The devastating earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand made 2011 the costliest year yet for the insurance industry in terms of natural disaster losses, a leading reinsurance company said Wednesday.
Munich Re AG said in an annual report that insured losses last year totaled $105 billion — exceeding the previous record of $101 billion set in 2005, when losses were swollen by claims from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
The company said the total economic cost last year from natural disasters — including uninsured losses — totaled about $380 billion. That was far above the 2005 record of $220 billion.
Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March caused overall losses of $210 billion and insured losses of between $35 billion and $40 billion, Munich Re said. That didn't include the consequences of the subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which resulted in the evacuation of a wide swath of land.
The second most costly disaster for insurers, at $13 billion, was the February quake that devastated much of the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Overall losses came to $16 billion.
Munich Re noted that last year's sequence of natural disasters was very rare, and that 2011 brought catastrophes expected only once every 1,000 years or more. Normally, weather-related events are the chief cause of losses, it said.
"Even if it seems hard to believe given recent events, the probability of earthquakes has not increased," said Peter Hoeppe, the head of Munich Re's risk research unit.
He added, however, that "these severe earthquakes are timely reminders that the decisions on where to build towns need careful and serious consideration of these risks, especially where certain buildings are concerned, above all nuclear power plants."
Building codes in earthquake-prone regions need to be made even stricter, he argued.
Last year's third-costliest disaster for insurers was Thailand's worst flooding in half a century, which began in late July and continued for months.
Insured losses came to $10 billion, while total overall losses were estimated at $40 billion, making it Thailand's costliest-ever natural disaster, Munich Re said.
Severe storms and tornadoes in the United States in late April cost insurers $7.3 billion and led to overall damage worth $15 billion. Hurricane Irene, which hit the Caribbean and U.S. in late August, caused insured losses of $7 billion and total losses of $15 billion.
Still, Munich Re said losses from North Atlantic hurricanes were "moderate" in 2011, with only three major named storms making landfall in the United States.
Reinsurers offer backup policies to companies writing primary insurance policies. Reinsurance helps spread risk so that the system can handle large losses from natural disasters.
Munich Re has measured natural disaster costs since 1980.
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