Catastrophes: Insurance Issues

The term “catastrophe” in the property insurance industry denotes a natural or man-made disaster that is unusually severe. An event is designated a catastrophe by the industry when claims are expected to reach a certain dollar threshold, currently set at $25 million, and more than a certain number of policyholders and insurance companies are affected.

Insured catastrophe losses in the United States for 2012 totaled $57.9 billion, according to Munich Re, greatly surpassing the average of $27 billion for the years 2000 to 2011. But, despite the enormous losses, insurers remain strong. As of September 30, 2012, before superstorm Sandy, policyholders’ surplus stood at $583.5 billion, a record. Policyholders’ surplus is essentially the equivalent of the industry’s net worth and a reliable indicator of its ability to pay claims. (Munich Re, a major reinsurer, counts flood insurance losses in its total. The flood insurance program is run by the federal government and as suc its losses are not generally included in other industry totals, see below.)

Claims due to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast on October 29, 2012 are likely to be close to $25 billion, most industry experts say. The cost might have been higher but for the fact that much of the damage was due to the storm surge and subsequent flooding which is not covered by standard homeowners or by most small business owners commercial insurance policies. Coverage for floods is available from the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program, see report on flood insurance. However, a reinsurance brokerage firm, Holborn, believes industry estimates of personal lines losses are too high and commercial lines losses are too low, leading it to ramp up estimates of losses to as much as $30 billion. Earlier projections of losses underestimated the amount of commercial flood coverage, it says. A report by A.M.Best in late January says two-thirds of losses will be commercial.

Disaster losses along the coast are likely to escalate in the coming years, in part because of huge increases in development. One catastrophe modeling company predicts that catastrophe losses will double every decade or so due to growing residential and commercial density and more expensive buildings. Data from the Census Bureau, collected by USA Today, show that in 2006, 34.9 million people were seriously threatened by Atlantic hurricanes, compared with 10.2 million in 1950. Before the 2005 hurricane season, Hurricane Andrew ranked as the single most costly U.S. natural disaster.

Man-made catastrophes such as the attacks on the World Trade Center can also cause huge losses. The attacks led Congress to pass the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) in November 2002. Since then, TRIA has been reauthorized twice. The latest reauthorization, passed at the end of 2007, extends the law to 2014. TRIA provides a federal backstop for commercial insurance losses from terrorist acts, making it easier for insurers to calculate their maximum losses for such a catastrophe and thus to underwrite the coverage, see report on Terrorism Risk and Insurance.

The typical homeowners insurance policy covers damage from a fire, windstorms, hail, riots and explosions—as well as other types of loss such as theft and the cost of living elsewhere while the structure is being repaired or rebuilt after being damaged. Commercial property insurance policies generally cover the same causes of loss with some variation, depending on the coverages selected. Flood and earthquake damage are excluded under homeowners policies—separate policies are available—but are covered under the comprehensive portion of the standard auto policy, which more than 75 percent of drivers who buy auto liability insurance purchase.

Over the 20-year period, 1992 to 2011, hurricanes and tropical storms made up 42.0 percent of total catastrophe losses, followed by tornado losses (33.9 percent), winter storms (7.4 percent), terrorism (6.3 percent), earthquakes and other geologic events (4.7 percent), wind/hail/flood (3.9 percent) and fire (1.6 percent). Civil disorders, water damage and utility services disruption combined represented less than 1 percent. Each year about 6 percent of homeowners file claims.



