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Business Analysis & Features

Storm season has insurers braced for a buffeting

This weekend marks the start of a period of anxiety which has the Lloyd's of London market worrying about weather forecasts from across the Atlantic

Back in the summer of 2005, Britain's second city was brought to a standstill by one of the most remarkable events in its recent history. England's cricketers had been soundly beaten by Australia in the first test of that year's Ashes and Birmingham was the venue for their next clash. Local hero Ashey Giles was under pressure to perform following a poor showing at Lords and Shane Warne and co were baying for more blood.

What happened over the next few days will forever live in the memories of thousands of Brummies: not England's last-ditch win over their Antipodean rivals, but the freak, 130mph tornado which caused havoc across parts of the city on 28 July, injuring about 30 people and causing £40m worth of damage.

"All of a sudden it got dark, the front door blew open and all the notices blew off the noticeboard," Julia Banner, a care-home worker in Moseley recalled at the time. "The kitchen window was open and all the crockery smashed to the floor. It all happened in just a couple of minutes. There is a tree through a car and trees on houses – it looks like something from a film set."

Birmingham's sufferings were, however, put into perspective later that year by events in the Atlantic region of the globe.

Hurricanes Wilma, Katrina and Rita caused a combined £6.8bn of insured losses and left thousands dead and without homes, most memorably in New Orleans.

The catastrophes served as a reminder of the deadly waiting the area is forced to endure each year – an ordeal that will begin once again tomorrow. 1 June marks the start of the 2013 Atlantic storm season, which runs until November each year.

About 10 named storms form each season with more than half becoming hurricanes and about 20 per cent reaching category level three or greater.

Experts have warned that 2013 could be a particularly active season with seasonal indicators pointing to up to eight hurricanes.

Peter Dailey, a director at risk modelling specialist AIR Worldwide, said: "Our catastrophe models are not meant to forecast the frequency or severity of hurricanes in any particular season. That said, AIR does monitor seasonal predictions made by others and the broad consensus is for an above-average number of named storms and an elevated number of those storms becoming hurricanes.

"These forecasts, in general, are in line with the forecast recently published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which predicts 12 to 18 named storms, of which six to 10 are predicted to become hurricanes."

Once again, the global insurance industry will be hoping for a benign season, having already incurred up to an estimated $3.5bn (£2.3bn) in claims from the Oklahoma tornado earlier this month.

Experts believe that the Lloyd's of London market, where many of the catastrophe losses are absorbed each year, is also well placed to handle an active hurricane season. Last year, the world's largest insurance market reported a £2.77bn pre-tax profit, compared with a £516m loss the year before. The City institution was hit by £10.1bn of claims during the period, including £1.4bn from Superstorm Sandy, which struck the Caribbean and North America last October. This compared to the £12.9bn in claims the market faced in 2011, its costliest year following earthquakes in New Zealand and floods in Thailand.

Charles Gordon, a partner at DLA Piper, claims that it will take an event the size of Katrina to really trouble the industry. "My feeling is that something that big is always going to pose problems for insurers," he said.

"However, even if it's an active season, I think the industry will be fine because it is well capitalised and hurricane risk is often spread across a number of carriers.

"This means that no one insurer or reinsurer would take the full brunt of a hurricane and you are likely to find a huge accumulation of losses.

"One area that could be troublesome in the event of a big hurricane in areas like the US though is business interruption claims. This could spread quite far depending on exactly where it hits."

Reflecting on the forecast for the 2013 season, Mr Dailey argues that "a high level of hurricane activity does not necessarily correlate to an elevated potential for landfall or insured loss".

He added: "No technology exists today which can forecast individual storm tracks a season in advance. There is some evidence that warmer than average Atlantic Ocean temperatures can lead to more storms developing far from the US and curving out to sea sooner, but this is an active area of research and no definitive conclusions have been reached."

While residents of Birmingham will be hoping that this year's visit of the Australian cricket team is not a bad omen, across the pond the 2013 hurricane season is threatening to be among the liveliest of recent years.