In 2011 — for the first time in many years — the cumulative insured catastrophe losses from wind and thunderstorm events (including tornadoes) surpassed the cumulative catastrophe losses from hurricanes, according to PCS estimates. (PCS data goes back to 1950 and includes insured losses from events meeting the PCS definition of a catastrophe at the time. We have not adjusted the data for inflation.)
The almost unprecedented number of tornadoes inflicting damage across the country in 2011 caused the shift.
Since 1950, PCS has declared more than 1,250 wind and thunderstorm catastrophes. In the same period, we’ve declared fewer than 90 hurricane catastrophes. Yet for decades, hurricanes got the headlines and caused more insured losses than tornadoes and thunderstorms. Last year, all that changed. The cumulative total catastrophe loss from wind and thunderstorm events since 1950 passed the cumulative total catastrophe loss from hurricanes — by more than $3 billion.
The insured catastrophe loss estimated by PCS for the United States in 2011 totaled almost $34 billion, the second greatest annual loss since 2000. The largest loss of the decade came in 2005, when insurers faced Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
Much of the 2011 catastrophe discussion centered on tornadoes, including such significant events as the storms in and around Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri. However, the United States recorded almost 1,700 tornadoes from January to December last year — 22 percent above the previous three-year average, 32 percent more than the 2010 total, and 48 percent more than the 2009 result.
The number of tornado-related fatalities recorded also rose sharply in 2011. According to official records, 553 people died last year from injuries suffered in tornadoes — 12 times more than in 2010. In April 2011, 360 people lost their lives, and another 178 died in May.
The insurance industry’s conversation about tornadoes has continued into 2012. The unofficial count of tornadoes through the end of May was 740, nearly half of last year’s total. (The National Weather Service will refine that number in the weeks ahead.) The current tornado count includes 233 tornadoes in April and 122 in May. (Again, these are unofficial numbers.) Those estimates pale in comparison, though, to the official count from last year of 758 in April and 326 in May. The death toll so far this year is reported as 63 — also far below last year’s tally.
But remember this: There’s a long way to go in 2012, and June is often a very active tornado month.