  • Hurricanes: Hurricane Sandy, the 18th tropical storm of the season and 10th hurricane made landfall near Atlantic City along the New Jersey shore on October 29, 2012. Although superstorm Sandy as it is now called, inflicted heavy damage over a wide area, in part because it collided with another storm, when it hit land it was no longer categorized as a hurricane but as a post-tropical cyclone. Hurricane deductibles, which require homeowners to pay a percentage share of the storm damage, therefore, did not apply.
  • The National Hurricane Center attributes 72 deaths directly to the storm and at least 87 more deaths indirectly due to conditions and accidents caused by the storm. The highest storm surge measured by tide gauges in New Jersey was 8.5 feet over normal levels at Sandy Hook and the highest in New York was more than 12.5 feet at Kings Point on the western edge of the Long Island Sound. Superstorm Sandy was an extraordinarily large hurricane, according to the agency, with wind gusts felt as far west as Wisconsin and as far north as Canada. Sandy damaged or destroyed about 650,000 homes and knocked out power to 8.5 million customers, the report notes.
  • Insured losses in the $25 billion range will make Sandy the third most expensive storm after Hurricane Katrina, at $48.75 billion, and just a little less costly than Hurricane Andrew, at $25.66 billion, in 2012 dollars. Some 1.38 million claims are anticipated, compared with 1.74 million as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Economic damage could be as high as $50 billion to $60 billion, according to early estimates, because the storm surge devastated many coastal communities in New Jersey and New York City and along the lower Hudson River valley. Many of the thousands of properties that were flooded were not covered by flood insurance, despite widespread and frequent warnings about the need for such coverage. Only about 14 percent of homeowners in the Northeast have coverage for floods. Despite the lack of coverage, flood insurance claims are expected total around $7.50 billion.
  • Critical infrastructure was damaged. Millions of households and many businesses across the region, including those in New York City’s lower Manhattan financial district, lost power. Public transportation in the area came to a standstill because the subway and railroad systems were flooded. The storm surge, as measured at the tip of Manhattan, was 14 feet, a record and four feet higher than the last record set during Hurricane Donna in 1960.
  • Insurers expect many business interruption claims due to the various conditions that made it impossible to operate a business during and after the storm, possibly equal to 30 percent of total insured losses, according to early industry estimates published in Business Insurance. AIR Worldwide estimates that about 20 percent of businesses affected by Sandy had flood coverage.
  • Hurricane Sandy is likely to prompt a reevaluation of how the New York metropolitan area prepares for and deals with major disasters as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005. While Hurricane Katrina was a stronger storm and caused more damage ($48.75 billion in current dollars) Hurricane Sandy hit a more populous area so more people, as many as 15 percent of the total U.S. population, experienced the impact of the storm. In addition, sea levels have been rising and will continue rise along the Atlantic coast line, putting an ever increasing number of people and communities in danger of flooding.
  • At the end of January 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the state would adopt the stronger rebuilding guidelines in flood zones issued last year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which call for elevating homes or paying a much higher flood insurance premium, possibly seven or eight times higher, the governor said. The maps issued by FEMA in December 2012 show the risk of flood and forceful waves is much greater than in the 1980s when the last flood maps were issued. Insurers commended Gov. Christie for taking “an aggressive approach” to assuring coastal properties can better withstand future storms.
  • The average number of tropical storms during each hurricane season is 12, of which 6 become hurricanes. This season, 19 tropical storms formed in the Atlantic Ocean,10 of which became hurricanes. Most dissipated at sea. While this was a very active season for tropical storms, it was an average one in terms of the number that hit the U.S. mainland. AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe modeling firm, says that there is no indication that the frequency of landfalling hurricanes is increasing. Whether or not a storm hits land has more to do with short-term weather patterns than with sea temperature.
  • Catastrophe Losses for the First-Half 2012: Catastrophe losses in the United States for the first half of 2012 amounted to $13.8 billion, 43 percent lower than the first half of last year’s figure of $24.4 billion according to ISO’s PCS unit.
  • Tornadoes: The tornado season started earlier than usual but total tornado losses for the year are expected to be below average, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. There have been few destructive tornadoes due to the weather pattern in the West and Rockies that kept storms from moving into the central part of the country and caused the drought.
  • Thunderstorms: Data from Munich Re, a major reinsurer, on severe thunderstorms which includes tornadoes show 69 severe thunderstorms in 2012, causing 118 fatalities and costing insurers $14.9 billion. During the first half of 2012, there were 56 severe thunderstorms resulting in insured losses of $8.8 billion and 69 deaths. Thunderstorms accounted for almost all of the insured catastrophe losses ($9.3 billion) for the first half of 2012. Munich Re attributes the increase to global warming, noting that there is more water content in the atmosphere which fuels big storms.
  • Droughts and Wildfires: The total number of acres burned this year exceeded nine million, only the third time since proper record-keeping began in 1960 that such a huge area, about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut, has been charred by wildfires. The other two times were in 2006 and 2007, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. However, the number of homes consumed by fire has been slightly below average, 2,125 compared with 2,600.
  • Drought conditions this year covered a wider stretch of the country than in any drought since 1956, according to government data. In the first 10 months of 2012, wildfires burned almost nine million acres. Extreme conditions, which caused significant economic damage in southern states in 2011, continued across the Southwest from western Texas to California, Colorado and Washington State. In Colorado, which has been experiencing the most destructive wildfire season in its history, more than 600 structures were burned by the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires alone and hundreds more damaged. Thousands of residents were evacuated when the fires threatened urban areas.
  • In Texas, the Texas Wildfire Prevention Task force was formed in 2012 after a disastrous wildfire season in 2011 which burned nearly 4 million acres. The committee will review housing and development codes and guidelines for structures in areas prone to natural disasters and make recommendations about how to mitigate losses and how to educate the public about best practices.
  • Researchers are discovering that embers blown by the wind during wildfires cause most of the fires that burn homes. Also, homes that are less than 15 feet apart are more likely to burn in clusters. In such cases, fire is often spread by combustible fences and decks connected to houses, a study by the Institute for Business & Home Safety found.
  • The risk of wildfires is likely to continue to grow as temperatures rise, lengthening the fire season, and more people move into steep forested areas once largely uninhabited. Thirty-eight states have wildfire risks, the Institute says, and the risk of wildfires keeps growing as more homes are built in wildland areas, some five million in California alone. Among the preventative features recommended in the study were noncombustible siding, decking and roofing materials; covered vents; and fences not connected directly to the house. In addition, combustible structures in the yard such as playground equipment should be at least 30 feet away from the house and vegetation 100 feet away.
  • Intense Rainstorms: Heavy rainstorms linked to flooding are increasing in frequency in the Midwest, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Since 1961, the frequency of the largest of these storms, those that produce rainfall of three or more inches in a single day, increased by103 percent. The rates of increase for all large storms (at least two inches of rainfall in a single day) accelerated over time, with the last decade showing the greatest jump. The states where the trend is most evident are Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, the report notes.
  • Earthquakes: A rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake in central Virginia rocked the East Coast on August 22, 2011 but overall insured losses are expected to be under $1 million. Most of the damage was centered in and around Washington, D.C., and south of the capital. Nuclear reactors close to the epicenter are being scrutinized for damage. A series of small quakes jolted Oklahoma in November. Researchers are investigating whether they and other small quakes in Ohio are related to the extraction of oil and gas from shale in a process known as “fracking.”
  • The recent mega-catastrophes have also drawn attention to business losses caused by property damage, in addition to rebuilding costs. In Chile, Swiss Re notes that business interruption (business income and extra expense) coverage losses due to slow downs or shut downs as a result of the earthquake accounted for half of claims payouts. In some industries, such as pulp and paper, they amounted to two-thirds of claims. More recently, the disasters in Japan cut manufacturers’ supply lines in such industries as car manufacturing. Coverage for such eventualities, where the supplier’s premises have been damaged causing production to come to a halt, is known as contingent business interruption coverage.
  • Coastal Area Growth: The cost of catastrophes is rising in part because more people are living in harm’s way. Data from the Census Bureau show that in 2008, 35.7 million people were seriously threatened by Atlantic hurricanes, compared with 34.9 million in 2006 and 10.2 million in 1950, see also Background section. More than half of the nation’s population lives along the coast. Coastal areas, which make up only 17 percent of the United States, are the most developed.
  • Reducing Catastrophe Losses: As the cost of catastrophes, including the loss of life, escalates, Congress and states are seeking ways to mitigate losses. In Congress, for example, House members from both political parties introduced the Homeowner Catastrophe Protection Act of 2013 in February. The legislation provides tax incentives for homeowners and insurers to allow them to better prepare for natural disasters. (Currently, insurers can only set up loss reserves for events that have already occurred.) Specifically, the act would allow insurers to establish tax-deferred reserves to cover natural disasters; allow homeowners to create tax-exempt catastrophe savings accounts to pay for losses resulting from a federally declared natural disaster; and provide tax credits for homeowners who upgrade their homes to mitigate damage due to hurricanes and earthquakes.
  • Several states whose residents are most at risk for storm damage have the least stringent building requirements. In a study by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, the state of Mississippi received the lowest grade for building codes and building code enforcement among the 18 states most vulnerable to hurricanes along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. States were also assessed based on building code official certification and training and contractor licensing. Mississippi was awarded 4 points out of a possible 100. Florida and Virginia topped the list with 95 points and New Jersey followed a close second with 93 points. At the bottom of the list, just ahead of Mississippi, was Delaware with 17 points and Texas and Alabama both with 18.
  • Many states have passed legislation requiring insurers to offer policyholders discounts for strengthening their homes. However, Louisiana is the only state among those most affected by Hurricane Katrina to enact a strong statewide code. In Mississippi, while the state is providing funds to allow eligible homeowners to receive financial assistance to build or upgrade homes to stronger construction standards, only seven of its 82 counties are required to enforce wind and flood standards. Mississippi made efforts to pass a stronger statewide code but met with stiff opposition from the construction industry. Likewise, Alabama has no mandatory statewide building code.
  • Increasingly, consumers are embracing the idea of living in homes that can better withstand severe windstorms and other disasters. More than 200 “Fortified… for Safer Living” projects, which incorporate specific safety design features supported by the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), have been completed or are in various stages of construction in 16 different states, including states in the Midwest. IBHS says that Fortified requirements strengthen a home’s outer envelope, notably the roof and wall systems, doors, windows and other glazed openings, and the foundation. IBHS is now offering a Fortified designation for retrofitted existing homes and is moving to create a Fortified program for light commercial buildings.
  • In Mississippi the wind pool, the insurer of last resort, agreed to give owners of homes built to a Fortified standard a credit toward the windstorm part of property insurance policies initially. In Alabama the Beach Pool is offering discounts for homes built to Fortified standards. One insurer has initiated a pilot program that offers discounts on wind coverage to homeowners along the coast whose homes are built to resist storm damage,
  • The notion that stronger homes can be built with minimal increase in costs and a significant decrease in homeowners insurance premiums was put to the test by a Baldwin County, Alabama unit of Habitat for Humanity. The organization experimented with Fortified standards and found that the Fortified Gold standard, the most stringent of three levels of protection, cost only 3 percent more to follow than just building a home to conform to the latest building code and that it led to a 25 percent decrease in insurance costs.
  • IBHS has created a research center to test building and construction components for durability when exposed to high winds, wind-driven water, earthquakes and hail as well as maintenance-related concerns like plumbing system failure and interior fires. The results will be used in consumer education and advocacy campaigns.
  • Residual Markets: Growth of state-run property insurers is shifting the financial burden of potential hurricane-related damage to all policyholders and taxpayers in these states as they devise ways to fund the claims they will have to pay. By year-end 2011 these insurers had almost $884.7 billion in exposure to loss, compared with $54.7 billion in 1990, an increase of 1,517 percent as the number of insurance policies issued by these residual market entities has more than tripled.
  • Despite higher rates, in Florida, the number of Citizens homeowners insurance policies in force has been creeping up again and now stands at almost 1.5 million, in part because some insurers are downsizing in Florida and there have been some insolvencies. Meanwhile, Citizens is recommending ways to reduce its potential claims that do not require legislative approval, including lowering the cap for coverage of expensive homes to $1 million from $2 million and reducing the amount of personal liability coverage to $100,000 from $300,000.

