banks, also cost insurers about $12 billion. That is the highest ever recorded for flooding from river water. Altogether, insured losses in Asia totaled more than $49 billion.
The U.S. racked up insured losses of more than $25 billion just in tornado damage. Destruction from hurricanes was relatively modest, according to the study, although residents of the Northeast would challenge that claim after Irene visited regions not normally subject to hurricane incursions.