2015's biggest insured disasters

The global insurance industry got off easy in 2015, sort of. While the $37 billion in insured losses from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters was well under the 10-year average of $62 billion, the year saw a record 353 events, according to a report by giant reinsurer Swiss Re.

The year's biggest insured loss came after two explosions rocked the Chinese port of Tianjin, causing between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion in damages. Many vehicles were destroyed by the blast because Tianjin is where automakers ship cars to be sold in the Chinese market. That disaster was the biggest man-made insurance loss ever in Asia and is one of the largest-ever of its kind.

Following Tianjin in Swiss Re's 2015 insured loss rankings was a February winter storm in the U.S. that pummeled 17 states, causing $2.1 billion to $3 billion in losses, mainly property damage such as burst water pipes. Thunderstorms in May caused flooding in Texas that generated $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion in losses. April rains in the U.S. cost insurers $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion. And September's Valley Fire in California, which burned more than 76,000 acres, ranked fifth, generating $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion in claims.

Experts say 2015 was the worst year for wildfires since 1960 and warn that drought conditions persist in parts of the U.S. West this year.

Measured by human deaths, the earthquake that struck Nepal in April was the year's worst catastrophe, killing 9,000 people. Said Swiss Re Chief Economist Kurt Karl: "The earthquake in Nepal struck close to the capital Kathmandu, causing widespread devastation and losses, which were mostly uninsured. Yet again, tragedy has hit an areas where people are least able to protect themselves."

According to Swiss Re, 2015 marked the 10th straight year the U.S. avoided having a major hurricane make landfall. A typical season has 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, and three of which are classified as "major." The El Nino weather pattern, caused by warmer-than-usual Pacific water temperatures, helped keep the Atlantic hurricane count benign, at just four.

Experts advise people not to be lulled into complacency by terms like "benign," noting that storms like 2012's Sandy packed quite a wallop even though technically it wasn't "major." Hurricane Andrew was one of just seven hurricanes in the below-average 1992 season. Unfortunately, it was the most destructive in U.S. history, causing nearly $27 billion in damages.

Swiss Re is now concerned that rising sea levels will worsen the damage from these storms in the future.

"The El Nino that has been persisting and has dampened our hurricane activity in 2015 is expected to wane," said Megan Linkin, a natural hazards expert at Swiss Re, told CBS MoneyWatch. "We can't just assume that just because we haven't seen a major hurricane hit the U.S. coastline in the last 10 years that's going to continue."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center is due to issue its outlook for the 2016 hurricane season in May. People who live in the affected areas need to understand these forecasts have their limits, according to Dennis Feitgen, an NOAA spokesman who also is a meteorologist. Said Feitgen: "While the seasonal outlook does have some skill in providing the overall activity of the season, it should not be used as a guide for preparation."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.