Availability of Property Insurance in Coastal Areas

  • Coastal Insurance: Lawmakers and regulators are seeking solutions to make private property insurance more available and affordable in coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes as insurers reduce the number of the policyholders they insure in high-risk areas to lower the potential for crippling losses in the next major storm. In Alabama the state’s Insurance Underwriting Association, its insurer of last resort, has grown by 3.500 policies in 12 months, going from 22,143 policies in June 2011 to 25,655 in June 2012.
  • Responding to the problem, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley created a seven-member commission in April 2011 to study and address the rising cost of homeowners insurance in counties along the Gulf. The commission proposed the creation of a research facility to study the problems. Legislation was passed that would require insurers to release data by zip code on the premiums collected, policies in force and the claims paid. Coastal residents believe the data will make it clear whether they are paying substantially more for their insurance than people in other parts of the state and more than past claims would justify.
  • Flood/Wind Coverage Disputes: Legislation reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program was passed in June 2012. Included was a provision negotiated by Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss, to help settle disputes over the extent of wind versus water damage when the structure is a total loss and reduced to a slab. The Wicker provision requires the use of data from federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help allocate total losses between the two perils or causes of loss after a major storm.
  • Creating a Federal Backstop: After Hurricane Katrina several proposals were introduced to create a federal backstop but, as with bills to add wind coverage to the flood insurance program, none were enacted. Environmental groups joined with a group of insurers in opposing these bills, which both saw as promoting growth in coastal areas prone to storm damage. However, some large insurers supported the concept.
  • The insurance industry is divided about a federal role. Some say that under the current system the federal government (and hence taxpayers) pay for rebuilding in any case through government grants and low interest loans and that the funds would be better spent in an organized and predictable fashion. Other insurers say that worldwide there is enough reinsurance capacity to protect U.S. primary insurers against catastrophe losses and that people who choose to live in disaster-prone areas should not be protected from the cost of their decisions through subsidies from people who choose to live in a less risky location. They believe the solution is for Congress and state legislatures to develop more stringent building codes and tax incentives for homeowners to prepare for hurricanes, see below.
  • Hurricane Catastrophe Funds: Proposals are being discussed to again reduce the size of the Florida fund and improve its shaky financial condition. For 2012, the fund had the capacity to offer reinsurance coverage of up to $17 billion, the same level as in 2011. If the fund has insufficient funds to pay claims in the event of a major hurricane, that burden would again fall on the state’s taxpayers.

Disaster Damage Coverage in Developing Countries

  • The Caribbean: The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) said in August 2012 that damage caused by Hurricane Isaac is unlikely to trigger payments under the plan. In September 2010 CCRIF made a payment of slightly more than $4 million to the government of Anguilla as a result of the damage caused by Hurricane Earl. In November the CCRIF paid out $12.5 million to Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent after Hurricane Tomas struck the islands at the beginning of the month. Haiti received a payment of about $7 million after the earthquake in January 2010.
  • Established in 2007, the CCRIF is an insurance pool that covers hurricanes and earthquakes for its 16 Caribbean member nations and their territories. In 2009 the European Union made a donation to the CCRIF joining the World Bank, the Caribbean Development Bank and a number of developed nations in contributing to the facility’s reserve pool. The reserves paid for start-up costs. Japan funded the initial feasibility study. The Haiti payment is the third the CCRIF has made since its inception. In its first year of existence, it paid about $1million to the island of St. Lucia and to the Dominican Republic after a magnitude 7.4 earthquake shook the eastern Caribbean in November 2007. And after Hurricane Ike in 2008, it paid $6.3 million to the Turks and Caicos Islands. (See Background).
  • As a result of the increased awareness of seismic risk, following the Haiti earthquake, 12 of the 16 countries increased their coverage limit for earthquakes when they renewed their policies for the 2010/11 policy period that began in June. Forecasts of a very active hurricane season in 2010 have serious implications for the CCRIF.
  • Mexico and MultiCat: The Mexican government has renewed its catastrophe bond program. The bond will mature in December 2015. In October 2009 the government became the first to use the World Bank’s MultiCat bond program, when it sold $290 million in catastrophe bonds to cover potential damage from earthquakes and Pacific and Atlantic hurricanes. MultiCat provides a common documentation, legal and operational framework for issuing catastrophe bonds, the World Bank says, offering developing countries a cost-effective way to transfer disaster risk to the private sector and lessen the financial and economic impact of natural disasters. A growing number of entities in the public sector have purchased catastrophe bonds recently.
  • This type of catastrophe bond is known as a disaster recovery bond, see Reinsurance. Disaster recovery bonds are a new type of risk financing tool for the public sector, similar to business income insurance for businesses. They provide short-term liquidity after a catastrophic event, allowing government entities to function and begin recovery efforts at a time when the disaster has shut down much of the economy and its main source of revenue. The bonds are purchased by investors, who receive a good return except when payments to the issuer of the bond are triggered by the occurrence of the event insured against.
  • Microinsurance: Small businesses in Haiti will now be able to obtain protection against losses caused by natural catastrophes. A syndicate, which includes a reinsurer, a global development and relief agency and a microfinance distribution institution, will offer parametric coverage to businesses that have taken out small loans with the finance company. Parametric coverage is based on a claim settlement process that takes into account the known and “observable characteristics” of various types of disasters, such as the potential damage that a crop would sustain in a 150 mph wind in a certain part of the country. By not having to rely on individual claims adjusters to decide the amount of damage , claims can be settled quickly, thus allowing the claimant fast access to funds that might be needed to keep the business going. The premium will equal 6 percent of the business’s total loan.
  • In a pilot study of the feasibility of developing a microinsurance system to provide some financial protection against catastrophic earthquake damage in rural areas of China, the catastrophe modeler, Risk Management Solutions (RMS), said a premium rate of about five yuan (U.S. $1.5) for about 55 million low-income rural households could be sufficient to cover estimated risk and costs. RMS envisages a three-layer risk sharing program, with the primary layer covering losses up to 2 billion yuan, the reinsurance layer covering up to 4 billion and the top layer, which would involve some form of government participation, for most extreme events up to 12 billion yuan. (See also Insurance Issues Updates: Microinsurance and Emerging Markets.)


