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Tornadoes add to catastrophic year for insurers

Debris surrounds a damaged home as a second storm moves in delaying rescue efforts on May 23, 2011 in Joplin, Mo.

Kai Ryssdal: The city manager in Joplin, Mo., said today 116 people are now confirmed dead as a result of the tornado that hit the city this past weekend. The storms were just the latest in a series of extreme weather happenings across the country this year.

And Sarah Gardner reports from the Sustainability Desk that for the insurance industry, that means re-calculating risk. Again.


Sarah Gardner: The world didn't end yesterday as Doomsday believers predicted. But for many Americans, the floods, droughts and tornadoes of 2011 have provided plenty of biblical-sized drama. Many climate scientists see extreme weather as the "new normal." Insurers are thinking about that too.

Sharlene Leurig: I think we're starting to see indications that companies are re-evaluating what normal looks like.

Sharlene Leurig is an insurance expert at CERES, a nonprofit investor coalition. Leurig says the industry's been re-thinking the way it does business since 1992 and Hurricane Andrew. Premiums and deductibles in U.S. coastal areas skyrocketed. Some insurers bailed out of coastal areas altogether.

The nation's heartland seemed safer -- until the last few years, that is. Robert Hartwig is with the Insurance Information Institute.

Robert Hartwig: In fact, the losses from the Midwest and parts of the South that are away from the coasts have been about $10 billion on an annual basis, just from thunderstorm and tornado losses. So it's almost as if the Midwest is the new coast.

Analysts expect insurance premiums will go up in states like Missouri, but insurers won't pull out. Andrew Castaldi at Swiss Re says as population and wealth expands, so do the property risks.

Andrew Castaldi: In the 1950s, you were lucky if each family had one car. In 2011, you know, a family of three can have three cars.

Swiss Re says average annual losses from natural disasters have climbed from $25 billion in the 1980s to more than five times that today.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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