Why Insurers May Be Unprepared for the Next Big Storm

Out of the blue: a New Jersey home damaged by Superstorm Sandy
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Out of the blue: a New Jersey home damaged by Superstorm Sandy

Hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, wildfires ... extreme weather is threatening to take bigger chunks out of insurance companies and yet the industry, in the eyes of experts and consumer advocates, isn't making any preparations ... other than raising rates.

"I can't think of another industry that's more directly affected by the weather changes," said Professor Anant Sundaram of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "They need to get out in front of this. It comes down to more than just raising premiums on customers. It's being pro-active and thinking ahead."

Eleven extreme weather events each caused at least a billion dollars in losses last year in the United States. Loss estimates for Hurricane Sandy alone are at $50 billion, of which insurance company damage payouts are said to be close to $20 billion.

Insurers acknowledge that extreme weather or climate change has become the new normal. But a new survey says that many firms are not prepared for future super storms that could affect their industry, while homeowners and businesses suffer raising premium rates.

According to an industry wide report from Ceres, a non-profit group that works toward better business practices, only 23 of 184 U.S. insurance companies have comprehensive climate change strategies that could help mitigate the damaging costs from extreme weather to the industry and consumers. (Read More: World's Best Places to Live)

"Insurers are starting to think about climate change from their losses but I'm not sure they realize how much of a financial threat it is to them," said Peyton Fleming, a spokesman for Ceres.

"Without insurance, the economy can't really function," Fleming said. "Insurers need to be prepared instead of depending on rate hikes to customers to handle losses."

Fleming said Ceres advocates that insurance companies do more when it comes to working with states and cities on stronger building codes in earthquake zones, construction of sea walls along coastal areas, or possible limits on building along ocean and river shores, as well as develop models for catastrophic weather events and prepare financial strategies to handle those events.

"I don't think U.S. insurance companies are prepared enough for severe weather conditions going forward," agreed professor Sundaram, who studies the impact of climate change on companies.

"Consumers end up in the middle of this with higher premium rates for homeowners insurance," said Sundaram. "Insurance companies are in the business of making a profit and have to cover their losses but if we want insurance we have to continually pay more for coverage as a result of these severe weather events."

Jay Fishman, the CEO of insurance giant Travelers, admitted on CNBC last month that his firm has been raising premiums by six percent on customers for the past three years because of recent weather patterns.

"We've embraced the notion that weather is different. I don't know why," said Fishman. "If you're not impressed with what the weather has been doing over the past few years, you're not keeping your eyes open."

The average homeowner paid $791 a year for insurance in 2008. That rose to $799 in 2009, $807 in 2010 and $811 in 2011. Getting hurricane or flood damage is not usually available from private insurers and has to be mostly purchased from the government at a cost average of $500 — on top of the other premiums.

Insured losses in the U.S. in the first half of 2011 were $17.8 billion, more than the $13.6 billion insurers paid in all of 2010, according to reports.

A few companies took enough losses they either had to scale back their exposure or became insolvent. Alfa Insurance, the second-largest home insurer in Alabama, announced in June of last year that it would send non-renewal notices to 73,000 homeowners in the following 16 months.

The late April outbreak of 300 tornadoes across the South — especially in Alabama — was the costliest storm in Alfa's history, the company reported

Industry advocates contend that insurance firms are doing more than just raising rates.

"There's no question that U.S. property and casualty companies are prepared," said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. "We've been been looking at this problem of weather changes for decades. We use the best scientific approach to look at risks in areas that have fires and floods and plan accordingly."

Hartwig says the half-trillion dollar a year industry is in strong condition to weather any financial storm.

"Even as we've had record numbers of claims, the industry is also making good profits," said Hartwig.

Hartwig admits that the price of severe weather has not escaped either the consumer or the industry.

"The average cost for homeowner claims from changing weather conditions has tripled between 1997 and 2011," Hartwig said. "It went from $2,500 to $7,500. With the frequency of events like Hurricane Sandy everyone's costs have risen."

One analyst says insurers are doing all they can. (Read More: Ten Most Expensive Hurricanes in U.S. History)

"Insurance companies do plan for rainy days and have some catastrophic coverage built in," said Jack Taylor, a professor of retailing at Birmingham-Southern College. "While these events may be devastating, it won't or shouldn't destroy any insurance company."

For Sundaram, U.S. insurance firms come in a distant second to their European counterparts on preparing for severe weather in the future.

"I think European insurers are better at trying to do more risk analysis and working on a local level with cities on building codes and and in general or more worried about severe weather," Sundaram said.

Sundaram points to reinsurance giant Swiss Re which recently held a forum on global risks including deforestation, air pollution, loss of bio-diversity and climate change and what can be done about them. (Reinsurance is insurance purchased from other insurance firms.)

"I don't know if it's political or a lack of interest but I honestly don't see U.S. insurance companies doing that," Sundaram argued.

"They have a longer history of insurance in Europe than we do but I think U.S. firms are heading in the right direction when it comes to global issues." said Hartwig. "The U.S industry is very active in urging people to take steps to mitigate the effects of severe weather like better building codes."

"At the end of the day, insurance companies don't control land use and zoning policies in the U.S. so we can't dictate policy," Hartwig said.

As for homeowners and building owners, industry experts say to keep their premiums from rising too high, they should look to discounts from items like hurricane shutters, anchoring a home to its foundation, or installation of wind resistant windows and doors— if their insurance company offers them.

"Most premium hikes are based on what happens in your area and it seems this severe weather is hitting all across the U.S. and will for some time," said Hartwig.

2012 was the warmest year on record in the U.S. and the second most extreme weather year in U.S. history. The outlook for 2013 may not be better. Some 40 percent of the U.S. is still in a drought and forecasts for the upcoming hurricane season are above normal with some 15 storms predicted with four of them major hurricanes.

If U.S. insurance firms are not prepared going forward when it comes to planing how do deal with severe weather, they do so at their own risk, said Sundaram. (Read More: Scenes From Hurricane Sandy)