($ millions)

Estimated insured property losses
Rank Date Peril Dollars when occurred In 2011 dollars (2)
1 Aug. 2005 Hurricane Katrina $41,100 $46,591
2 Sep. 2001 Fire, explosion: World Trade Center,
Pentagon terrorist attacks
18,779 23,463
3 Aug. 1992 Hurricane Andrew 15,500 22,939
4 Jan. 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake 12,500 17,726
5 Sep. 2008 Hurricane Ike 12,500 13,050
6 Oct. 2005 Hurricane Wilma 10,300 11,676
7 Aug. 2004 Hurricane Charley 7,475 8,755
8 Sep. 2004 Hurricane Ivan 7,110 8,327
9 Apr. 2011 Flooding, hail and wind including the
tornados that struck Tuscaloosa, AL
and other locations
7,300 7,300
10 May 2011 Flooding, hail and wind including the
tornados that struck Joplin, MO and
other locations
6,900 6,900

(1) Property coverage only. Does not include flood damage covered by the federally administered National Flood Insurance Program.
(2) Adjusted for inflation through 2011 by ISO using the GDP implicit price deflator.

Source: The Property Claim Services (PCS) unit of ISO, a Verisk Analytics company.


Year Number of
Number of claims
Dollars when occurred
($ billions)
In 2011 dollars (2)
($ billions)
2002 25 1.8 $5.9 $7.2
2003 21 2.7 12.9 15.5
2004 22 3.4 27.5 32.2
2005 24 4.4 62.3 70.6
2006 31 2.3 9.2 10.1
2007 23 1.2 6.7 7.2
2008 36 4.1 27.0 28.2
2009 27 2.2 10.5 10.9
2010 33 2.4 14.3 14.6
2011 30 4.9 33.6 33.6

(1) Includes catastrophes causing insured property losses of at least $25 million in 1997 dollars and affecting a significant number of policyholders and insurers. Does not include losses covered by the federally administered National Flood Insurance Program.
(2) Adjusted for inflation through 2011 by ISO using the GDP implicit price deflator.

Source: The Property Claim Services (PCS) unit of ISO, a Verisk Analytics company.

View Archived Tables


($ millions)

Quarter Estimated insured losses Number of catastrophes
1 $2,240 7
2 22,165 12
3 8,380 9
4 855 2
Full year $33,640 30

(1) Includes catastrophes causing insured property losses of at least $25 million in 1997 dollars and affecting a significant number of policyholders and insurers. Does not include losses covered by the federally administered National Flood Insurance Program.

Source: The Property Claim Services (PCS) unit of ISO, a Verisk Analytics Company.

View Archived Tables


($ millions)

Estimated insured loss (2)
Rank Date Location Hurricane Dollars when
In 2011
dollars (3)
1 Aug. 25-30, 2005 AL, FL, GA, LA, MS, TN Katrina $41,100 $46,591
2 Aug. 24-26, 1992 FL, LA Andrew 15,500 22,939
3 Sep. 12-14, 2008 AR, IL, IN, KY, LA, MO, OH, PA, TX Ike 12,500 13,050
4 Oct. 24, 2005 FL Wilma 10,300 11,676
5 Aug. 13-14, 2004 FL, NC, SC Charley 7,475 8,755
6 Sep. 15-21, 2004 AL, DE, FL, GA, LA, MD, MS, NJ, NY, NC,
Ivan 7,110 8,328
7 Sep. 17-22, 1989 GA, NC, PR, SC, VA, U.S. Virgin Islands Hugo 4,195 6,835
8 Sep. 20-26, 2005 AL, AR, FL, LA, MS, TN, TX Rita 5,627 6,379
9 Sep. 3-9, 2004 FL, GA, NY, NC, SC Frances 4,595 5,382
10 Aug. 26-28, 2011 CT, DC, DE, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VA, VT Irene 4,300 4,300

(1) Includes hurricanes occurring through 2011.
(2) Property coverage only. Does not include flood damage covered by the federally administered National Flood Insurance Program.
(3) Adjusted for inflation through 2011 by ISO using the GDP implicit price deflator.

Source: The Property Claim Services (PCS) unit of ISO, a Verisk Analytics company.


($ millions)

Estimated insured loss
Rank Date Location Dollars when occurred In 2011 dollars (2)
1 Oct. 20-21, 1991 Oakland Fire, CA $1,700 $2,576
2 Oct. 21-24, 2007 Witch Fire, CA 1,300 1,387
3 Oct. 25-Nov. 4, 2003 Cedar Fire, CA 1,060 1,276
4 Oct. 25-Nov. 3, 2003 Old Fire, CA 975 1,174
5 Nov. 2-3, 1993 Los Angeles County Fire, CA 375 543
6 Sep. 4-9, 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire, TX 530 530
7 Oct. 27-28, 1993 Orange County Fire, CA 350 507
8 Jun. 27-Jul. 2, 1990 Santa Barbara Fire, CA 265 416
9 Sep. 6-13, 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire, CO 210 214
10 May 10-16, 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, NM 140 179

(1) Property coverage only for catastrophic fires. Effective January 1, 1997, ISO’s Property Claim Services (PCS) unit defines catastrophes as events that cause more than $25 million in insured property damage and that affect a significant number of insureds and insurers. From 1982 to 1996, PCS used a $5 million threshold in defining catastrophes. Before 1982, PCS used a $1 million threshold.
(2) Adjusted for inflation through 2011 by ISO using the GDP implicit price deflator.

