The onslaught of early tornadoes, which cut a wide swath across the Midwest and South, will leave behind more than death and destruction. Higher insurance rates for homes, cars and businesses will surely follow in their wake.
While climatologists and politicians may choose to ignore the reality of global warming, insurers have to contend with it because it hits them where it hurts most -- their profits. The nation's largest home insurer, State Farm, saw 2011 earnings cut in half compared to the previous year, largely due to catastrophes like Hurricane Irene and the Joplin, Mo., tornado.
Not in Kansas anymore
This year is shaping up even worse, perhaps far worse. A double dose of tornadoes recently touched down in a dozen states, demolishing towns and killing at least 39 people. A record-breaking 94 twisters were reported on a single day. Tornadoes used to be commonplace on the Kansas plains; now they ripple across the rolling hills of Tennessee and into coastal states like Virginia.
Another new phenomenon: they're coming earlier. A mild winter with sharply varying temperatures between regions has brought killer storms at the beginning of March, more than a month prior to last year's disasters in April.
'Action is needed now'
Insurance rates are already trending higher. According to insurance broker Marsh, property insurance rates were up an average of 3 percent last year. Allstate boosted homeowners' rates by 8.5 percent and Travelers raised its rates for business customers by 8 percent.
State insurance regulators in this ever-widening tornado alley will attempt to push back, but it's hard to argue against the ravages of a 150-mile-per-hour wind. According to Swiss Reinsurance the average U.S. weather-related insurance loss grew from $3 billion in the 1980s to about $20 billion in the last decade. "A warming climate will only add to this trend of increasing losses, which is why action is needed now," says Mark Way, a Swiss Re expert on climate change.
To rebuild or not to rebuild?
Swiss Re's opinion is important because, ultimately, U.S. insurers have to have insurance too, and they get it from reinsurers like Swiss Re and Munich Re. But these large international companies also suffered in 2011, taking $107 billion in losses, according to broker Aon Benfield.
So chances are that many of those whose homes and schools are flattened won't get the insurance they need to rebuild, or will get it but only at an inflated cost with a big deductible. And, with no real action on the climate-change front, U.S. homeowners will do what they always do: expect the government to step in.
Here's hurricane season
Good luck with that. Our National Flood Insurance Program is drowning in $19 billion of debt. Florida's state-run insurer, which props up its bicoastal properties, has been widely criticized-and both its governor and Legislature are trying desperately to scale it back.
Then there's hurricane season. The ultimate one-two punch of global warming, which feeds off the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, starts in June and lasts six months. A hurricane that slams Miami and then tears across the Sunshine State -- causing an estimated $100 billion of damage borne by both Florida and its insurance companies - would be an insurers' nightmare.