United States Sees Record Number of Disaster Declarations in 2011

The federal government has already issued a record 86 disaster declarations this year, and with three months left in 2011 and hurricane season in full swing, insurance industry experts say that total could climb substantially higher.

“The number of U.S. disaster declarations has been trending sharply upward, particularly over the past 15 years,” Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute (III), said in a statement.

The federal government makes the declarations in order to free up funding for emergency recovery efforts in regions hit by catastrophic events such as Hurricane Irene and the recent wildfires in Texas. The highest number of disaster declarations before this year was the 81 issued in 2010, which was more than twice the average of 34 per year between 1953 and last year, according to III.

“We’re likely to see nearly three times that many by year-end,” said Hartwig, who attributed the increase to both a rise in the number of catastrophes and a greater propensity on the part of federal officials to declare disasters.

This week, state and federal leaders in New York announced that three more counties in that state are eligible for disaster assistance in the wake of flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, which struck around Labor Day.

And on Sept. 30, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that parts of Delaware flooded after Hurricane Irene now qualify for disaster aid.

Tornadoes, floods and other severe weather during the first six months of the year caused an estimated $27 billion in damages nationwide, according to III. And those figures do not include losses inflicted by Hurricane Irene and other more recent catastrophes.

According to Hartwig, auto, home and business insurers paid out nearly $25 billion in catastrophe claims through the first nine months of the year.  Damage claims filed by Georgia car insurance policyholders, New Jersey homeowners and insured residents of other states hit hard by natural disasters so far this year have already made 2011 among the costliest years on record for insured catastrophe claim payouts, III reports.

The III estimates add to expanding efforts to quantify the extent of recent catastrophic losses.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported last month that domestic weather catastrophes brought more than $35 billion in economic costs, even before Irene and other disasters.

Losses from Irene alone could be as high as $5 billion, Hartwig and other experts have predicted, and some risk modelers have projected the damages could hit $6 billion.

The insurance industry typically categorizes as catastrophes those events that cause $25 million or more in insured property losses and impact large number of policyholders and coverage providers.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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