Source: The Property Claim Services (PCS) unit of ISO, a Verisk Analytics company.

View Archived Tables


Rank State Number of fires Rank State Number of acres burned
1 Georgia 8,387 1 Texas 2,722,623
2 California 7,989 2 New Mexico 1,286,487
3 North Carolina 5,279 3 Arizona 1,016,428
4 Florida 5,102 4 Nevada 424,170
5 Texas 3,470 5 Idaho 384,103
6 Louisiana 3,079 6 Florida 299,991
7 Alabama 3,073 7 Oklahoma 293,381
8 Missouri 2,732 8 Alaska 293,018
9 South Carolina 2,703 9 Oregon 285,712
10 Arkansas 2,627 10 Montana 168,010

Source: National Interagency Fire Center.


The insurance industry tracks catastrophes to monitor claim costs, assigning a number to each catastrophe. Each claim arising from the event is tagged so that total industrywide losses can be tabulated. The term catastrophe is often used in the property insurance industry in a narrow way to mean a catastrophic event that exceeds a dollar threshold in claims payouts. This figure has changed over the years with inflation and the increase in development of areas subject to natural disasters. Starting in 1997 the catastrophe definition was raised from $5 million to $25 million in insured damage.

While $25 million is a large figure to most people, there have been four catastrophes that fall into the megacatastrophe category, greatly exceeding that amount. The first two, Hurricane Andrew (1992) and the Northridge earthquake (1994), were both watershed events in that they were far more destructive than most experts had predicted a disaster of this type would be. The third, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, altered insurers’ attitudes about man-made risks worldwide. Hurricane Katrina (2005), the fourth catastrophe, is not only the most expensive natural disaster on record but also an event that intensified discussion nationwide about the way disasters, natural and man-made, are managed. It also focused attention on the federal flood insurance program, see report on Flood Insurance.

Hurricane Andrew: Hurricane Andrew, which hit the Bahamas and Southern Florida August 23-24, 1992, and then moved across the Gulf of Mexico to strike portions of Louisiana and other southeastern states on August 25-26, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history before Hurricane Katrina. With peak wind gusts of almost 200 mph, the hurricane flattened whole communities, leaving in its wake a wasteland of debris. Eleven property/casualty insurers became insolvent due to Hurricane Andrew (10 in Florida and one in Louisiana) and others were financially impaired. Some of the state’s largest homeowners insurance companies had to be rescued by their parent companies and others had to dig deep into their surplus to pay Hurricane Andrew claims. Allstate, for example, paid out $1.9 billion, $500 million more than it had made in profits from its Florida operations from all types of insurance and investment income on those funds over the 53 years it had been in business. In total there were 680,239 claims, including 161,400 for damage to automobiles.

The Northridge Earthquake: The Northridge earthquake measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. It jolted the San Fernando Valley, 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on January 17, 1994, causing more than 60 deaths and 12,000 injuries and destroying some 8,000 homes. More than 114,000 buildings were damaged and some 430,000 claims were filed. In both natural disasters, Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake, homeowners accounted for the bulk of claims and claim dollars.

The Destruction of the World Trade Center:
The World Trade Center disaster impacted many kinds of insurance companies, particularly commercial lines companies. Claims were also filed with life insurance companies as well as personal lines insurers. The number of people known to have died as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center complex has been officially set at 2,976. More than 35,000 claims were filed in New York State alone, according to the New York Department of Insurance. Broken down by type, two-thirds were commercial claims and one third personal, mostly property claims. Lost income and extra expense claims for the cost of getting the business back on track, part of property insurance, represented more than one quarter of the dollars paid out. More than 5,600 workers compensation claims were filed. Other claims were paid by insurance companies to businesses that suffered indirect losses in other parts of the country. These were not reported to the New York Insurance Department.

Other large U.S. man-made disaster losses in the last two decades include those stemming from the Los Angeles riots in 1992, at $775 million, and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, at $510 million, see charts above.

Hurricane Katrina: Katrina, the storm that most affected attitudes about managing natural disaster risk, made landfall first in Florida on August 25, 2005 as a Category 1 storm, then gathered strength as it crossed the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately hitting Louisiana on August 29 as a strong Category 3 storm. The hurricane generated more than 1.7 million claims, more than half of the total in Louisiana. The bulk of the claims, 1.2 million, were for personal property. There were 346,000 claims for damaged vehicles and some 156,000 commercial claims. Claims payments to businesses accounted for half of the $41.1 billion bill for insured losses when the hurricane occurred.

Katrina left more devastation and a higher reconstruction bill in its wake than any previous storm, in part because of extensive commercial and residential development along the Gulf Coast; the record breaking storm surge, reported to be as high as 29 feet in some areas; and the concentration of energy related and other high value businesses in its path. Katrina’s hurricane force winds at landfall covered a wide area, extending for 250 miles, twice as far as Hurricane Andrew. Because the damage was so severe and widespread, the demand for materials and skilled labor quickly exceeded the readily available supply, pushing up construction prices and hence the cost of property insurance claims.

The 2005 hurricane season exposed many weaknesses in the nation’s preparedness for megadisasters. For example, many people in flood zones had failed to buy flood insurance, see report on flood insurance, and many communities in harm’s way did not have or had not enforced strong building codes, which would have reduced the amount of wind damage. In addition, the disasters drew attention to the need to reconsider land use patterns in areas most vulnerable to storm damage. And as has happened after other major disasters, many small businesses that suffered damage from the storms failed to reopen, in part because they hadn’t bought business income (also known as business interruption) and extra expense insurance which would have helped cover income lost when the business was shut down and the expense of getting back on track after the reconstruction period.

Hurricanes: A hurricane’s winds revolve around a center of low pressure expressed in millibars, or inches of mercury, and the entire system moves slowly. Hurricanes are categorized on the Saffir/Simpson intensity scale, which ranges from 1 to 5, reflecting a hurricane’s wind intensity. Below is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.


Category Sustained wind speed (mph) Wind damage Historical example
1 74-95 Very dangerous winds will produce some damage Hurricane Dolly, 2008, South Padre Island, Texas
2 96-110 Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage Hurricane Frances, 2004, Port St. Lucie, Florida
3 111-129 Devastating damage will occur Hurricane Ivan, 2004, Gulf Shores, Alabama
4 130-156 Catastrophic damage will occur Hurricane Charley, 2004, Punta Gorda, Florida
5 More than 157 Catastrophic damage will occur Hurricane Andrew, 1992, Cutler Ridge, Florida

(1) Modified for the 2012 hurricane season in February 2012.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center.

View Archived Tables
A windstorm becomes a tropical storm when average wind speeds reach 39 mph. The hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, but the height of the season is from mid-August to mid-October.

The number and severity of hurricanes seems to run in cycles. Experts now think these cycles are influenced by what is known as the Tropical Multi-Decadal System. Since 1995 conditions have been favorable for increased hurricane activity, as they were during another active period, 1950-1970. Three climatic factors are thought to influence the development of hurricanes. First, during an active period the amount of rainfall during the monsoon season in the Sahel region of West Africa just below the Sahara Desert is higher than average, and rainfall is lower than average over the Amazon basin, creating favorable conditions for winds associated with the development of hurricanes. Second, sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are very warm. Third, La Nina causes lower than average sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. Between 1947 and 1969, a rainy period in the Sahel, 17 major hurricanes (Category 3 or greater) struck the East Coast of the United States, compared with 10 between 1970 and 1991, when the Sahel was experiencing a drought.

New research suggests that the degree of hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin is not a proxy for the number of storms that are going to make landfall along the U.S. coastline. According to researchers at AIR Worldwide, the probability of landfall is linked most closely to a storm’s genesis, or where it forms, rather than the number of tropical storms in the Atlantic. Genesis patterns change from year to year. The key to understanding why in some years the number of storms making landfall in the United States is high and in others it is low is to compare long-term genesis and storm tracking patterns, the AIR study notes.

Florida is the state most vulnerable to hurricanes. Reliable records on hurricanes only go back to the 1870s. Sketchy accounts of earlier disasters exist in ship’s logs and journals. Now, geologists, supported in part by insurers, hope to add to the written record by examining sediments at the bottom of coastal lakes and marshes. During a hurricane, sand and shell debris get swept into these waters. Research so far suggests that between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, there were five or six Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Florida panhandle.

Data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the 30 most powerful storms over the period 1900 to 1996 show that more than 40 percent of the damage they caused occurred in southeast Florida. Of the 158 hurricanes that hit the United States, 47 hit Florida and 26 of those struck the Southeast Florida coast.

Recently, computer simulation models have been developed that can mesh long-term disaster information with current demographic data to produce potential claims losses for any given geographical location under various scenarios. This information allows insurers to better differentiate between high- and low-risk areas in states such as Florida, where formerly, in times of less sophisticated risk delineation, the entire state may have been considered high risk. In addition, computer programs designed to help underwriters evaluate a building’s potential damage from windstorms allow insurers to price industrial property insurance coverages more accurately. The ability to generate such information has also led insurers to reassess their business strategies.

But quality and type of building construction are not the only factors that influence the extent of damage a windstorm can cause. Others include the number and type of trees in an area and the type of soil, both of which affect the potential for losses due to falling trees. Soft woods, such as pine, tend to have shallow roots so that they are more easily uprooted than hard woods like oak, particularly in places with sandy soil. Storm surges will cause more damage where the developed land is close to sea level rather than elevated.

Coastal Development: The population along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts grew from 47 million in 1960 to 87 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the number of housing units grew from 16 million to 36 million during this time. The increase was greatest along the Gulf Coast, at 246 percent, followed by 130 percent along the Pacific and 98 percent along the Atlantic. The Gulf Coast was home to six of the eight fastest growing counties over the period and included six of the 11 coastline counties most frequently hit by hurricanes during that time.

While the level of growth in coastal counties was similar to the rest of the nation, the limited space for development in those areas results in greater population density, with coastal counties twice as densely populated on average as non-coastal counties. Excluding Alaska, the average density of coastline counties increased from 260 people per square mile in 1960 to 480 in 2008, putting an increasing number of households at risk from damaging storms.

Exposure to windstorms and high property values combine to make Florida the state with the highest potential for losses and New York’s Long Island the second highest. A 2007 study by AIR Worldwide put the value of insured coastal property in hurricane-prone states—states bordering on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico—at $8.89 trillion. The value of residential and commercial coastal property in Florida alone was almost $2.46 trillion. This represented 79 percent of the state’s total insured property values. In New York it was $2.38 trillion, representing 62 percent of the total. Other states where insured coastal property values exceeded 50 percent of the state’s total are Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts.

The growth and concentration of property values in hurricane-prone areas has pushed to the forefront of public policy debates the issue of coastal development and hidden insurance subsidies. Subsidies exist in various aspects of the property insurance transaction.

First, they exist where rates for property insurance are no longer commensurate with risk because it is politically unpalatable to raise rates to actuarially justified levels.

Second, there are subsidies in the pooling arrangements that were set up to make sure people living along the coast can obtain property insurance. When these pools have insufficient funds to pay claims, the shortfall may be picked up by insurance companies, which may then pass the cost on to all property insurance policyholders in the state through explicit policy surcharges, as in Florida, or indirectly in the form of higher property insurance rates.

Third, the federal flood insurance program has paid out millions of dollars to rebuild structures in high-risk zones known as repetitive loss properties, where the cost of claims over the years may have totaled much more than the home was worth. This has contributed to the program’s deficit and to continued building in high-risk areas.

Catastrophe Deductibles: After Hurricane Andrew, with computer-based models of storms, coastal development patterns and increasing values all indicating how vulnerable insurers were to large weather-related losses, homeowners insurers had difficulty finding the reinsurance coverage they needed to protect their own bottom line. Many homeowners insurers couldn’t obtain reinsurance coverage unless they agreed to greatly reduce their potential maximum losses from such events through higher deductibles. These deductibles exist in regions prone to hail as well as hurricane damage. They are generally equal to a percentage of the structure’s insured value as opposed to a straight dollar amount, such as $1,000. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have what have become known as hurricane deductibles.

Percentage deductibles for windstorm losses, which may be mandatory in some coastal areas of a state, vary from 1 percent of the home’s insured value to 15 percent, depending on many factors that differ from state to state, and sometimes from insurer to insurer, including the home’s insured value and the “trigger,” the nature of the event to which the deductible applies. In some states or portions of a state, policyholders have a “buy back” option — paying a higher premium in return for a traditional dollar rather than percentage deductible. The percentage deductibles may apply to the entire state or just part of it (see Hurricane and Windstorm Deductibles paper).

For hail damage, in addition to instituting percentage of limits deductibles, some insurers in some states are providing coverage for roofs on a depreciated (actual cash value) basis, rather than replacing a damaged roof with a new one. Some are offering a discount for hail- resistant roofs or imposing a surcharge for roofs that are not hail resistant to encourage people to replace old roofs with new, less damageable ones.

Earthquakes: On the West Coast, earthquakes represent the greatest threat. Statistics show that since 1900, earthquakes have occurred in 39 states and have caused damage in all 50. About 5,000 quakes can be felt each year, with some 400 capable of causing damage to the interior of buildings and 20 capable of causing structural damage. A repetition of the 1906 San Francisco (7.8 in magnitude) could cause as much as $100 billion in insured damage. However, a major earthquake on the East Coast, though more unlikely, could cause much greater damage. Because earthquakes in the eastern part of the country tend to be thrust-fault quakes, which produce an up-and-down motion rather than the horizontal side-to-side common in California, damage could be 10 times greater, according to seismic experts. The degree of damage also depends on other variables such as the structure of the building and soil conditions (see Earthquakes: Risk and Insurance Issues paper).

California insurers collected only $3.4 billion in earthquake premiums in the 25-year period prior to the Northridge earthquake and paid out more than $15.3 billion on Northridge claims alone. After the Northridge earthquake, insurers were reluctant to offer homeowners insurance because they feared additional earthquake exposure could potentially bankrupt them. In response to this crisis in the homeowners insurance market, in 1995 California lawmakers passed a two-part bill that allowed insurers to offer a new earthquake policy with a maximum deductible of 15 percent and created a privately funded, state-run earthquake pool.

Earthquake Insurance: Insurers doing business in California must offer earthquake insurance to their homeowners insurance policyholders, either a policy from the California Earthquake Authority (CEA) or, if they do not participate in the pool, a policy that they underwrite. Several dozen companies now write earthquake insurance in California in addition to the CEA. The CEA became operational in December 1996, with a $10.5 billion funding package. The CEA could now pay claims caused by a quake more than twice as destructive as Northridge since with each passing earthquake-free year, its claims paying ability increases. Passage of the CEA legislation opened up the homeowners market (see Earthquake paper). More recently, the CEA created a supplementary policy to broaden coverage. Nevertheless, only a small portion of the state’s property owners buy earthquake insurance and the percentage appears to grow smaller as the time span since the last major quake increases.

Tornadoes: Each year, about 1,200 tornadoes with gusts of wind as high as 200 mph touch down in the United States. Tornado intensity is measured by the Fujita scale, which runs from 0 through 5, the most damaging, based on the maximum speed of three-second wind gusts and the potential for damage. The scale incorporates 28 different damage indicators based on damage to a wide variety of structures from shopping malls to trees. Though generally not as costly in terms of insured values as hurricanes because they strike a more limited geographic area, tornadoes are more frequent. They can cause severe damage and, particularly before the advent of tornado warnings, many deaths. In the decade 1965-1974 they were responsible for an average of 141 deaths each year, compared with 107 in the 10 years 2002-2011. This average was pushed up by the unusually high number of deaths in 2011 (550).

The peak of the tornado season is April through June or July. Spring tornadoes tend to be more severe and strike the Southeast, which is more densely populated than the Great Plains, thus causing more deaths than those in the summer months. In addition, the South has more mobile homes than other regions. Mobile homes are vulnerable to tornado damage.

Since 1990 the number of tornadoes has generally exceeded 1,000 a year. In the three preceding decades, the only year in which there were more than 1,000 tornadoes was 1973, when 1,102 were reported. This increase may reflect greater ability to detect tornadoes.

Wildland Fires: Fire plays an important role in the life of a forest, clearing away dead wood and undergrowth to make way for younger trees. But for much of the last century, fire-suppression policies focused on extinguishing wildfires as quickly as possible to preserve timber and, increasingly, real estate. These policies have led to the accumulation of brush and other vegetation that is easily ignited and serves as fuel for wildfires. In an effort to reduce the incidence of wildfires, increasingly fire officials are promoting “prescribed burns” to eliminate the accumulated debris. In recent years, most of the large fires with significant property damage have occurred in California, where some of the fastest developing counties are in forested areas. However, wildfires are a growing threat in other states, particularly when there is a drought, as more homes are built in woodland areas that were once wild.

The year 2006 set a national record both in the number of forest fires and their size. A total of 96,385 fires were reported and 9.9 million acres of forest and woodland burned, a 125 percent increase over the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Fifty percent of the fires occurred in the southern section which stretches from Texas to Georgia. Over the past decade, the number of acres burned has increased as drought, record-setting heat and the build-up of dead trees and undergrowth together with residential development have combined to heighten the risk of fire. According to a University of Wisconsin study, in the West more than 8.6 million new homes have been built within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982.

A scientific study published in the September 4, 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the role houses play in the spread of wildfires. It found that making entire neighborhoods of homes fire resistant slows down the spread of fire. The likelihood of fires spreading from one site to another is dictated in large part by the amount and proximity of fuel—flammable materials such as dry undergrowth, trees that burn easily and unprotected wooden structures. When houses are not fire resistant, they add greatly to the fuel load and potential for the fire spreading because they quickly burn down to the ground. When homes are fire resistant, not only are they less likely to burn but they also act as a fire break, reducing the ultimate size of the fire and enabling it to be brought under control more easily. The Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a group supported by the insurance industry, is conducting research into how construction, building components, landscaping practices and homeowner behavior play a role in the spread of wildfires, using data from insurance companies that insured structures in the “burn zone,” regardless of whether or not they sustained damage.

Fire damage is covered under a homeowners insurance policy whatever the cause of the fire, unless the person insured under the policy commits arson by intentionally setting fire to the structure. As a result of the greater potential for fire losses where homes are built on mountainous and forested sites, insurers are increasingly requiring homeowners whose property is at risk to take precautions to slow the spread of fire. Such measures include installing fire-resistant roofs and creating a “defensible zone” around the home by removing debris, overhanging tree branches and other items located close to the building that can become fuel for a fire.

Reinsurance: Just as individuals and businesses buy insurance to protect their assets, primary insurers, the companies that sell insurance to consumers, buy reinsurance to protect their bottom line. Reinsurance is sold in layers, reaching up into the millions of dollars to protect insurance companies from possible, but statistically highly unlikely events, such as a $100 million court award or an extraordinary number of homeowners claims as a result of a hurricane or a fast-spreading brush fire.

Retentions and coinsurance, through which insurers share the risk at various levels with their reinsurers, as well as coverage amounts have increased dramatically over the past decade. It is now patently evident that the cost of catastrophes, both natural and man-made, can be in the tens of billions of dollars. Hurricane Katrina cost more than $40 billion but a hurricane hit to Miami or a major terrorist attack could cost much more.

Before September 11, terrorist coverage was provided to commercial policyholders essentially without charge because the risk of an attack was considered remote. Immediately following the disaster, reinsurers said they would no longer offer terrorist coverage to the insurance companies they reinsure because they could not price this unprecedented risk. Legislation that made the federal government the reinsurer of last resort for major terrorist attacks was passed by Congress in November 2002 and extended in 2005 for two more years, making it easier for insurers to calculate maximum losses and therefore to underwrite the coverage (see paper on Terrorism Risk and Insurance). The program was reauthorized by Congress at the end of 2007 for another seven years.

The shortage of catastrophe reinsurance capacity in the United States following Hurricane Andrew, particularly for large national insurance companies, also prompted insurers, reinsurers, investment banks and others to look for new ways to spread the risk of natural disasters (see Reinsurance paper). Increasingly, the capital markets are being seen as a large resource that can be tapped to cover claims at the higher levels (after reinsurance has been exhausted) where there is a low probability of loss. The advantage to investors is diversification. Catastrophe losses are unrelated to the usual speculative risks, which are generally economic. While the number of transactions involving the capital markets is still relatively small, some observers expect catastrophe risk to be securitized and made available to investors on a regular basis.

Pricing: The price of an insurance policy reflects the costs of paying claims covered by that policy, as well as an insurance company’s costs for such items as reinsurance. Not surprisingly, reinsurance costs as well as direct claims costs are lower where the risk is low. For example, if a community has a good fire department and ready access to water to extinguish fires, serious fires in that community will likely be fewer than in similar communities that lack a good fire department. The same principle applies to windstorms: premiums will reflect the normal level of windstorm claims in a given community.

How does the insurance industry deal with extraordinary costs such as the $40.6 billion in insured losses for Hurricane Katrina? Prior to Hurricane Andrew, insurance companies accounted for hurricanes and other catastrophes with a special premium amount known as a “catastrophe loading” to spread the risk over a period spanning 30 to 40 years. Sometimes they used data from several states subject to the same kind of catastrophes to develop the average annual cost of catastrophes. However, since the mid-1990s more sophisticated computer modeling techniques have become available. Insurers now base their rates, in part, on sophisticated computer models that combine meteorological data with their own exposure data. The meteorological data show the probability of a natural disaster occurring in a particular geographical area and the exposure data indicate how many of the company’s policyholders are likely to be affected and to what extent, i.e., what the insurer’s potential losses from that event are likely to be. Models can also assess the losses a specific company or building might sustain in a terrorist attack.

Special Catastrophe Programs: One example of a special catastrophe program is the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF), the first regional insurance fund, which provides hurricane and earthquake catastrophe coverage to its 16 member nations.

In 2004 hurricanes severely damaged the economy of several small Caribbean islands, causing losses in excess of $4 billion. This prompted Caribbean governments to request the help of the World Bank in facilitating access to catastrophe insurance. The CCRIF started operations in June 2007, after two years of planning.

The CCRIF acts as a mutual insurance company, allowing member nations to combine their risks into a diversified portfolio and purchase reinsurance or other risk transfer products on the international financial markets at a saving of up to 50 percent over what it would cost each country if they purchased catastrophe protection individually. In addition, since a hurricane or earthquake only affects one to three countries in the Caribbean on average in any given year, each country contributes less to the reserve pool than would be required if each had its own reserves.

The CCRIF was initially capitalized by its members with help from donor partners—developed countries, the World Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank. Its members pay premiums based on their probable use of the pool’s funds. As countries raise building standards to provide better protection against disasters, premiums will decrease.

Because the CCRIF uses what has become known as parametric insurance to calculate claim payments, claims are paid quickly. Under a parametric system, claim payments are triggered by the occurrence of a specific event that can be objectively verified, such as a hurricane reaching a certain wind speed or an earthquake reaching a certain ground shaking threshold, rather than by actual losses measured by an adjuster, a process that can take months to complete. Payout amounts are derived from models that estimate the financial impact of the disaster. As a form of deductible that encourages risk mitigation, participating governments are only allowed to purchase coverage for up to 20 percent of their estimated losses, an amount believed to be sufficient to cover initial needs. In the United States, the first parametric model was sold to the Alabama Insurance Underwriting Association, the state’s wind pool, in 2010.

Building Code Enforcement and Other Damage Mitigation Measures: In the mid-1980s, a study of the damage caused by Hurricanes Alicia (1983) and Diana (1984), two storms of roughly equal size and intensity, found that the level of building code enforcement affected the cost of claims. Hurricane Alicia hit Texas, causing $675 million in insured damage, of which close to 70 percent was attributed to poor code enforcement. By contrast, Hurricane Diana hit North Carolina, where codes were effectively enforced. Researchers found that only 3 percent of homes in that state suffered major structural damage as result of the hurricane. (Insured losses for North and South Carolina totaled $36 million.) This research and a similar assessment of losses in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo prompted the National Committee on Property Insurance, now the Tampa-based Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) see below, to study coastal municipal building code departments in southern states. Researchers found that building officials and inspectors in about half of the communities surveyed were not enforcing the building code wind-resistance standards on their books.

In South Florida, which has one of the strongest building codes in the country, experts estimated that between 25 and 40 percent of Hurricane Andrew losses were avoidable. A Dade County, Florida, grand jury report issued in December 1992 confirmed that much of the damage was due to lax code enforcement, warning that it was a long-standing problem in the state and that the quality of rebuilding in the hurricane devastated area might be even lower.

As a result, the insurance industry began to develop a building code compliance rating system, similar to its fire protection rating system, which dates back to 1916. Under the fire protection classification program, each local fire department’s firefighting capability is ranked according to various factors, such as water supply and whether its firefighters are fulltime paid employees or volunteers. The final ranking is incorporated into the property insurance premium rate structure. The building code enforcement ranking process takes into account such things as the size of the building code enforcement budget relative to the amount of building activity, the professional qualifications of building inspectors and past code enforcement levels, with special emphasis on mitigating losses due to natural disasters. Insurers can now offer discounts on property insurance for new construction in communities that enforce accepted building codes. Communities are regraded for building code enforcement every five years.

Through the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IHBS), insurers are sponsoring building construction that better withstands natural disasters. Named “Fortified…for Safer Living,” the program specifies construction, design and landscaping guidelines for homes (and eventually businesses) in areas subject to windstorms, hailstorms and earthquakes. The current program applies to homes now being built. There is also a retrofitting program for existing structures. The aim is to have a fortified model home in every county in Florida and then at least one in every state. In Florida, such houses cost from 4 to 9 percent more to build. Surveys show that on average people are prepared to pay up to 6 percent more for a disaster resistant dwelling.

The concept behind this program is twofold: to keep the structure intact and to protect those inside from outside debris, which turns into dangerous missiles in a storm. The more secure the structure, the less storm-generated debris there will be. Some states are initiating programs to help consumers “fortify” their homes themselves, sometimes requiring insurers to offer homeowners insurance discounts for improvements. Efforts to reduce catastrophe damage are not confined to hurricane-prone regions. Homes in areas vulnerable to other types of catastrophes can be protected also and even if discounts are not offered, hail and wildfire-resistant roofs and measures taken to reduce earthquake-related damage make structures in high-risk areas more readily insurable, and because there is generally less damage, lessen the frustrations involved in getting back on track after a disaster.

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